Legally Blind Birding

Testing the Patience of Birding Guides Around the World

Starting on Dec 26, 2017, I will attempt to identify at least 2,500 species over the course of a year, while working normal full-time hours. I’m calling this a “Global Big Working Year” or GBWY. I will donate $5 for every species I find, with the results being split between ecological and blindness-related charities. The first half of the year will be in support of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. The second half will be in support of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. More details here and here.

Since I started this on a Tuesday, my weekly results will be updated on Mondays or Tuesdays.

Older posts: Weeks 1-8

Week 16: April 10 – April 16, Limpopo, South Africa

Working Days: 0

New species identified: 84

Total to date: 923

36.9 % of goal, 30.7 % of year used

Sites visited: Northern sections of Kruger National Park and several reserves to the west

Well. Kruger National Park deserves every superlative it has been given. We didn’t get nearly as many bird species here as we anticipated, but no matter. And we only saw two of the “Big Five” mammals (Elephants and Buffalo), but we don’t care. The overall biodiversity and spectacular geography trump everything.

 

 

giraffes

No matter how many times you see this…

eli

…or this…

 

jurassic-park

… it makes you feel like this

So anyway, we spent a total of six nights and five days in and around the northern half of Kruger. Two nights at Tsakane Safari Camp, and four nights at their “tented camps” which lack electricity.

tentedcamp

Tented camp outside Kruger. No electricity, but they do have Black Mambas, and seeing one of them provides plenty of charge

These places were pretty basic but everything you need is there. On our final day, while leaving camp in the jeep to head to the river to bird, we came upon a Black Mamba that the guides estimated to be about three meters. Directly in front of the vehicle it lifted the upper third of itself up, as they are wont to do, for an eye-level look at us before throwing itself into the grass. Needless to say, all further walks about in the camp were done with great caution.

martialeagle

Martial Eagle

A very nice sighting, which I stupidly neglected to photograph, was a pack of about a dozen African Wild Dogs lounging on either side of the road. I learned after the fact just how rare this is; that some local have visited the park for years looking for these animals with no luck. We didn’t see any of the big cats, which was disappointing, but I’ll take the dogs instead.

goliath

Goliath Heron blending in with the muddy water nicely

capricorn

Leaving your vehicle is discouraged in the park

guides

In a reserve outside the park. Going about on foot with an armed guide and tracker seems to be the norm.

ybox2

All throughout Kruger there are posters asking for information on any sightings of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers, which are uncommon. We lucked out, finding this one riding on a Buffalo

magpieshrike

The most un-shrike-like shrike, the Magpie Shrike

ost


Not a complete Africa birding trip without these

nyala


Male Nyala and passenger. Sadly did not get a photo where you can see the bright yellow legs. A striking ungulate indeed

mevesstarling

Meve’s Starling, one of the many impossibly iridescent Starlings in Africa

cham

Chameleon comically crossing the road

burchellscoucal

Favorite bird of the trip – Burchell’s Coucal. Because Senegal Coucals can occur here at the border of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, identification can be tough – unless you get a good view of the barring on the rump. This individual was very obliging and gave us a great look.

Final tallies for total species: 135 in South Africa over five days; 199 in Ethiopia over four days. A bit surprising.

Week 15: April 3 – April 9, Ethiopia

Working Days: 3

New species identified: 185

Total to date: 838 (found two double-counted birds and removed them)

33.5 % of goal, 28.8 % of year used

Sites visited: Debre Libanos and south from Addis Ababa, through Rift Valley to Wondo Genet

We took a red-eye flight from Bangkok late Thursday night and arrived at Addis Ababa Friday morning. First order of business was a lovely, long visit with a very touchy immigration official at the Passport Control counter, who detained us for no good reason for about 30 minutes.  After finding our guide in the parking lot (they do not allow anyone to enter the arrival hall) we drove north towards Debre Libanos and got to birding.

Our guide was Negussie Toye from Nurgi Birding Ethiopia. He was a fantastic guide, certainly in the top 5 all-time for us. In four days he got us 199 species: he knows his locations, his calls, and is very efficient at getting you to the birds. We found Ethiopia to be quite beautiful and very birdy. Good food and coffee too.

ethiopeancoffee

Coffee is served with incense

ethiofood

Already forgot what this was called, but it was as good as it looks

We toured a variety of habitats, from higher elevations north of Addis and then down into the Rift Valley, where a string of lakes, such as Koka, Ziwa, and Abijata, lead south – and all hold lots of birds. Wading birds were quite abundant and varied.

littlestint

I did a little stint looking at this Little Stint (sorry)

africanfisheagle

African Fish Eagle

muddyroad

This was fun –  a night of rain made this hill impassible from below. Lucky for us, we were going down. It was quite a social event for the locals.

spurwings

Not a good picture, but interesting anyway. There are two bird species with names that include the designation “spur-winged” and they are both in this photo.

 

bluebBE

Blue-breasted Bee-eater, another poorly named species

common

Sights like this were not uncommon in Ethiopia

 

pygmyfalcons

African Pygmy Falcons

ethiopia

Lovely landscape – even if it is a bit overgrazed

vultures

Nice party on the carcass. Both Rüppell’s and White-backed Vultures were present

greyheadedkingfisher

Grey-headed Kingfisher

This was easily the best four days of birding for the trip, in terms of numbers. At times the country can try one’s patience; any time you stop on the roadside to bird, you will be accosted by children asking for demanding money. Accomodations can be rather poor. But it is probably an underrated birding destination and it deserves a visit.

Week 14: March 27 – April 2, Yunnan, China

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 21

Total to date: 655

26.2 % of goal, 26.9 % of year used

Sites visited: Mt. Zixi (Zixishan) area

cvnuthatch

Chestnut-vented Nuthatch

We returned to Yunnan this weekend, but this time instead of birding around Kunming, our guides drove us about three hours west to Zixishan, where a number of parks and trails can be birded, along with hotel grounds and the area surrounding a temple. The roads are not very busy, so they are easy to walk and bird as well. It was a nice change from the crowds and traffic that made birding near Kunming so tough last weekend.

godlewskisbunting

Godlewski’s Bunting

The bird of the trip was easily a Black-faced Warbler – a nice change from all of the difficult Phylloscopus warblers that are plentiful here. No photo. Nothing wanted to be photographed, it seemed.

For the first time in this Big Year, we are behind schedule. That will change next weekend when we start the only extended trip of the year: four days in Ethiopia followed by six days in South Africa. I expect to do the next update in about two weeks, covering both African countries.

Week 13: March 20 – March 26, Yunnan, China

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 13

Total to date: 634

25.4 % of goal, 25.0 % of year used

Sites visited: Mt. Xishan, Kunming area, Kunming Botanic Gardens

Ouch, just thirteen new species. All in all we had 38 for the weekend, which was way below expectations, even for city birding. Well, this was no ordinary city birding. On Saturday morning we went to Mt. Xishan, which lies in the foothills to the west of Kunming. We arrived before sunrise and found it to be an enchanting place, with Spectacled and Rusty-capped Fulvettas along with Silver-eared Mesias bouncing around to greet us.

mtxishan

One of the less-busy areas on Mt. Xishan

The good birding did not last very long, though, as the area quickly filled with crowds. It was Saturday after all, but we were not prepared for the sheer number of people going up and down the windy road and trails. The trails, at least, had only scores of people; the road featured a constant stream of horn-blaring buses that made ear-birding all but impossible. I’m impressed we did not see anyone get hit by a vehicle, given the speed at which they drive and their proximity. Despite it being an eBird hotspot and having lots of great habitat and potential, the full morning list was only sixteen species. Weekdays are probably pretty good here. I’d never come back on a weekend.

whcollyuhina

White-collared Yuhina, another poorly named bird

On Sunday we had the morning to bird before heading to the airport after lunch, so we spent it at the Kunming Botanic Gardens in the center of town. As botanic gardens go, it is a very nice one – although frustrating for my botany-loving wife, as there were no signs in English. Birding here was far less nerve-wracking than on the Mt. Xishan road; less crowed and no blaring horns. You could actually hear calls.

rhododendrons

Rhododendrons at the Kunming Botanic Gardens

The best bird of the trip was also the last; a friendly Scaly Thrush that posed for photos. The quality of his visit made up for the lack of quantity in species. I’ll take it.

scalythrush

Very cooperative Scaly Thrush at the Kunming Botanic Gardens

So we have hit the quarter mark of this birding year, and we are just barely ahead, at 25.4% of the 2,500 species goal. Based on upcoming trips to Africa and Australia in the next few months, I think I’ll be ahead of the goal at the halfway point in June – after that, it is going to be tough sledding to maintain the necessary pace. Will have to pick locations in the second half of the year very carefully.

Next week – back to Yunnan province, heading to mountains west of Kunming (Zixishan)

Week 12: March 13 – March 19, Philippines

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 38

Total to date: 621

24.8 % of goal, 23.1 % of year used

Sites visited: Subic Bay, Manila

Another whirlwind, groggy weekend. With a flight delay out of Bangkok, we arrived at our Manila hotel around 1:30 AM Saturday… then the guide picked us up at 4:00 AM for a long drive up to Subic Bay. We arrived in time for a flurry of activity and picked up twenty-some lifers in a matter of minutes. By mid-morning it slowed down considerably and it was challenging to add to the list for the rest of trip. All said, 38 new species for the trip; again less than the 50 species per week I am shooting for. On the upside, 37 of these 38 were life birds.

I did manage to get a mediocre recording of a Rough-crested Malkoha calling in the distance; I didn’t realize at the time that this species had zero recordings in xeno-canto; otherwise I’d have tried to get better audio. I uploaded the little snippet I got – my first recording of a previously unrepresented species on xeno-canto.

rufnightheron

Rufous Night-heron in Manila

luzonhornbill

Luzon Hornbill

Next up: Yunnan, China

Week 11: March 5 – March 12, Thailand

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 45

Total to date: 583

23.3 % of goal, 21.1 % of year used

Sites visited: Doi Ang Khang & Doi Lang (Chiang Mai Province)

DoiAngKhang

Morning in Doi Ang Khang

We flew to Chiang Mai from Bangkok Friday night, and left early Saturday morning from the city, heading north with our guide Somchat. This was our third visit to this northern province, with previous trips over the past few years both being centered in nearby Doi Inthanon. This time we decided try Doi Ang Khang and Doi Lang, as we heard that the species mix is quite different from that in Doi Inthanon. We were not disappointed. With three or so hours needed to get to these sites, and the need to return early Sunday evening, we had about a day and a half to bird. We stayed Saturday night near the small town of Fang, which is a good central location for reaching both areas.

rbelliedniltavafemale

Female Rufous-bellied Niltava

It was quite foggy and cool in the mornings, but activity was good, with Mountain Bamboo Partridge and Hume’s Pheasant out on the road with the low light.

Both sites sit right at the Thailand-Myanmar border; Doi Lang, which is further from Chang Mai, was the better of the two; it was crawling with birds and birders, and it yielded some of the best birds of the year so far, such as Himalayan Cutia, Hodgson’s Fromouth, Rufous-bellied and Vivid Niltavas, Siberian Rubythroat, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, and White-gorgeted and Ultramarine Flycatchers.

border

Border near Doi Lang

As can be seen in some of the pictures below, there are a number of ‘feeding stations’ in the Doi Lang area where worms can be set out to attract birds. Signs were posted to discourage this practice, but our guide (and the other guides working the area) made full use of them. I suppose that I am of two minds about this; in any case, I enjoyed the birds and took their photos.

cestedfinchbill

Crested Finchbill

silverearedmesia

Silver-Eared Mesia

Hodgsonsfrogmouth

Hodgson’s Frogmouth

siberianrubythroat

Siberian Rubythroat

ultramarineflycatcherr

Ultramarine Flycatcher

Next week: Subic Bay, Philippines

Week 10: February 27 – March 4, Nepal

Working Days: 3

New species identified: 58

Total to date: 537

21.5 % of goal, 19.2 % of year used

Sites visited: Kathmandu and environs, Nepal

plumbredstart

Plumbeous Redstart

Thursday March 1 was a holiday here is Thailand (Makhabucha), so we took a vacation day on Friday and made a four-day weekend trip to Kathmandu. Our flight back on Sunday was early enough that we could only bird for about two hours in the morning. So we had the opportunity to visit three locations on the outskirts of the valley: Champadevie, Phulchoki, and Shivapuri National Park; we also visited the small park in the city, Ranibari.

btb.png

Blue-throated Barbet, a good bird to see on the Festival of Color holiday

Champadevie is a small village on a hillside south of the city, where we were able to find the only Nepal endemic, the Spiny Babbler. The area did not look very promising: we started within the small village and wandered around between the homes and fields until eventually climbing up the hillside.

nepalbirding1

Doesn’t look so good, until you follow the trail that leads to a nice spot for Spiny Babbler, the only Nepal endemic.

We did quite well here, seeing the endemic Spiny Babbler, as well as two Rosefinch species, Rosy Pipits, and several Himalayan Buzzards, among others.

himbuzz

Himalayan Buzzard

March 1 was also a holiday in Nepal: Holi, or the festival of colors – a Hindu holiday apparently unrelated to the Buddhist one in Thailand. Roving bands of youngsters with packets of brightly colored powders would smear them on one another or douse each other with water. When such a band approached us and asked something in Nepali, my wife made the mistake of smiling at them. They took this as agreement that she wanted to participate.

Holi

Left: The little band of miscreants that dyed the wife. Right: The aftermath.

All four sites we visited were teeming with various Phylloscopus warblers. Some were fairly easy to identify, such as the Grey-hooded and Ashy-throated Warblers. Others… not so much. It seemed that our entire day Friday involved looking at birds all smaller than the leaves. It was a relief to get a White-collared Blackbird come down for a drink.

WCBB

White-collared Blackbird

We were not sure what to expect in Nepal – perhaps a colder, higher India? It seemed less polluted but more run-down. Kathmandu was not nearly the chaotic, congested mess that we found in Mumbai; pretty impressive given that we saw one set of traffic signals in the entire city (and they were not working). The food was outstanding, and the higher and lower elevations warrant a return. Going further afield from Kathmandu apparently requires at least five days, however. Probably need two weeks to really do it justice here.

momo

Momo: A Nepalese dumpling, quite delicious

 

orangebelliedleafbird

Orange-bellied Leafbird

Next week: Northern Thailand, along the Myanmar border.

Week 9: February 21 – February 26, Taiwan

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 34

Total to date: 479

19.1% of goal, 17.3% of year used

Sites visited: Wulai & Taipei, Taiwan

Flying from Bangkok at 8PM Friday night, we got into our hotel in Taipei sometime after 1:30AM Saturday. Our guide picked us up at 6:30 and we headed into the nearby mountains in Wulai just south of the city. We spent the day in this area and picked up some nice endemcs such as Taiwan Blue Magpie, Taiwan Yuhina, Morrison’s Fulvetta, Taiwan Barbet, Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler, and Chestnut-bellied Tit.

wulai

Wulai

Since my old, beat-up Canon EOS Rebel has been not producing quality images of late, I decided to invest in a newer camera: the Nikon P900 which has become a birding favorite. This was my first trip using it, and it still feels quite alien to me. But the results are a vast improvement.

taiwan yuhina

Taiwan Yuhina

White-eared sibia

White-eared Sibia

Taiwan Barbet

Taiwan Barbet – wanted to see just how much color the Nikon P900 could capture while shooting into terrible light. Not bad…

On Sunday we had only the morning to bird, since our flight back to Bangkok required us to leave Taipei proper around midday. For this reason we visited only the Taipei Botanical Gardens and the Huajiang Wild Duck Nature Park, both within the city.

On a street corner outside the Botanical Gardens, a cherry tree in full blossom had attracted a large crowd of local photographers; they were there when we arrived and several hours later when we left. Of particular interest was a Taiwan Yuhina that was feeding there with the Japanese White-Eyes. According to our guide (a Taipei native that has birded there for several decades), the Yuhina was almost certainly an escaped caged bird.

city birding

Some serious city birding in Taipei

Japanese white eye

Japanese White-eye in the cherry tree

malayan night heron

Malayan Night-Herons at the Botanical Gardens are quite approachable

The Wild Duck Park would be a lot nicer if it wasn’t populated by stray dogs. If you go where the dogs are not, you can still pick up some variety including Crested Myna, Chestnut Munia, and the introduced Sacred Ibis.

Taipei dogs

Huajiang Wild Duck Nature Park has lots of nice habitat but unfortunately is home to numerous stray dogs. Apparently the local government is not interested in fixing this problem

Coming up next, we will have a four-day weekend in Nepal.

 

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