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

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw

We'd made our choice and decided to explore the far north of Laos starting with a gruelling 4 hour minivan to Luang Namtha. We had a lot to learn about travelling in Laos. First lesson was the tuk tuk from the hotel to the bus station. 50,000 kip (c.£4.50) seemed quite a lot but we were used to bus stations being well out of town in Thailand so thought it was ok. Turned out to be virtually walkable! Then the promised big bus at 12:30 turned out to be a fabrication and instead we were presented with a 12 seater minivan, which was then packed with 17 people and set off at 12. Lesson number two; transport may vary wildly from that advertised. Further pickups took the total on board to 20 as we headed off into the mountains where half the locals started throwing up and all the babies started crying.

The hills were mainly cleared forest with many rubber and banana plantations but the villages we passed through looked extremely poor with few substantial houses, children working or at play and no signs of schools and many drying reeds by the roadside to make brushes. Roads potholed and often unsealed but passing ultra-modern Chinese high speed rail and hydro-electric projects, the latter even on rather small river systems.

A long 4 hours later saw us arrive at the outpost of Luang Namtha. Just a few kilometres from the Chinese border and with that edgy feel that often accompanies border towns. The tourists here were few and far between and either passing through like us or here for the exciting looking trekking in the nearby Nam Ha Conservation Area. We decided to take a day to explore here so stayed two nights and rented bikes to cycle to the Nam Dee waterfall about 5km to the NE.

The route took us across a local landmark, the alarming scooter bridge constructed entirely from bamboo. The uneven surface made cycling across a dangerous prospect, so whereas locals were zipping over on bikes and scooters we gingerly pushed our bikes across.

We rode past rice paddies and small settlements where the welcome was often not warm at all, despite our friendly smiles and waves. Small children would point pretend guns at us (and one actual handgun or convincing looking replica!) and older children pull away toddlers who waved back. Older adults looked away or had an openly hostile look on their faces but when we got to the waterfall and adjacent 'cultural village' tourists seemed to be more accepted and we had a pleasant walk on the jungle trail along the river.

Birdlife across the rice fields included apparent Common House Martin, Striated Swallows and Red-throated Pipits. At the waterfalls and nearby were Long-tailed Shrike, Greenish Warbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Black-throated Sunbird, Scarlet Minivet, Plain Flowerpecker, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Black-naped Monarch, Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Leafbird, Streaked Spiderhunter and decent flock of Asian House Martins.

The Clipper Parthenos sylvia

Common Jester Symbrenthia lilaea

The following day we bought a 'VIP bus' ticket to Nong Khiaw but after the mini-songthaew to the bus station found that no such bus existed. There was a dreaded minivan going direct but we opted to stick with the small local bus that would take us as far as a junction at Pak Mong some 30km short and try our luck from there. With 30 people on board this was full but still better than the minivan, and despite the ominous sick bags handed out at the start and the winding mountainous roads stomachs remained much more settled on this 5 hour journey. The roads through the deforested hills were sealed all the way and in reasonable condition. The main hazard seemed to be the lorries that plied the route as we passed two on their side on bends; one narrowly missing a house and the other blocking ours and everyone else's path for a good 40 minutes while a crane was summoned to clear the wreckage.

We talked our way into a shared taxi for the final leg and arrived in the stunning river crossing town of Nog Khiaw at about 16:30. Found a place to stay easily enough, had some excellent food and hit the bar. Here we bumped into several travellers we'd met along the way, one from a village right next where I was brought up and then astonishingly Amber and Rico, the friends we'd been out with in Chiang Rai, walked in! A battered guitar appeared from somewhere and we all sat around the fire set in an old American cluster bomb casing! A few songs, travel tales and plenty of beerlaos and rum made for a wonderful evening.

The views of the mountains and Nam Ou river here were stunning but weren't to last. The first morning dawned cold, grey and misty and was a factor in us staying only three nights here. Temperatures down to 6 C were uncomfortable in wooden walled accommodation and we spent more of the evenings around the fire in the bar. It's normally much hotter here but a few days like this are expected at this time of year and it can last for about a week. A shame because the birding here was pretty good. Among the more expected birds were Dusky Crag Martins (at a cave complex used as a war hideout), Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Grey-crowned Warbler, White-browed Piculet, Purple-naped Spiderhunter, Rufescent Prinia, Violet Cuckoo, Indochinese Yuhina, Grey-backed Shrike, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Rufous-capped Babbler. I'm sure I would have turned up far more given time.

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe poioicephala

Common Iora  Aegithina tiphia

Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus

Indochinese Yuhina Staphida torqueola

Violet Cuckoo Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus

We'd chosen this route partly so that we could take the river boat trip from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang but just two months previously a major Chinese hydroelectric dam project had been completed downstream and the through boat was no longer possible. We were offered a more expensive combination of a boat to the dam and car from there to the city. Sharing this with a couple of young Swiss travellers made it affordable and it proved to be very worthwhile. For once a 'VIP' service that actually did what it said it would, right down to delivering us to the door of our accommodation in LP.

Wildlife was sparse during the 2+ hour trip, which passed by some fascinating and extensive rock art estimated to be around 3000 years old. White-throated Kingfishers, Dusky Crag Martins, Striated Swallows, Cook's Swifts, a Striated Heron and some unidentified raptors were about the size of it.