Birding Highlights of 2017

Yellowhammer3

Happy New Year! I am looking forward to what I have planned ahead in 2018 with a birding trip starting in Northern Thailand in a few days and a two week trip to Myanmar at the end of the month, but I also looked back to some of my birding highlights of 2017. Birding in Thailand always produces plenty of memorable sightings throughout the year but I also had some great birding experiences in South Korea in winter, Southeast China in Spring, United Kingdom in Spring and Summer and a very nice journey around France, into Spain and Andorra. In September 2017 I traveled to Sulawesi and Halmahera in Indonesia and then finished the year with some pleasant trips in Thailand.

Visiting all those different locations brought me lots of good birds but there are some which stand out for various reasons including nesting seabirds at my feet in the Farne Islands, a lekking Wallace’s Standardwing in Halmahera, huge numbers of winter birds in South Korea, breeding plumage Spoon-billed Sandpipers in China, a couple of wonderful Little Bustards in the South of France and a very special Dartford Warbler in Southern England.

You can read about some of my birding highlights of 2017 here.

January

My year started with some difficult birding conditions in Northern Thailand; dense fog on the mountains while on a photography trip making things really hard. Still, good company got us through the grim conditions and when the sun finally came out it brought the birds out too and gave us a superb observation of Giant Nuthatch catching caterpillars on mossy branches in the forest on Doi Lang. Each caterpillar obviously has a lot of nutritional value as our Nuthatch took as many as two minutes to de-hair each caterpillar before it was ready to it them. Being able to watch this type of amazing behaviour was a real highlight of this short trip for me.

Giant-nuthatch3Giant Nuthatch

The bad weather was recurring theme on my next trip and we found ourselves searching for shorebirds in driving wind and rain in the middle of the dry season! Forced to shelter under the only hut available it seemed like I would be rearranging the rest of the trip in order to have time to enjoy the shorebirds but amazingly we found 2 Spoon-billed Sandpipers, 1 Nordmann’s Greenshank, 4 Far Eastern Curlews and 15 Asian Dowitchers to get all our morning targets faster than I would normally do in more favourable conditions.

Bad-weatherShorebird Watching in strong winds and horizontal rain

It is not often that Chinese Pond Heron is a highlight of a trip but when it was for me because of this nice photographic opportunity.

Chinese-pond-heron6Chinese Pond Heron

In fact the whole trip was a highlight of the year with a fun group of guys from Wales we saw over 300 species in little over a week in Phetchaburi province including some great stuff: Banded Broadbill, Pied Harrier, Siberian Rubythroat, Black-and-red Broadbill, Blue Pitta, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Black-headed Woodpecker, Great Hornbill, Long-tailed Broadbill and loads of others – Petchaburi Birding Trip, January 2017.

St the end of January was one of the standout highlights of my birding year; a trip to South Korea, my second mid-winter trip to this country and one that was even more successful than the last one. Starting with birding around the National Arboretum was something like a winter wonderland with great birds including 2 Solitary Snipe and this shot of Brown-cheeked Bulbul was one of my favourites from the whole trip.

Brown-cheeked-bulbul4Brown-cheeked Bulbul

Varied Tit was one of the birds I most wanted to see the first time I went to South Korea and getting great views and some nice photos on this trip was another highlight of my birding year.

Varied-tit3Varied Tit

One of the most fantastic bird spectacles I witnessed in 2017 was the flight of the Cranes coming from their roost in the Demilitarized Zone between North & South Koreas and heading past us to feed in the fields in South Korea. Hundreds of birds come pouring out of the DMZ every day and are best observed from atop a small hill from which it feels like you can pluck the birds from their air many of them come so close. We saw two species, White-naped and Red-crowned Cranes, two of the most elegant birds I have ever seen. This was all enjoyed to the backdrop of snowy hills and classical music being broadcast from the propaganda stations along the border, an incredible experience. If you want to witness this wonder of nature yourself I intend to run the same trip again in 2019, I am already looking forward to it and look forward to sharing some great birding with others – South Korea Winter Birding 2019.

Red-crowned-crane4
Red-crowned Crane

White-naped-cranesWhite-naped Cranes

While we saw some really sought-after birds including several Steller’s Sea Eagles, Scaly-sided Merganser, Relict Gull, Swan Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose and Long-billed Murrelet some of my personal highlights were for different reasons and seeing a group of 4-500 Cinereous Vultures loafing around in a field then taking to the air was an incredible sight. Seeing this species on the ground at close range it was huge, a real monster of the bird world and when a couple of South Korean soldiers went on patrol several of the Vultures attacked them and made them run away. Awesome!

Cinereous-vultureCinereous Vulture

Cinereous-vulture2Cinereous Vulture

Gulls are not everyone’s favourite group of birds given how hard it can be to identify them but everyone on this year’s trip was converted to gulls after a great morning of tuition from Nial Moores with a flock of over 50000 gulls to study at point blank range on a beach. I know gulls do not sound that exciting but I can’t say enough about how incredible the numbers were and the variety of species was great too – East Coast Gulls, South Korea.

Vega-gull2Vega Gull

The trip to South Korea was so loaded with great moments I could talk about it all day but will restrict myself to mentioning our hunt for Hazel Grouse through a snowy forest straight out of a fairy tale which resulted in the fantastic sighting of 2 Hazel Grouse in a tree as they woke up.

Hazel-grouseHazel Grouse

I also have to mention the flock of Baikal Teal. It is not every day you see half a million birds all in one flock, representing a large proportion of the world population. Incredible.

Baikal-tealBaikal Teal

My complete trip report for South Korea can be read here - South Korea Winter Birding 2017.

February

In February I had some really good birding in Thailand including my first trip recording over 500 species in just 17 days and only visiting two regions of the country with Zoothera Birding. An exceptional morning on the summit of Doi Inthanon saw us among flocks of birds that seemed oblivious to us and it was a personal highlight for me to hear the visiting birders accompanying me waxing lyrical about the experience, some describing it as the most wonderful birding they had ever experienced. It certainly was something special with Dark-sided Thrush, Rufous-throated Partridge, Yellow-browed Tit, Green-tailed Sunbird, Chestnut-tailed Minla, White-crowned Forktail, Blue Whistlingthrush, Grey-sided Thrush, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird and loads more, we did not know which way to look. That was birding at its best – Northern Thailand Birding.

Grey-sided-thrush3Grey-sided Thrush

Towards the end of February I led a trip for Oriole Birding which was a huge success with many super birds but most importantly we had so many excellent sightings of the birds, not just fleeting glimpses but long, close-up views of many colourful and rare birds. This Green Magpie was a real highlight.

green-magpie5Green Magpie

 If the Green Magpie was memorable then something really special was a male Blue Pitta. This bird had been attending a stakeout for a while so we hid in a blind and waited for him to come which he did quite quickly to provide a spectacular show and some lovely photos which were enhanced by placing some flowers in the appropriate place.

Blue-pitta10
Blue Pitta

March

In early March I made a couple of excursions to Southern Thailand with a very memorable trip to Krung Ching being a highlight with Malaysian Honeyguide, Green Broadbill, Blyth’s Frogmouth and Scarlet-rumped Trogon. However, this White-crowned Hornbill stole the show for me, perched atop its tree for so long giving me my best views ever of this crazy-looking bird.

White-crowned-hornbill2White-crowned Hornbill

One behavioural highlight of the year was a pair of Fluffy-backed Tit Babblers. These birds are incredible not only in name but in the show they put on for us with squeaking and grunting at the same time, with puffed out throats and bobbing up and down this has to be one of the most wonderful bird performances in Thailand. Unfortunately due to the dark conditions of the forest my photograph does not do them justice.

Fluffy-backed-tit-babblerFluffy-backed Tit Babblers

For sheer visual impact, though, this Malayan Banded Pitta was a really memorable bird and a definite highlight of the year.

Malayan-banded-pitta4Malayan Banded Pitta

Another amazing experience in March was a visit to the Daap Waterhole near Kaeng Krachan, Thailand, where we sat for a few hours to witness an amazing show, so many birds coming to drink and feed right in front of us. There were so many good birds and great photo opportunities with no periods of inactivity, most certainly a birding session I will be talking about for a long time to come. This Grey Peacock Pheasant was the star for me.

Grey-peacock-pheasant2
Grey Peacock Pheasant

My other two highlights for the month were both waders and both new for my Thai list with one being a lifer. I saw the long-staying Beach Thick-knee at Laem Pakarang twice but on the second sighting the bird flew right towards us and landed right in front of us to give us an encounter that will take a long time to match.

Beach-thick-knee2Beach Thick-knee

Later in the month I stopped in at Pranburi Forest Park on my way back to Bangkok thinking that I might photograph a few common migrants but found an Oriental Plover which is a real rarity in Thailand and it hung around for many to enjoy. This was a species I had been hoping to see for some time and to find it myself was a real thrill.

Oriental-plover1Oriental Plover

April

In April the undoubted highlight was my tour to Southeast China where I saw a lot of new species including Cabot’s Tragopan, Elliott’s Pheasant, Chinese Hwamei and lots of migrant birds. One of the first birds I saw remained my bird of the trip throughout; Reed Parrotbill at Nanhui, near Shanghai. We saw this bird a number of times but the impact did not lessen, it is a really striking bird but sad to see its habitat being destroyed around us.

Reed-parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill

In the same area I really enjoyed finding Little Curlew and Chinese Penduline Tit, although I have seen both these species before elsewhere it is always nice when you find birds alone, without the help of others and these two species were key birds on our first day in China.

Chinese-penduline-titChinese Penduline Tit

Although we saw lots of much rare birds I was very happy to see lots of Collared Finchbills in China and eventually I got some nice photos of these attractive birds.

Collared-finchbillCollared Finchbill

Another big highlight of the trip to China for me was being surrounded by Courtois’s Laughingthrushes in a woodland grove. This extremely rare bird was totally absent on our arrival and it looked like we were going to miss them until suddenly they were everywhere. Laughingthrushes have a lot of character and these ones were full of garrulous energy as they foraged and fluttered around us. Wonderful.

Courtois-laughingthrushCourtois’s Laughingthrush

May

Although I started May with sightings of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding plumage in China the real highlight for me was just being home with my family in UK. It is always nice to go birding in the area that I grew up in and I always enjoy rediscovering the birds there. In Spring it was nice to see so many singing birds and a walk in the local area gave me the opportunity to photograph this Yellowhammer which gave me a glow afterwards to match his.

Yellowhammer3Yellowhammer

At the end of May I made a short birding trip to North Wales which was glorious. With beautiful sunshine I saw a lot of birds that I had not seen in years including Red-billed Chough, Wood Warbler and some lekking Black Grouse which I will not forget in a long time. I was really pleased to get really close to Black Guillemot at Holyhead Harbour as I had not seen this species for more than 20 years.

Black-guillemot
Black Guillemot

Pied Flycatcher, Garden Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Eider, Razorbill and lots of woodland birds on the feeder at RSPB Yns Hir made for a lovely trip and the fantastic scenery contributed to making this trip to Wales one of my highlights of the year. I am certainly keen to get back there in 2018.

June

I spent most of June close to home but this did not stop me from having some very special birds. In fact it was because they were close to home that they were special birds with both of them having a long-term connection to my “career” in birding. Over the course of the month I enjoyed walking from my mother’s house and getting to know the local Corn Buntings, a species which I wrote my degree dissertation on in 2006-7. I was able to learn where they would perch so I could hide in readiness for them and eventually got some really nice photos.

Corn-bunting17Corn Bunting

I was able to do a part survey of the Corn Bunting territories of the area and for me this was a big highlight of the year, walking and cycling around the local area on sunny mornings and evenings, learning about the local birds – Survey of Calling Corn Buntings.

My other highlight of the month was my undoubted birding highlight of the year, perhaps even ever! I went to Frensham Common in Surrey to twitch a Red-footed Falcon but it was the population of Dartford Warblers that made the day so special for me. Dartford Warbler is the bird that got me birding and coming from Dartford it remains special for me, particularly as I first saw it with my father who has now, sadly, passed away. Frensham Common had a lot of Dartford Warblers and I got some great photos as I watched them feed young at close range. I was delighted with this.

Dartford-warbler4Dartford Warbler

A third bird was also one of my top highlights of the year in June, a wonderful Marsh Warbler which sung its heart out, mimicking sound from many other species in order to make its own song more complex. Phrases borrwoed from Blackbird, Barn Swallow, Linnet, European Bee-eater, European Skylark and many more were a delight to listen to at really close range.

Marsh-warbler1Marsh Warbler

July

This month contained another huge birding highlight for me, a trip to the Farne Islands with my wife. Despite this being one of the most famous seabird spectaculars in Britain I had never visited before and my wife was very excited to see the cute Puffins. For anyone who loves birds I would say that you should go to the Farne Islands in the breeding season as it is amazing with so many seabirds nesting at your feet! The Atlantic Puffins are the big draw but the overall experience was the memorable thing for me and the dive-bombing Arctic Terns that peck your head are incredible. If I get the chance I will make another visit in 2018.

Puffin2Atlantic Puffin

Puffin3Atlantic Puffin

Arctic-tern1
Arctic Tern

Shag1Shag

Later in the month my wife and I made a trip around France, which was mainly to enjoy cultural things, but of course I managed to squeeze in some birding.  I really enjoyed a few mornings on Mont Ventoux, birding in some lovely forest and Alpine meadows with species such as Rock Bunting, Crossbill, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Crested Tit and plenty of Citril Finches. Lovely.

Citril-finchCitril Finch

I also enjoyed a visit to the Camargue in Southern France where my wife was happy to see Greater Flamingos in abundance and I was pleased with European Roller, Little Bittern and many others.

Greater-flamingoGreater Flamingo

However, my most exciting birding moment in France came on the dry stony plains of Crau nearby. I had been struggling to find any suitable habitat and eventually found a rather degraded area that at first looked hopeless but as I drove around the area a party of 3 Little Bustards jumped out to give me a great view and a very memorable birding experience. Shame my photos did not live up to the occasion.

Little-bustardLittle Bustards

Getting into the Pyrenees was a highlight in itself for me. I have always loved high mountains so walking around the vast spaces here was fantastic and the birding was pleasant with Alpine Accentor and lots of water Pipits. The most exciting bird for me was Griffon Vulture which I saw quite a lot of once high up in the mountains. Amazing birds, so huge but silent.

Eurasian-griffon2Griffon Vulture

August

I did not do a whole lot of birding in August but a trip to Scotland with my wife was great. Once again I enjoyed being out in such wide open spaces and it also brought back memories of a dear friend with whom I made my first visit to Scotland years ago but who is no longer with us. I only did a little birding along the way but enjoyed seeing Hooded Crow, Rock Pipit and Goosander at close quarters and this Black-throated Diver in a mountain Lochan was exceptional.

Black-throated-d-iverBlack-throated Diver

September

With a long tour to Sulawesi and Halmahera in Indonesia there were so many new birds in September that I do not know where to begin. The trip was quite intense and tiring but the birds we encountered were wonderful. I love Woodpeckers so that one of my most anticipated species was Ashy Woodpecker and it did not fail to excite me. What a bird!

Ashy-woodpecker2Ashy Woodpecker

One of the highlight moments of the trip was a boat trip to look for Great-billed Kingfisher. Not only did we see this brilliant creature but there was a great supporting cast of birds too including Ruddy Kingfisher, Pink-necked Green Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon and Grey-tailed Tattler.

Great-billed-KingfisherGreat-billed Kingfisher

In fact this was a really good trip for Kingfishers, just take a look at these two; Green-backed Kingfisher and Common Paradise Kingfisher.

Green-backed-kingfisher-male1Green-backed Kingfisher

Common-paradise-kingfisherCommon Paradise Kingfisher

One of the biggest highlights in Sulawesi was looking for Lompobattang Flycatcher. It is endemic to a small area and it looked like we were going to miss it but in a last-ditch effort I went off on my own and found it, getting the rest of the group to see it too. Another bird we had almost given up on was Piping Crow when a small flock of them suddenly turned up and amused us with their antics.

Lompobattang-flycatcher2Lompobattang Flycatcher

Piping-crowsPiping Crows

This trip was mind-boggling in its wealth of endemic birds and many of them were really exciting but for me it was wonderful to see Blyth’s Hornbill in abundance on Halmahera. I have not seen a large Hornbill so common anywhere else in the world, it was fantastic.

Blyths-hornbill2Blyth’s Hornbill

October

I did very little birding in October, just a few visits to my local park in Bangkok to look for migrants. However, that did result in one of my major highlights of the year; Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. This recent split from Arctic Warbler is little-known in Thailand and to find one myself was a great feeling and it took a long time before the bird called while in sight for me to be certain of its identification.

Kamchatka-leaf-warbler1Kamchatka Leaf Warbler

November

All my November birding was done in Thailand and one of the year’s highlights was finding a Eurasian Hobby on Doi Lang with Ken Langelier. This was the first time I had seen this species in Thailand so it was also nice to get a photo as proof. An exciting moment.

eurasian-hobbyNorthern Hobby

The other highlight was being able to take time to travel in Northern Thailand with my wife where I found range extensions for a number of species but it was a Leaf Warbler that provided a bit of fun for me. A very close Claudia’s Leaf warbler was doing its best to look like something else and refusing to call for a long time. The way the light was hitting its undertail hid its diagnostic pattern and it was not until it eventually called that I realized what it was. This was a lesson in identification and the way in which reflected light or other light conditions can distort the look of birds.

Claudias1Claudia’s Leaf Warbler

The other highlight of this trip was getting prolonged views of Himalayan Cutia which was the target bird for my wife who somehow got it into her head that she wanted to see them. It is a fantastic bird and certainly getting such good views was a highlight of my year.

Himalayan-cutia6
Himalayan Cutia

December

Much of this month was spent helping Brian and Lise Young photograph birds that have made it onto the ABA list. We were very successful in this aim but for me there were three undoubted high points for me. One was finding Little Bunting on Doi Lang. Having more or less given up on finding any I heard a call that I thought was Little Bunting. The call seemed to be moving and searching the skies I saw a small dot in flight which I followed into some reeds. We walked quickly over to these reeds to see a Little Bunting. Job done!

Little-bunting2Little Bunting

Doi Inthanon’s summit was to provide me with another extremely memorable moment when I came across a Rufous-throated Partridge just a few feet away, calling, in perfect light, with a perfect background. Just beautiful.

Rufous-throated-partridge6Rufous-throated Partridge

My other stand out moment in December was our last bird of the trip and my last addition to my 2017 year list – Oriental Scops Owl. At a known location we waited and were surprised when it landed right in front of us before it was properly dark allowing me to take this photo in natural light.

Oriental-scops-owl2Oriental Scops Owl

One of my final highlights of the year was just the sheer numbers of shorebirds in the Gulf of Thailand. Just masses of waders everywhere you look with enormous numbers of Great Knot, Marsh Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and many more. Just a fantastic spectacle of nature.

Great-knot3Great Knot

All in all it has been a fantastic year of birding with so many high points it is hard to list them all. I look forward to whatever 2018 brings and feel indebted to my father and my French teacher, Graham Nicholls, who nurtured my interest in birds when I was young, never thinking that I could become a full-time, professional bird-watcher.

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