Tuesday, April 12, 2016

NASA and the BTO

About 18 months ago, the Eagle-eyed amongst my limited readership will have seen some questions about using a picture for a piece of research into bird flight.

Well it turns out that enquiry was from Albion Bowers, Chief Scientist at the Neil A Armstrong Flight Research Centre at NASA.   Last month, March 2016, the paper was published.   It's called 'On Wings of the Minimum Induced Drag: Spanload Implications for Aircraft and Birds'.

They used the following picture of Brown Pelicans (see posts from February 2010flying in formation as proof of part of their work, illustrating specifically that the previously considered location of the lift vortexes couldn't be there or these birds couldn't fly like this:

Suffice to say I am extremely chuffed to have been asked and delighted to have been published in this way.

Quickly thereafter we got our regular copy of Bird Table from the BTO, a magazine for their regular garden bird sighting reporters (amongst other bird research work), in which they had published a picture of a Black Redstart, which visited our garden this winter (see posts from November 2015).   

They are quite a scarce bird so to have one stay around for three days was a treat.   Also very happy to have been published twice now, seems like a good pat on the back to me :)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Northeast India Trip - Kurseong

The very last place we stayed on our visit to North East India was Cochrane Place in Kurseong.   The hill city looks much like the others on approach:

However Cochrane Place is nuts, as you can see here:

We loved it.  The tea was great, the coffee very good, the service excellent, the food excellent, the room was really comfortable, well located.  We really loved it.

They have lots of potted flowers on a roof garden overlooking the tea estate:

This ape is there to scare the local monkeys away, which apparently is does very effectively:

Barn Swallows nest on the building and indeed are welcome:

From our bedroom balcony was saw a new life species, the Rufous-necked Laughingthrush:

Both mornings we birded in the hills above Kurseong though our guide got lost on the way to the area he wanted and on arrival the higher part of the forest had been cut and turned into a large housing estate.   It was five years since the local guide had visited the area.

Anyway the forest where it remained looked amazing:

In the lower part we saw a number of butterflies:

This one looks very similar to the Small Tortoiseshell from home:

We saw Grey Bushchat:

Hill Prinia:

and a few other species, though it was quieter than we'd hoped for.   The road and house building no doubt contributing to that.

That afternoon we visited the local tea estate.   Dark clouds were building and we set off driving to the entrance then walking in.  We watched the women working the fields:

We'd requested a gentle mooch for our last afternoon.   We were incredulous then when we started a sustained descent to the bottom of the tea estate to some semi-forested areas, where we did indeed see a couple of species of bird.   A thunder storm broke overhead though thankfully we mostly had sound and fury rather than the expected torrential rain.  I covered my camera and we then had to complete a loop with a steep and hasty ascent, that was quite tough.   By this time I could no longer speak with the guide, I think he needs to find a new career.  Pronto.

We got back to the hotel, cooled off, dried off, showered and packed ahead of 38 hour trip starting the following morning.   We had fun on that too, Jet Airways sold us an end-to-end ticket transiting via Kolkata and then Mumbai.   We tried to connect in Mumbai but were sent out of the secure zone as we were too early, so we had to sit for 5 hours in the general airport area where there is a single cafe.   Finally they let us back in and through immigration, the apparent source of the hold-up.

It's fair to say this trip did not live up to our expectations.  We saw 360 species of bird of which 150 were lifers.  We saw the Himalayas and Mount Kanchenjunga in particular.  We experienced different cultures and visited some very remote places that we are lucky to have had the opportunity and indeed means to do so.

We were also ill most of the time as the lack of sanitation combined with a meat-centric diet meant we were almost always dealing with contamination of our food.  Our drives were ok, once their vehicles were road worthy and our guide was a pretty good if lazy and thoughtless birder but it's also fair to say that we found the North East to be much less like the India we love and had hoped to visit again.  Also the next holiday I book will definitely avoid mountains!

Northeast India Trip - Darjeeling

Another clear morning dawned over Yuksam, again the Holy Mountain was lit-up:

After breakfast we drove right the way down to the valley that crosses South Sikkim, before starting our ascent to Darjeeling.   I had time to recover while we drove, even enjoying this view of the river valley on the way down:

After a while we had to start the steep ascent to Darjeeling, making use of some 100+ year old engineering by the former British occupiers on the way.

We approached Darjeeling:

I'd always wanted to visit the city both because of it's association with tea but also because of its past.  Everyone we'd spoken to when we said where we were head wrinkled their noses and said it had grown very quickly in the last two decades and was now worth avoiding.

Our agent had booked us into the Elgin Hotel, one of the two fine hotels in Darjeeling:

The tea rooms were splendid as indeed was the tea, with more than ten varieties to choose from:

I can vouch for the coffee too, the best we had in India.  The room was pleasant, the hotel a British Indian oasis in an otherwise very typical Indian City.

It was heaving outside, open sewers, very crowded, lots of noise, diesel fumes and general hubbub:

We decided that the following day we'd have a day off to recover as we didn't fancy visiting the same hill twice and the weather was poor and forecast to stay that way.   So instead we walked into the City, visiting the train station for the old mountain railway:

A number of engines were making steam, with some services heading off:

Aside form this though, Darjeeling is actually pretty rotten.   Someone spat on my back as we walked around.  I wouldn't go there again, it's filthy, crowded and stinks.   If you're mad keen on railways, start and finish lower would be my advice, there's plenty more hill towns worth visiting.

We retreated back to the comfort of the Elgin, drank a lot of tea, relaxed, drank more tea and used their wifi.   It's a real oasis in there.

The next morning we packed-up the car and headed for Tiger Hill, the site of a monastery, various communications masts and also a popular tourist spot.

We left it later than usual as our guide expected the hill-top to be covered in tourist cars and we did indeed pass a good few coming down the hill as we made our ascent.

We parked in the near deserted car park and walked up the hill:

This is your correspondent walking back down with some sun breaking through the heavy cloud cover:

And the temple:

Dotted around the forest on the hill were flowering Magnolia and Rhododendron, a lovely sight:

We reached the top, which was actually quite shocking.  Rubbish everywhere, it was filthy.  This is a major tourist attraction and it's filthy, I tried to crop out the rubbish here:

We did see some birds including this White-browed Fulvetta amongst a few others:

Walking back down the hill we passed the former entrance:

Another species was this Rufous-breasted Accentor:

Tiger Hill was a disappointment, as was Darjeeling.  We didn't even but any tea, unlike in Assam where we'd stocked up on the stuff as gifts for our return.

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Northeast India Trip - Yuksam, Sikkim

The morning we headed from Rabong to Yuksam started sunny and warm and with some clear, if a touch hazy, views of the snow-capped Himalaya peaks:

We followed the winding and still way too dangerous for my liking road, stopping to watch a primate eating Magnolia flowers by the roadside:

At another spot we saw a Rufous-bellied Niltava:

Handsome bird:

The light was good enough to illustrate the steep nature of the farming they do in these mountains.   Quite often the lowest tier or terrace is right over a huge drop to the valley below:

Our guide asked us if we wanted to visit the lake that was shown on our itinerary, I replied it would be good to see as many water species as possible, so we headed that way first.

On the way we passed some picturesque waterfalls, which were rammed with tourists, so we stopped only briefly and didn't go any closer:

The road passed over a number of mountain streams:

At one point we stopped next to what looked like a dirt track.  Apparently it was a new road that would shorten the distance to the lake, once the guide had confirmed this, we took it.

Road is too strong a word.  It was a wet dirt track that even the guide felt compelled to walk part of in case the car didn't make it.   The conditions were so bad we spent nearly an hour on the shortcut alone, it's fair to say it was a very stupid decision involving conditions that were extremely unsafe and given my vertigo it was also selfish.

Anyway we finally rejoined the pitch road and arrived at the lake:

It turns out that Buddha's birthday is a holiday and that the lake is a Holy Lake.   So there were lots and lots of people and no birds.   The guide explained all this whilst we trekked around it looking for the non-existent birds.   We were furious.   This was the pinnacle of the non-thinking behaviour that was one of the most frustrating factors of our birding trip.

So we left the lake and headed to Yuksam and the hotel, which proved to be a bit of a strange one.   The staff are friendly and helpful, it's cold with no means of heating but the food is good.  One wacky thing, there's a kettle and sugar, two mugs but they cannot provide tea or coffee and apparently no one close sells it in the town.  Weird.

Also apparently the hotel, the Tashi Gang is owned by a Bollywood star.

We had a relatively quiet afternoon, I was exhausted and couldn't really work out why.   We thought partly shock due to the extreme experience the earlier driving had provided.

Anyway we had an early dinner and an early night ready for our 4am alarm.

At Bon Farmhouse they'd told us we'd have a really good chance to see the Holy Mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga.  On the first morning we awoke to see the light of dawn striking a mountain that did look a lot like the Holy Mountain:

A breath-taking sight at 5am and well worth getting up early for.

We set off walking from the hotel passing a local holy lake in which the mountain was reflected;

It was still very early and the light faint, but the birds were up and about, feeding, like this Blue-winged Siva:

From the road an Asian Barred Owlet was scaring the smaller birds:

As the sun got higher a butterfly basked:

Here's another:

This is the map of the huge hiking area that is the park we'd barely started to walk into.   Apparently it is used for high-level mountain hiking training:

A Verditer Flycatcher matched the colour of the sky:

Along the trail we met a young French lady who was elegance personified.   She'd caught local transport from another town and was walking up to the monastery alone which we thought was very brave.

We carried along the road until it turned into a narrower track with sharp drops.  Given the previous day's entertainment I couldn't face the kind of terrain I'd been semi-comfortable in, and getting better with, only a few days before.  I also was also feeling exhausted, really properly empty.  As we turned back I realised I wasn't going to be able to make the three-odd mile walk back down to the hotel so our car was called when we were halfway back.  I felt embarrassed but then putting two-and-two together worked out that I probably had mild altitude sickness.  I repeated the symptoms I'd been complaining about (headache, light-headed, feeling empty) and my guess as to what it was.  Yes said the guide.    You know when you want to thump someone?

Anyway to his credit he did then explain this to the hotel staff who provided some strong garlic and ginger soup and ginger tea to help me out.   I spent the entire rest of the day in bed, looking forward to our descent the following morning.   I'd managed to send a text back to the UK, discovering the SIM wasn't barred in this part of India and my sister-in-law had provided the medical advice we needed.  Basically descend 500 m as soon as you can and stay there until you feel better.