Thanks be for birds

A number of Facebook and Flickr posts have made me pause recently.

Not all countries celebrate Thanksgiving but in the depths of economic uncertainty many of my FB / blogger friends posted reasons why they give thanks even today. Most of them are far away from issues of economics and materialism.

An image I posted on Flickr recently also produced some comments along the lines of “I wish lived in a house where I could photograph birds like that”. This was the image:

White-bellied sea-eagle. Haliaeetus albicilla.

So there are quite a few “Reasons to be cheerful” as the late Ian Dury sang back in 1979. Amongst mine is what I might loosely describe as ‘garden birding’. Like many birdwatchers / birders I define ‘garden’ very liberally. Essentially if I am on the footprint of the house when I see the bird, it counts. So the eagle above is a fully paid up member of my garden list. Now to make matters even more confusing I don’t actually keep a written list. It is all stored in my head. Much of it however is documented by photographs, no matter how poor.

When I returned to HK  in 2004 after a 4 year or so break I chose my rented house based on the fact I had seen a White-bellied sea-eagle from the sun terrace when I was viewing it. The agent insisted on showing be another 15 flats and houses. She failed to grasp where my priorities lay! I took house number one! When we bought our current home in 2009 similar criteria applied. We wanted, above all, a proper sea view in addition to a small garden and some security. It took 18 months of searching. When we saw it we knew it was what we wanted.

The photo above is not a result of sitting patiently waiting for the bird to appear. I was working in my study from which I have the most wonderfully distracting view. Not one but two sea eagles appeared fairly close to the house. I grabbed my camera, ran outside onto the roof terrace and hoped the birds would come my way. I could only see one at this point and although I fired off a few frames they were not really close enough.

Rather grumpily I went back to the desk and downloaded the images. Not very good. At which point one eagle came back. I had to extract the card from the reader, put it back into the camera and off I went again. With a similar result. By this stage I was feeling that the eagles had worked out my exact timing and synchronized their departure with my arrival on the roof. Incredibly the same thing happened again. I am back at the desk and the eagle is waving at me through the window, thumbing his nose at me so to speak.

But this time I had loaded the camera with a different card so I didn’t lose the time extracting and reloading. And the eagle was close enough to fill maybe half a frame. Ha ha! Round three to me. The images are not pin sharp. I was handholding for a start. The position of the eagle is not how I would have wanted it to be. But come on, this is truly a grab shot. No planning, checking exposure settings as I run up the stairs, making sure I am (or rather the camera is) in servo mode and on high speed (9 frames per second) and of course trying not to fall over as I do so.

And yes, I am lucky to live in a house where I have opportunities like this. On Saturday I was drinking coffee on the front sun terrace and a raptor shot past me at incredible speed following the path of our cul-de-sac. It veered off to the left over the gardens and dipped out of sight behind the tree line. Crested goshawk. I have seen sparrowhawks do this in  England but this is the first time I have seen the gos’ so close to our house. Occasionally they sit in nearby trees or fly high overhead, shimmering their wings in their distinctive fashion. From start to finish the encounter lasted a matter of seconds. Yet it gave me a buzz for 24 hours. Such beauty, power, speed and lethal force all in one package.

At the other end of the scale is the dainty and perhaps a touch gaudy, Scarlet minivet.

Scarlet minivet. Pericrocotus flammeus.

Now this is not an uncommon bird but to have it perched on a fir-tree straight opposite the sun terrace is unusual. I could almost endoscope this one. This by the way is the male of the species. The distaff, of which I have only more distant photographs, is yellow, grey and black. Still pretty fashionable, decked out in this season’s most favoured hues but nonetheless hardly scarlet. Sexual dimorphism playing tricks on us again. Just to be clear, this is a happy stroke of good fortune. The bird sat for a few seconds and then flew. It has not returned since at such close distance. It is not, despite rumours to the contrary, a stuffed museum specimen. I am arguably closer to that category than the minivet.

Older readers may recall that Mrs. Minivet almost starred in a 1942 film starring Greer Garson. Quite appropriately the movie starred Walter Pidgeon. However there was an unfortunate typo in the title and the script writer was told it was called Mrs. Miniver. A whole new story had to be drafted and Greer Garson missed the chance to be a real scarlet woman called Mrs. Minivet.

This was then superseded in ornithological cock-ups by the 1944 film, Tawny Pipit, which starred rather worryingly not a single Tawny pipit but several Meadow pipits. Well it was war-time and I suppose Tawnys were rationed. So difficult to get the coupons.

You see, birds are central to my life. I am by no means an expert. I am what I term an enthusiast. A chap once told me you can’t be a birdwatcher and a bird photographer. You have to choose. He was right. I am now half useless at both. Or half good if you are charitable and your glass of red is semi-full. Either is frankly unacceptable to me but I simply can’t decide. Ten years of dithering. It will all end in tears. I am happy to watch and/or photograph from my house or out in the field. The house is probably more comfortable. A liberal supply of coffee, mars bars, an iPad to read, different lenses just a floor away and hey, if nothing comes by I can switch on the rugby. Now you can’t (yet) do that at Mai Po. So whether you are a naturalist or a street photographer I do plead that you should give the birds a go and if you are really, really lucky, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon may fly by pretending to be minivets.

Cry the beloved country

The readers amongst you will know that the beloved country of Alan Paton’s novel was South Africa. Bloggers get poetic license so my beloved country is Kenya. Well it is on the same continent.

I don’t remember exactly when I first visited Kenya – maybe 1994. It was a birdwatching holiday. Just over 2 weeks. I had recently taken up birdwatching (or birding as we sophisticated types call it) as an antidote to working in what is pompously known as The City. The City was then synonymous with Loadsamoney as portrayed by Harry Enfield. (Wikipedia describes Loadsamoney as “an obnoxious character who constantly boasted about how much money he earned”. Which was great. Except I didn’t.) Back to Kenya. That trip almost killed my interest in birding. We saw 500 species in about 15 days and it was impossible to keep pace with the rate of new birds. I was throughly over-birded by the time I got home. I longed to look out of the kitchen window at the bird feeders and know the rarest candidate for the day was a Siskin. No more cisticolas please, we’re British. However the trip did kindle an interest in Africa that I have maintained to this day.

I have been back, solo rather than in a group – several times. Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia…… they have all thrilled me in different ways. I held a couple of work conferences in Africa and became involved with sponsoring boreholes in two countries. In Kenya we raised $25,000 to put a borehole in for a village, where otherwise the locals walked several kilometers a day just to fetch water. In Cameroon a similar sum for a similar purpose. In Kenya again we raised money for the Kikuyu eye hospital. Loadsamoney. But in a good sense.

Africa gives back a warmth and friendship that is as good as any place I have been. My African colleagues are the most generous of spirit you will find. At times your preconceptions of Africa can be destroyed in an instant. I knew Ethiopia only through the eyes of Bob Geldof. Famine. Yet I found a country as lush as any I had visited, growing the most wonderful coffee and with the spectacular scenery everywhere. A half decent infrastructure could make this a honey pot for tourists. Basic it was. We stayed at a “lodge”, which consisted of a series of caravans, which I suspect may have been put out for scrap by a site in Tenby some twenty years earlier. No running water. One bucket of cold water a day. You washed in it, you flushed the toilet with it and if there was anything left over you could do whatever else you wished to do with it. Just don’t drink it. The scenery at this site was simply breathtaking. Deep gorges, grassy plains stretching to the horizon, Scissor-tail kites here, caracals there…….. oh and did I mention the rather large and predictably hairy spider in my rucksack? A real bonus. Always, but always zip your bag up at night as you never know what might creep in. And don’t drink Ethiopian wine. To quote the Pythons, this is not a wine for drinking, this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.  (Actual quote: “Of the sparkling wines, the most famous is Perth Pink. This is a bottle with a message in, and the message is ‘beware’. This is not a wine for drinking, this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.”)

Perhaps 15 years on the wine may have improved. Maybe the roads have been finished. Perchance you won’t get threatened with an AK47 for photographing the local tribesman. But for sure you will fall in love with the country.

Kenya is an easy first course for Africa beginners. The infrastructure is pretty good. The roads deteriorate as you drive further from Nairobi but there decent charter flights available between lodges. And the scenery is a great introduction to Africa. My image for today is from 2005.  A landscape converted to black and white. The Thompson’s Falls at Nyahururu. 72m drop. The Angel Falls this is not but it impresses none the less.

Thomson's Falls

And so to close, a big thank you to the 37 brave souls, who visited this blog yesterday. I hope you like a taste of Africa.