“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” – Robert Cushman Murphy, 1912.

Murphy, ornithologist, ecologist, conservationist, was writing to his wife from the whaling brig Daisy in the vicinity of South Georgia. He describes the Albatrosses “Lying on the invisible currents of the breeze” which beautifully portrays their flight in light airs but it’s when the wind rises to a gale that I find them most impressive. When your hands are clasped tightly on the ship’s rail and you hope your pyloric sphincter will maintain an equally strong grip on your gastric contents, the Albatross passes elegantly by demonstrating a complete mastery of its elements. I saw my first Wandering Albatross just outside Sydney Heads and I remember it well.

The Albatross family is one of the four (extant) families making up the order Procellariiformes. When you go to the seaside you encounter numerous seabirds, gulls, cormorants, and gannets for instance, but most of them don’t venture too far out to sea. The procellariiiforms are true ocean goers, they may spend years at a time without coming ashore something that they usually do only to mate.

To get amongst them you have to go to sea. This weekend I did exactly that sailing about 30 nautical miles south of Port Fairy to the edge of the continental shelf.

Shy Albatross

The largest albatrosses are the Wanderers and the Royals but they didn’t put in an appearance this time out. The largest on this occasion were the Shy Albatross. They were present in good numbers and not at all shy. Slightly smaller and rather more numerous were the Black-browed Albatross …

Black-browed Albatross

The black margin on the underwing is broader, the bill a different colour. They come in two subspecies (full species according to some) which can be distinguished by the colour of the iris, yes you do need to get reasonably close. One has a dark eye, the other is honey coloured, both were present.

Smaller still is the Yellow-nosed Albatross …

Yellow-nosed Albatross

Sea birds tend to be black, white, gray or combinations of black, white and grey! Diagnosis has its challenges. Albatrosses are actually the easy ones.

All the procellariforms have tubes leading to their external nose. If you look at the top close up of a Shy Albatross you can see that there is a small nostril on the side of its beak. The Albatrosses all have two quite small nostrils, in all the other families that make up the order the tubes merge into a single opening on top of the beak.

The four families are :-

  • Family Procellariidae (shearwaters, fulmarine petrels, gadfly petrels, and prions)
  • Family Diomedeidae (albatrosses)
  • Family Hydrobatidae (storm petrels)
  • Family Pelecanoididae (diving petrels)

and at least one member of each family turned up. Here are a few of them …

Grey-faced Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
Fairy Prion

Wild Kigali …

Although we were now in the big city our quest for wildlife isn’t quite at an end. The city boundary is, in part, formed by the Nyabaronga River and just over that is the Bugasera Swamp. The river is home to Hippos which you can find with diligent searching, they are just around the next bend. And although the banks are intensively cultivated the birding is excellent.

Black Crake

Perhaps because the farming is mostly labour intensive by hand implement the birds permit quite close approach, a chance to sort out some Weavers, generally a challenging group …

Holub’s Golden Weaver
Slender-billed Weaver
Spectacled Weaver

Other denizens of the marsh include …

Speckled Mousebird
Swamp Flycatcher

Whilst in a vegetated area we encountered two of the African Babblers …

Arrow-marked Babbler
Black-lored Babbler

and along the river some Herons …

Little Egret
Grey Heron

To keep the hippos out of their crops the locals dig a trench between the river and their field. It only needs to be about two feet deep and two feet wide to keep the hippos out.

Mabamba …

You sometimes hear the expression “And the food was to die for”. I don’t think that means it was poisonous, or so fatty as to instantly clog your arteries. I think the suggestion is that having eaten such delicious food life is complete, nothing will ever match the experience again, you may as well die now. Birdwatching is evidently nothing like eating.

I had seen the Shoebill, I could never tick it again, but life goes on. There are other pebbles on the beach, fish in the sea, birds in the swamp. The Papyrus Gonolek would be nice.

It’s rare, has limited distribution, skulks in the papyrus and is a lot smaller than a Shoebill. And considerably prettier.

You can’t beat local knowledge, our guide for our couple of days in the Entebbe region was Nanyombi Proscovia. It would not be easy but she would do her best, she said, to find us the Gonolek.

Prossy, the bird guide.

So, Mabamba for the second morning, back into our boat and back into the swamp along with the local people going about their daily lives.

We nosed along, sometimes through narrow water ways, sometimes across more open expanses, mostly driven by outboard motor but where the vegetation was particularly dense the boatman resorted to pushing us along with a pole. It was surprising how close some of the birds would let us get.

African Jacana
Malachite Kingfisher
Purple Heron
Blue-breasted Bee-eater

Where’s its blue breast? It’s an immature bird, give it time and it will develop a neat blue collar.

The Intermediate Egret has a huge range. You can even find them in Australia but it’s not often we see them in their breeding finery.

Intermediate Egret

What’s this flying past? Oh, I’ve seen them before …

What we need is …

Papyrus Gonolek

Prossy was an excellent bird guide. If you need a first class guide in Uganda you can email her at prossybirder@gmail.com or visit her Facebook page.

A Sequal …

On the last morning of our Thailand tour Polly and Paul celebrated their 4,000th bird.

Well, they celebrated too soon. When everything was entered up on the computer it turned out that the true total was 3,999. Ouch. That had to be remedied and the opportunity soon presented itself in the form of a King Eider at Cape Cod Canal. So they jumped on a plane, I’ll let Polly take up the story …

We impatiently picked up the rental car and headed for the canal. We arrived at the parking lot just as a flock of Eider flew from Herring Run. After listening to a birder/photographer tell us what she had witnessed of the birds’ behavior we went back to the car drove a short distance. We told ourselves that after the flights we needed a nice brisk walk and hurried in the direction the flock had flown. Soon the granite jetty was as tall as we were thereby blocking our view of the canal. We climbed up to the top and continued our quest. The jetty was very stable and we soon discovered most of the slabs had been cut with a flat top. As we made our way we had, of course, to stop and take quick looks at each bird we saw. We passed a great many Common Loon Red-breasted Merganser, Black and Surf Scoter. It was such a treat to see so many of these birds in breeding plumage. We paid special attention to the Common Eider. As we approached the mouth our pulses quickened while our spirits dipped. We stayed close to the mouth for around 20 minutes and then realized as 5:30 approached we were probably not going to see the bird that day. We made the difficult decision to go grab some dinner and a pint of stout. It was only then that we realized we had had no food for over 24 hours. We had skipped breakfast, there was no meal on the first flight, not enough time on our Chicago layover and only a tiny bag of pretzels on the second flight!  We would have to cross all our fingers and all our toes and hope it would stick around for another day. Paul was ahead of me, he had just made it to the sand and was turning to give me a hand. I was on the last boulder and debating whether to sit down and slide to ground. The next thing I knew I was falling, face down, onto the sand. I landed forehead first….a “graceful” face plant. Dizzy and dazed, slightly nauseated I tied to get up. A family close by had witnessed it and came to help. I was protesting that it was okay and would be all right, but as I tried to stand up I could not put weight on my left leg. Paul and I just could not grasp what was happening. One of the women offered to have her husband drive Paul back to our rental car. She her friends and children stayed with me. She kept asking how I was, checked my pulse and pupils. I finally managed to say “you have to be in a medical profession.” She smiled and said she was a Registered Nurse. When Paul and her husband arrived with our car. Her husband and her friends’ husband made a basket of their arms and “fireman carried” me to the car. They told us there was a hospital very close by and gave us quick directions, then programmed our google maps, handed me a bottle of water and offered to escort us to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical. We said we could get there, that they had already done so much. She would not let us leave until we promised that we would go straight to the ER. By this time we both knew we had no choice. Tears streaming down my face, feeling such a fool off we went.

The diagnosis – fractured pelvis. Polly spent three days in hospital where an international lineup of staff looked after her brilliantly. The airline rescheduled her trip home with no fuss and at little extra charge but there was one thing left to do …

we hatched a plan…get me out of the hospital as early as possible and go for the bird on our way to the airport. We asked the Ortho Doc if that would be okay. He said “no boulder climbing”. One of nurses was a beginning birder and was so excited…Wednesday was her day off and she was going to try for it then too!

We left the hospital at 10:00 and headed for the canal. Paul parked the car and went to scout. He came back breathless and excited. He had not gone far enough to see it, but had seen photographers and spotting scopes. We hurriedly got me transferred to my wheelchair headed to the spot. There was the King Eider in all his breeding splendor! We told the others there a very short version of our tale and one of them volunteered to take pictures of us. After about a half hour of continued viewing we were getting ready to go when we heard a familiar voice, it was Ellie the RN, and beginning birder. We got her on the bird, visited a little and headed toward Boston and the long journey home.

photo Paul Neldner

I wish you a speedy recovery, Polly.

Review of the Rockjumper Thailand Tour …

The tour ran from February 19, 2017 until March 7. The southern extension kicked off the next day and finished on the 13th.

The leaders were Uthai Treesucon and Keith Valentine and they were excellent.

Uthai Treesucon
Keith Valentine

The itinerary and accommodation were well chosen, transport was handled well. The food was good.

A group size of twelve could present problems but Rockjumper briefs participants on etiquette and on this occasion things ran very smoothly. How the organisation might have handled a crisis was never put to the test.

It is a hardcore birding tour, if your spouse is not a keen birder it would be tough for them. There is no associates program, days are long, the focus is intense. And for the birder very productive. The final tally for the tour was over 500 species, I saw 471 different birds and some good mammals. If you carry a camera you will bring back some very nice photos but it’s not the tour for the dedicated bird photographer the tempo is quite different from their requirements. One of the group has put a very large collection of their photos up <HERE>. If you’re preparing for a trip you could test your diagnostic skills on them.

So to mark Rockjumper’s report card … A+. I’ve already booked another tour. The next one is to Bhutan. What about the participants?

Most were repeat Rockjumper clients which says something about the company. The guys were gentlemen bird watchers, always polite, tolerant and cooperative. The girls on the other hand … I don’t know how many times I found myself examining the backs of their head through my binoculars. No, I exaggerate the group was remarkably congenial. There were tales of other trips and a lot of good humour. We were occasionally entertained by the sayings of Polly’s Mum one of which was …

If you’re looking for sympathy you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis …

which is well worth remembering.

It is axiomatic that …

  1. There is an arsehole in every group and
  2. They are totally unconscious of the fact.

So it follows that if you can’t identify the arsehole it must be you.

I therefore tender my apologies to the fine men and women that I traveled with. I enjoyed it.




Thick head …

Tigers to the left, Possums to the right. The distance between Bali and Lombok is just 25 km but Asia’s woodpeckers, barbets and trogons are on one side, Australasia’s honeyeaters and cockatoos on the other. Huxley’s modification to the line tidies up a few problems, an excellent example being the genus Pachycephala, a literal translation – thick heads, more flatteringly known these days as the Whistlers. There are 32 species (following the Handbook of Birds of the World in this instance) and all of them are found to the east of Huxley’s version of Wallace’s Line.

When an Australians go birding in Asia they are confronted with not just with new species but whole new families. It can get confusing.

I’d been in Thailand for three weeks. New species were raining down the whole time. It was possible that I was missing the derisive laughter of the Kookaburra or my wife, or maybe the scent of eucalyptus. We were birding in the mangroves when I saw it, a little Aussie expat. It warmed the cockles of my heart springs …

Mangrove Whistler

I’ve seen Golden Whistler and Rufous Whistler in my own back yard and six other species in Australia. Some Whistlers have made it way out into the Pacific to the islands of New Caledonia, Tonga and Samoa but only one species straddles the mere 25 km that separate Lombok and Bali, the Mangrove Whistler. And it didn’t stop there, it can be found all the way up the Malayan Peninsula and then along the Asian coast from Vietnam to India.

Mangrove Whistler

It was then that I knew it was time to come home.