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Birding Brits Abroad – part 1

September 24, 2012

This article was published in the September 2012 issue of Birdwatch magazine.

Most birders harbour fantasies of upping sticks, moving away and adopting an exotic local patch, but only a lucky few get to live the dream. Mark James Pearson dropped in on a select band of Brits abroad to find out what it’s really like, visiting Australia and Asia in part one of his encounters with birding ex-pats.

Tawny Frogmouth

Tawny Frogmouth

There can’t be many among us who, while dragging ourselves around an all-but-birdless ghetto of a local patch on a cold February morning, haven’t let our minds wander to foreign climes – where battleship greys are replaced by riots of colour, and stunted hedgerows are replaced by lush vegetation, providing an almost inexhaustible supply of avian thrills to keep the pulse racing.

If it sounds too good to be true, well that’s because for most of us, it probably is; but the exceptions illustrate what a small world it can be. Having spent the last year on a round-the-world birding honeymoon with a tolerant wife, a backpack, bins and a DSLR (they all made it home in one piece, thanks for asking), I hooked up with a colourful cast of birders across four continents – a select few of whom were fellow Brits who’d deserted these overcrowded shores in favour of a new start far away. Ex-pat birders who, by accident or design, found themselves adapting to a completely new culture, and an exciting and unfamiliar avifauna.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

Sydney, Australia

Occasionally, the birding gods go the extra mile, and so it was for our brief visit to Sydney. Despite operating on only a handful of dates each year, our visit coincided with a chartered pelagic into the Tasman Sea. You couldn’t get me out of Tokyo fast enough, and it was on board on a cool Austral winter’s morning that we met up with Jason Goodwin.

Jason describes his local patch as “anywhere within a couple of hours” of his place in Sydney, kindly showing us first hand (via his wheels emblazoned with NSW BIRDER licence plates). Spoilt for choice both close to home and little further afield, his corner of New South Wales may sound expansive to many of us, but it’s tiny by Australian standards.

Crested Pigeon

Crested Pigeon

Which means a rich and varied range of habitats. “The variety is amazing, from the ocean (the pick-up point is 20 minutes away and I can be in amongst the albatrosses, giant petrels and pterodromas within the hour) to the sandstone cliffs and eucalyptus forests of the Blue Mountains. The northern edge of the patch is Capertee Valley, which has one of the highest densities of birds in Australia.”

Cultural similarities may be numerous, but are yet to extend to birding: “Australia is quite weird in that they really don’t understand birding or birdwatchers, so being a birder ( or ‘a Birdo’ in Aussie) is a real conversation piece. The birding community is pretty small here, and not one I’ve really got into.”

White-browed Scrubwren

White-browed Scrubwren

The city itself boasts a range of parks, easily accessible and seemingly overflowing with birds. The Botanical Gardens, for example – a popular green space adjoining the opera house in the heart of Sydney – is an ideal place to acclimatise to the local avifauna. Powerful Owl and Tawny Frogmouth roost within metres of relaxing tourists, while Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Australian White Ibises pilfer picnics with fearless aplomb. Trees by the café bow under the weight of thousands of Grey-headed Flying Foxes, and amazingly, Masked Lapwings breed on the mowed lawns, with just temporary hazard tape and a few inches between them, their eggs and visitor’s heels.

At the other extreme there’s the aforementioned Blue Mountains, about two hours west of Sydney and home of Echo Point, a towering outcrop overlooking limestone crags and untouched forests (and a name which always reminds Jason of the Scillies – “Porthcressa disco and dancing to Echo Beach”) – the setting for one of his local birding highlights, which we were lucky enough to share.

Superb Fairy-wren

Superb Fairy-wren

The enigmatic Rockwarbler – a highly localised, habitat-specific endemic, not just to Australia, but to a tiny corner of New South Wales – can be notoriously unforthcoming, but one individual obviously lost the script, and was duly rumbled by an incredulous Jason at the busy viewpoint, as it we watched it pecking popcorn at the feet of a Japanese tourist.

Occupational hazards are somewhat different to those back home. “It can be amazing how different the same site can be depending on the amount of rain, and the weather on the day, and generally you need to go out early or late in the day because of the heat. The trouble is that getting to a site early or leaving late means the drive can be very scary, as the kangaroos and wallabys are active; and then there’s the snakes…..

Grey-backed Storm-petrel and Black-browed Albatross

Grey-backed Storm-petrel and Black-browed Albatross

Many species in Australia are interruptive, so some years there are Cockatiels and other dry country birds everywhere, and in other years, nothing. When it gets really dry inland, birds often end up on the coast. A good example is the two Crimson Chats that turned up recently in the suburbs (rather than their native outback), but we’ve had lots of rain of late so birds are generally in their correct ranges”.

Jason confesses to missing both the birding community back home, and in particular, classic British migration conditions. “We just don’t get falls in the same way as the UK. Yes, there are migrants, and seasons, but the same excitement of an easterly blow just isn’t there – east is South America, and west is thousands and thousands of miles of outback!”.

Of that very special pelagic – after nine magical and gruelling hours at sea, we staggered off the boat having been surrounded by multitudes of albatrosses and a swell to challenge even the most immovable of breakfasts. As Jason succinctly put it: “No matter how sick you feel, as soon as it’s over, you want to do it again”. Junkie birding by any other name, and worth every minute of it.

Bangkok, Thailand

Following Dave Gandy’s local patch blog (electricbirding.blogspot.co.uk) involves vicariously enjoying a mouth-watering cast of sibe sprites and skulkers against the exotic, steamy backdrop of downtown Bangkok. Whether the reality would be as good as the fantasy was a question answered swiftly and emphatically soon after arriving; indeed, the city’s more traditional sights went entirely unseen as a result.

Dave’s local patch is Suan Rot Fai, an urban park which, while very popular with locals, contains more than enough habitat to attract a wide range of birdlife. The park is actually a converted golf course (you can still make out the fairways) and is a patchwork of open grassland with trees, scrub and a number of lakes and canals.

Siberian Stonechat

Siberian Stonechat

After a fifteen-minute journey on the skytrain from central Bangkok around dawn, Dave found me battling upstream against an already swollen river of commuters. A couple of minutes later and we were into quality birds; a couple of days later and I was beginning to wonder if I could face birding my local patch in urban London ever again.

Dave jokes that he came to Thailand for three weeks and is still there nine years later, and had no definite plans to remain in Bangkok, but finds the city an easy and rewarding place to live. With birds as a constant throughout his assimilation into local life, the challenges were minimal – “birding gave me both the focus and motivation to get out of Bangkok, and a purpose for being here”, he says.

Eastern Crowned Warbler

Eastern Crowned Warbler

After a few visits to the park picking up species he’d seen previously only in secluded rainforest, he was seduced. “I knew I was on to something good, and within the first month I’d found a globally-threatened species, a Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher”. In a small area of woodland he’s nicknamed The Ramble (after Central Park’s birding hotspot), other rare finds include Narcissus Flycatcher and Northern Boobook, and more are sure to follow.

It’s easy to see why this expansive chunk of Bangkok real estate has a magnetic pull not just for birds but for birders, with most of the latter being locals. While the birding scene may not be as ‘developed’ as the one Dave is used to back home, it’s growing fast, and is “much more focused on bird photography than is the case in the UK. I often see Thai birders without binoculars (they just use their camera), so I think they find me a bit of a curiosity, as I tend to travel light with binoculars and a relatively small camera”.

Peaceful Doves

Peaceful Doves

Any time of year is entertaining, but autumn is the period of endless possibilities. For the visiting British birder, it’s an intoxicating mix of rare (and potential) vagrants to the UK and strictly South-east Asian fayre.

In several morning sessions there in late September, I watched posterbirds including Arctic and Eastern Crowned Warblers, Brown Shrikes, Taiga and Asian Brown Flycatchers and Siberian Blue Robins rubbing shoulders with more localised migrants including Yellow-rumped Flycatchers, Black-naped Orioles, Crow-billed Drongos and Plain-tailed Warblers. As for the residents, semi-residents, breeders and winter visitors, well, bring a notebook with a lot of space to burn.

Back onto the skytrain for the last time, soaked in sweat (and instantly clearing an entire carriage of Krung Thep as a result), I was sorry to leave Bangkok, not because of its culture or cuisine, but because of its birds. For Dave, though, the adventure continues: “The most exciting thing about it is the fact that pretty much any eastern waif that passes through Thailand might turn up – It’s like having my very own Fair Isle.”

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher

Mark James Pearson

All words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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