Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Wizard Time up The Sleeve

La Manga
This year our 'somewhere cheap and warm' early winter strategy found us staying at La Manga (The Sleeve in Spanish) in the Murcia region of SE Spain. Our home from 5th November to 20th December was an 8th floor one bedroom apartment with stunning views situated between km 13 and 14 along the strip close to the Tomas Maestre marina in a part known as Estacio.

La Manga is a 21km long strip, in places only 100m wide, dividing a shallow inland sea, the Mar Menor, from the Mediterranean. We were positioned above one of the two canals crossing the strip, close to the large lift bridge which opened on the even hours to let sailing boats in and out between the Mar Menor (and the marina) and the open sea. Out of season this is a very quiet place with only a couple of supermarkets and a few bars and restaurants doing a generally slow trade. In summer it must be bedlam as there is a great deal of accommodation here. If here at busy times avoid the even hours as the hold ups when the bridge is open must be crazy.

Daily life here revolved around morning and evening walks along the strip, hot days on the balcony, stupendous sunsets and cool pleasant nights. A very small but excellent local market popped up just south of the bridge every Saturday providing good quality cheap fruit and vegetables, clothes and other stalls.

There is a ferry that runs three times a day between Tomas Maestre port and Santiago de la Ribera on the NW shore of the Mar Menor. At €5 each way per person in theory this should be a good way to access the northern part of La Manga by public transport, and indeed a bus runs every 45 minutes along the La Manga road and there are buses to and from Murcia at Santiago. However at this time of year do not rely on the last ferry of the day. If no-one has used the ferry earlier in the day this will not run as we found out when we arrived by bus from Murcia on 5th November. They did not answer the phone and we had to make alternative arrangements to get to our accommodation.

It's worth noting that Murcia airport is tiny and only has about 10 flights a day. There is no public transport so you have to use taxis or a hire car. We arrived to Alicante airport which is an easy two hours away by bus. We intended to fly out of Murcia but ended up travelling back to Alicante because of severe disruption at Gatwick.

The strip is largely urbanized with a large number of medium-sized high rise apartment blocks spread along most of the way. These are interspersed with some low-rise housing and some undeveloped areas. Most of these are bare ground with varying numbers of trees and shrubs, some wilder than others, and some have stagnant water gathered which presumably would be at least slightly brackish. Fresh water is therefore at a premium, which is why the two small concrete-lined lakes at a disused golf complex near the far north end (Veneziola Golf) proved to be a place worth checking for birds. Here also there were some partly tidal pools which occasionally attracted the odd wader or two. Although this part of the Mediterranean has some tidal flow it isn't enough to produce much intertidal habitat and the amount of water in coastal pools tended to be more dependent on wind strength and direction.

The northern end of the strip is divided from a much shorter strip to the north by a series of inlets and islands. This much wilder, undeveloped habitat is inaccessible from La Manga and far enough away for all but the largest birds to be frustratingly out of reach, even by telescope. It would be well over an hour's drive to access it by land by circumnavigating the Mar Menor!

Just on the southern side of the Estacio canal close to our flat is a fairly wide area of dry scrub and trees with bare areas of mainly small shells and a large salty lagoon divided from the sea by stark but oddly appealing walls of huge rusting metal piling. Although a large fence surrounds it on the road side, any thought of development here looks to have been shelved for some considerable time and access at either end is enjoyed by walkers, sunbathers, many, many fishermen and the odd birder without challenge. Police were often present, I think checking fishing licences.

Finally we made a couple of trips to Cabo de Palos at the southern end of La Manga. The headland here was a dry scrubby promontory with good seawatching and there are some saltpans on the Mar Menor side.

This being SE Spain most days were sunny and dry. Wind was an ever present factor, no doubt enhanced by the fact we were essentially living out at sea. Wind direction and strength was very variable, often changing very quickly. The middle of November was characterised by some very stormy weather, which provided some interesting seawatching, and some heavy rain, which topped up the few reservoirs of fresh water. Early December saw a mini heatwave with temperatures in the mid 20s during the day. Things were cooling off a little more towards the end of December. Nights could be quite cold, down to around 8-9°C at times.

My expectations were quite low as I knew the area to be heavily developed and the range of habitats limited. As a result I was pleasantly surprised by the list that grew during our stay.

66 species in total.

Common Shelduck: 9 flew north on 19 Nov.
Mallard: Small numbers at the far north of the strip.
Northern Pintail: 3 on the golf lakes on 21 Nov
Pintail Anas acuta
Greater Flamingo: A few on the saltpans at Cabo de Palos and plenty visible beyond the northern end of La Manga
Great Crested Grebe: Up to 4 present on the Mar Menor near Tomas Maestre and occasionally seen flying by at sea.
Black-necked Grebe: 2 present on the Mar Menor near Tomas Maestre
Feral Pigeon: Small numbers at Cabo de Palos
Woodpigeon: Up to 6 seen regularly in the northern half of La Manga. Small flocks moving south in early November
Collared Dove: Very common. Population here contains several very dark birds with a deep purplish tone to the plumage creating a very contrasting white eye ring.
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Stone-curlew: Heard and seen regularly on the dry shell heath just south of the lift bridge. 25 counted on the dry area here on 10 Dec.
Stone Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus

Black-winged Stilt: An adult and 2 immatures present on the golf lakes throughout sometimes joined by 2 more. Also plenty on the Cabo de Palos saltpans.

Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Avocet: Small numbers on the Cabo de Palos saltpans.
Grey Plover: 1 at the far north end on 21 Nov
Golden Plover: 20-30 on banks between the saltpans at Cabo de Palos on 29 Nov.
Little Ringed Plover: 5 on mudflat at Veneziola Golf and also briefly on the golf lakes on 11 Dec
Whimbrel: 1 in early November on rocky shoreline at Punta del Faro (near the lift bridge).
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Curlew: Up to 2 seen at the far north end.
Turnstone: 2 along rocky shoreline at Veneziola Golf on 5 and 18 Nov.
Temminck's Stint: 1 on the golf lakes on 21 and 29 Nov. 1 also seen in flight along the western shore of the Mar Menor at Santiago de la Ribera on 20 Dec on our return journey.
Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii
Common Sandpiper: 1 present throughout on the golf lakes and singles seen on the shoreline elsewhere at times.
Greenshank: 1 on golf lakes on 8 Nov and 3 there on 4 Dec.
Great Skua: 1 on 9 Dec flew into a large party of gulls near the large offshore island. Long views of several chases before it was seen off to the north. 1 followed a fishing vessel with many gulls on 13 Dec and a second bird flew north later.
Arctic Skua: 1 pale phase adult flew south on 13 Nov; 1 dark bird flew north on 19 Nov.
Slender-billed Gull: Common throughout. Small numbers along the strip often feeding on the Mar Menor shore.
Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei
Black-headed Gull: Present in fairly small numbers throughout.
Mediterranean Gull: Only seen during strong winds. Then often large numbers moving in flocks offshore.
Audouin's Gull: 1 or 2 seen regularly but on the whole scarce.
Yellow-legged Gull: Very common. Large numbers around the large offshore island where it looks like they breed.
Sandwich Tern: Small numbers around throughout. Becoming fewer as time went on. Larger numbers offshore during windy weather.
Cory's Shearwater: 1 flew north on 13 Nov; 1 south on 19 Nov. Both windy days with more seabird movement offshore.
Balearic Shearwater: singles or small numbers seen passing offshore on 19, 28 & 30 Nov, 1, 6, 8, 13, 14 & 16 Dec. 6 Dec was a large movement south of around 120 in small flocks.
Gannet: Always at least one offshore but increased numbers during onshore or strong winds. Mostly adults. On windy days passage was southerly and included immatures of all ages.
Cormorant: Extremely common. Large numbers lining the old metal piling.
Mediterranean Shag: 1 or 2 often present near entrance to canal and often seen passing offshore.
Grey Heron: Small numbers present throughout.
Great Egret: 1 at the far north end on 21 & 29 Nov.
Little Egret: Present in small numbers throughout. Common beyond the north end.
Spoonbill: Up to 15 north of the north end on 29 Nov & 6 Dec.
Marsh Harrier: 1 flew south at the north end on 6 Dec.
Kingfisher: 1 along the canal below apartment most days. 1 at the north end on 21 Nov.
Common Kestrel: 2 singles along the strip to the north.
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Peregrine Falcon: 1 female perched on high window of apartments on 8 Nov. 1 over the flat on 14 Nov.
Peregrine Falco peregrinus
Monk Parakeet: Common throughout with clusters in the Veneziola Golf, Tomas Maestre and Cabo de Palos areas.
Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus
Iberian Grey Shrike: 1 at the north end on 8 Nov and 1 at the Cabo de Palos saltpans on 29 Nov.
Crested Lark: Present throughout scattered along the strip. Up to 5 at a time.
Crag Martin: Present in small numbers throughout. Visiting apartments as though roosting or breeding.
Common Chiffchaff: Small numbers present throughout and seen in most vegetated areas. Numbers falling off significantly by middle of December.
Sardinian Warbler: Small numbers present throughout and seen in most areas with larger vegetation.
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala
Robin: Small numbers present throughout but noticeable influx following bad weather in mid-Nov. Numbers much reduced by middle of December.
Black Redstart: Common throughout.
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Stonechat: Also common and widespread in ones and twos.
Stonechat Saxicola rubicola
Song Thrush: 1 on 4 Dec.
Blackbird: Present throughout in small numbers.
Common Starling: Numbers fluctuating with flocks lingering and passing through at times.
Spotless Starling: Small numbers in the Veneziola Golf and Estacio areas. Singing at times.
Grey Wagtail: 1 wintering at the golf lakes and 1 seen occasionally in the Estacio area.
White Wagtail: Present throughout. Usually seen singly.
Meadow Pipit: Present in small numbers throughout. Small influx around mid-Dec.
Water Pipit: Up to 2 seen in marshland at the north end.
Chaffinch: Singles on 21 Nov and 11 Dec.
Greenfinch: Present in small numbers throughout with most seen on undeveloped land between housing. Maximum count: 20 on 11 Dec.
Linnet: Up to 6 present on undeveloped land between housing.
Goldfinch: Up to 10 present on undeveloped land between housing.
Serin: Scarce. Up to 6 present on undeveloped land between housing and 4 around the north end.
Reed Bunting: 6 present on marshland at the north end on 11 Dec with singles also seen there.
House Sparrow: Small numbers present throughout mainly in the Veneziola Golf, Estacio and Cabo de Palos areas.

Other wildlife

Bottle-nosed Dolphin: An estimated 10 off shore near the big island moving north on 10 Nov. Some spectacular breaches and acrobatics.

Plain Tiger: Singles seen on three days, twice in the northern part of La Manga and once at the Cabo de Palos saltpans.
Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus
Clouded Yellow: Quite common on sunny days throughout.
Clouded Yellow Colias croceus
Painted Lady: Small numbers on sunny days throughout.
Red Admiral: 1 on 10th Dec.
Lang's Short-tailed Blue: quite numerous towards the start of the period but not seen later on. Unobtrusive.
Lang's Short-tailed Blue Leptotes pirithous
Long-tailed Blue: 1 on 6 Dec but possibly overlooked at other times.
Long-tailed Blue Lampides boeticus
African Grass Blue: 1 on 11 Dec but possibly overlooked at other times.
African Grass Blue Zizeeria knysna
Mallow Skipper: 1 on 10 Nov.
Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae
Rusty Dot Pearl: 1 dayflying in gardens on 11 Dec.
Rush Veneer: 1 to balcony lights on
Dark Sword-grass: 1 to balcony lights on 6 Nov & 10 Dec.
Dark Sword-grass Agrotis ipsilon
White-speck: different individuals to balcony lights on 7 & 9 Dec.
White-speck Mythimna unipuncta
The Cosmopolitan: 1 to balcony lights on 6 Nov.
The Cosmopolitan Leucania loreyi
Mniotype spinosa: 1 to balcony lights on 11 Nov & 3 Dec.
Mniotype spinosa
Turnip Moth: 1 to balcony lights on 24 Nov.
Turnip Moth Agrotis segetum
Pearly Underwing: 1 dark individual to balcony lights on 3 Dec.
Crimson Speckled: Up to two seen day flying around 8 Nov.
Crimson Speckled Utetheisa pulchella
Hummingbird Hawk-moth: small numbers seen on many days. Last one was seen on a cold cloudy day flying alongside the ferry across the Mar Menor on 20 Dec.
Hummingbird Hawk-moth Macroglossum stellatarum
Red-veined Darter: large numbers in early-mid November, but tailing off in early Dec. Last seen on 11 Dec at small pool near Collados Beach at the far north end.
Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii
Vagrant Emperor: 1 at the Cabo de Palos saltpans on 29 Nov.

Red Palm Weevil: 1 on a promenade on 3 Dec.
Red Palm Weevil Rhynchophorus ferrugineus
Marbled Rock Crab
Marbled Rock Crab Pachygrapsus marmoratus
Egyptian Grasshopper: singles seen several times. This pair in cop were seen on 20 Nov.
Egyptian Grasshopper Anacridium aegyptium
Just a few fish from the clear waters of the canal (not confident on fish identification generally but these seem correct):
Doublebanded Bream Diplodus vulgaris
Gilt-head Bream Sparus Aurata
White Seabream Diplodus sargus
Comber Serranus cabrilla
Mediterranean Damselfish Chromis chromis

Friday, February 23, 2018

Champassak and 4000 Islands


After the most dangerous minivan we've ever experienced, complete with psychopathic driver and near death experiences, we celebrated with an excellent hotpot along by the Mekong in Vientiane and on the way back helped a young traveller who had twisted an ankle. Thankfully we only had to endure one night in yet another substandard room and spent the following day visiting COPE. This impressive charity provides prosthetic and orthotic services to the many still falling victim to unexploded ordnance scattered throughout Laos, the most bombed country by population thanks to cluster bombs dropped by the US during the Vietnam War. The statistics laid out at the visitor centre were shocking and sobering.


An entertaining night bus from the capital arrived at Pakse in the early hours just as the busy market was opening up. From here on we were following in reverse the trip I had made solo in 2016. It was so good to have Karen with me this time around.

After some breakfast noodles here we took a songthaew to the little town of Champassak and were in our accommodation on the west shore of the Mekong by 9am. Temperatures had been rising since Vientiane and much of our three days here were spent in shady hammocks by the river. The views and great food made for a very pleasant stay.

Blue Nawab Polyura schreiber
Butterflies once again provided a welcome distraction. Blue Nawab, Grey Pansy, Lemon Emigrant and Common Birdwing. Brown-throated Sunbird was about the only bird of note however (also seen in Vientiane).

Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)

The journey to Don Khon involved a local boat transfer up river to the eastern dock of the Champassak ferry where a songthaew took us to the main road. A slightly nerve-wracking wait here in the middle of nowhere, but a bus duly turned up and took us the hour or so to Nakasong where we took the fabulous, scenic longtail boat to the island seeing a Shikra on the way. Door to door the journey took around 4 hours.

The Mekong is five mile wide here and splits into myriad channels to plunge over many waterfalls and rapids. This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever stayed and it was a shame Karen was down with a cold at the time, especially as it was getting even hotter. We did manage to get out and about though and walks around the north of the island to the tops of the waterfalls revealed common birds and insects: Large-billed Crow, House, Tree & Plain-backed Sparrows, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Dusky Warbler, Asian Palm Swift, Barn Swallow, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Common Myna, Common & Dark-necked Tailorbirds, Olive-backed Sunbird, Black-naped Oriole and Shikra, Common Mormon and Common Grass Yellow butterflies.

Grass Yellow Eurema sp.

Li Phi Waterfall

Yellow-spotted Keelback Fowlea flavipunctata
An early morning trip to Li Phi falls on the western side of the island was very entertaining. Good views of a Yellow-spotted Keelback here in the water at one of the pools provided for swimming. A harmless species but potentially alarming to some across if you were swimming there. Common Oakblue butterfly, Slender Skimmer (aka Green Marsh Hawk) dragonfly and an Argiope spider photographed and the following birds seen: 3 Indian Spot-billed Duck, Greater Coucal, Asian Koel, Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Chinese Pond Heron, 1 Osprey, 1 Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Coppersmith Barbet, Large-billed Crow, Dark-necked Tailorbird, 1 Barn Swallow, 2 Wire-tailed Swallow, 2 Striated Swallow, Taiga Flycatcher, Olive-backed Sunbird.

Common Oakblue Arhopala micale

Slender Skimmer Orthetrum sabina

Dang's Cross Spider Argiope dang

On my previous trip I'd gone to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins from Kratie in Cambodia, so we thought we'd try for them here this time. It involved an early morning sidecar tuktuk along the old French railway line to the far south of Don Khon and the small port of Hang Khon. We then started looking around for a boat trip and bumped into the very same young woman we had helped in Vientiane a week before. She and her partner had hitched up with a Dutch couple and so we hired a boat between the six of us bringing the cost to less than a pound each!

We saw at least 3 (probably 5) River Dolphins including a mother and calf but not well enough to photograph. Views were better in Cambodia but this perhaps a more laid back experience and certainly not disturbing the dolphins much at all. The boat was out for about an hour.

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 
Bird life much as expected, including: 1 Green Sandpiper, 3 Oriental Darter, 4 Little Egret, 2 Chinese Pond Heron, 1 Intermediate Egret, 1 Osprey, 1 Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, 1 Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, 2 Black-headed & 2 Black-crested Bulbul. Butterflies included Common Birdwing, Lemon Emigrant, Great Orange-tip and a Rose sp.

Our final day here was spent around the small town only adding a male philippensis Blue Rock Thrush to the bird list here, which finished on 49 species.

Indian Spot-billed Duck
Red Collared Dove
Spotted Dove
Zebra Dove
Greater Coucal
Asian Koel
Himalayan Swiftlet
Germain's Swiftlet
Asian Palm Swift
Green Sandpiper
Oriental Darter
Little Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Little Egret
Chinese Pond Heron
Eastern Cattle Egret
Intermediate Egret
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Coppersmith Barbet
Black-naped Oriole
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Ashy Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Large-billed Crow
Common Tailorbird
Dark-necked Tailorbird
Barn Swallow
Wire-tailed Swallow
Striated Swallow
Black-headed Bulbul
Black-crested Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Yellow-browed Warbler
Dusky Warbler
Common Myna
Great Myna
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Taiga Flycatcher
Blue Rock Thrush
Brown-throated Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Scaly-breasted Munia
White-rumped Munia
House Sparrow
Plain-backed Sparrow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow