Monday, 5 October 2015

The return- April 2015

It was a somewhat depressing return to the UK on the 12th, the lack of birds of prey and general birdlife drained a fair bit of my usual 'spring optimism'. However, I soon tried to get back into the swing of inland UK birding.

Daily visits of Sedgley Beacon occurred, with optimism raised slightly by a couple of passage Wheatear on the 14th, followed by a decent day (in Beacon terms), with a Wheatear, 4 Tree Pipits and best of all a singing Grasshopper Warbler on 15th. Infact, the Gropper gave fairly good views, popping up on top of its temporary bramble home briefly on a couple of occasions!

A visit out to the University survey site on 16th revealed a pair of Little Egret was still present within the Heronry present there, however there was unfortunately no further breeding evidence over the summer.

This year a new joint BTO/ Natural England/ Forestry Commission survey has been set up within the Wyre forest to monitor effects on breeding birds within the Wyre over the coming years in which management work is being carried out to restore the original broadleaved deciduous forest. My Survey area is deep within the center of the forest and my first visit was very promising, despite the Douglas fir plantation (which is my survey area), the surrounding land is promising, and featured good numbers of Tree Pipits and Willow Warbler. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and a nice early Wood Warbler singing away next to 'my' woodland were very gratefully received.
Later the same day, the second summer Mediterranean Gull was still present at Upton Warren, together with the usual cast of breeding waders.

The patch has been fairly exiting this summer, and things kicked off early, with LRPs and Peregrines both being seen. A late Goosander still present on the river is usually a good sign that breeding could have been on the cards but unfortunately no chicks were found. A couple of Red-legged Partirdge scurried away along one of the dirt tracks while a Wheatear and a Yellow Wagtail were both the first on patch this year.

A day trip to near Reading with a University Society on 21st led to me seeing lots of Red Kites however it was on the 22nd that a real panic moment hit. While midway through writing up one of my essays (about flightlessness in the Galapagos Cormorant no less) I received news from a fellow Upton Warren warden. "Red necked Grebe at the Moors!!

Many rushed phone calls until a friend agreed to drive up from my hometown in Worcester up to my house on the other side of West Midlands country to pick me up! (massive shoutout to Rob, Legend!) And we were on our way. 
A couple of hours running up and down the west shore until superb views were had just before the sun started to set with the bird swimming about just in front of the hide, a crippling bird for Upton Warren, a reserve first no less and in stunning summer plumage!

Huge thanks to both Rob and Hughie for their help!

My first Swifts of the year, a party of 3 moved over the university site again the follow day.
A fair quiet visit to the patch followed other than breeding birds but the Upton Warren all dayer was on the Saturday (25th). I arrived fairly early, before I heard news of an absolute 'mega' in Somerset. Despite the offer being given and many others abandoning the birdrace to go see the rare yank wader I refused as I was meeting a friend on site. As always, by the end of the day, my only contribution to the day list (with others already having found everything else by the time I arrived) was a single Ringed Plover, a species that I often seen to find on these All dayers, and infact it was probably the my best bird of the day, so I wasn't going to complain!


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Spain, 5th-12th April 2015

For those of you that follow my Twitter, or Facebook ramblings, you may have been aware in early to mid April I spent some time in the glorious locality  of Southern Spain, based within Andelucia.
Hopefully those of you who were desperate to hear of our time in Spain will have looked at the other, often more in depth reports set out by many of the 16 NGB's who attended the trip.
And some excellent photos from the trip here by 'Bardsey' Ben:

A painfully early start at BHX was luckily not quite as bad as I was soon joined by company when my travelling partner arrived. Having checked in during the darkness, we boarded our plane as the first rays of sunlight filled the sky, we were on route to Malaga!

A number of the NGB's had already arrived, however due to the international nature of the trip, a few late comers led to some 'outside the airport' birding, with birds like Spotless Starling and White Stork seen while standing outside arrivals.

After introductions for the few that had not met before, and with the trip organiser having arrived, we headed around to collect the hire cars, with some more birding, with the first Serins of the trip in palm trees on the roadside.
With this task complete, it was time to head west, but not before we saw a good number of Monk Patrakeets, a single Zitting Cisticola, and a variety of butterflies at an area of wasteland adjacent to one of the highways.
The convoy stopped at La Canada (a shopping center on the outskirts of Malaga) to gather a few supplies, while a small group of us birded outside, which proved to be a decent idea, as we managed to see the first Booted Eagles, Short-Toed Eagle, Osprey and Pallid Swift of the trip.

We made our way to our first birding destination, a picturesque mountain ridge that shall remain unnamed. We hadn't even made our location before we were stopping to admire a party of Serin and a pair of Bee Eater from the road. Moving along the road further we parked the car, surrounded by the sound of Nightingales and Sardinian Warblers. After some of the group had had 'frame filling' views of a Nightingale the group moved up the dirt track, and it took a matter of minutes to find our target, a pair of Bonelli's Eagle! Easy to see as they flew up and down the top of the ridge, we moved up into a gorge nearby to move our way up the ridge.

2 Crag Martin gave point blank views adjacent to a large cliff and as we moved into the gorge the sublime sound of Blue Rock Thrush song filled the air, brief views at first, but eventually great views of at least 4 birds. First this youngish looking male:

And then this stonker of an adult male!

An exited shout from the group had us all looking up as one of the Bonelli's Eagles gave a low flypast, before alighting on the ridge above us.

A superb start to the trip.

With the light faded, we made our way to our accommodation within the town of Alacala De los Gazules, our base for the week, but not before a male Cirl Bunting gave us a show singing from a shrub adjacent to the path.

Day 2 (6/04) started bright and early for me, and the birding started instantly as I ate my cornflakes on the rooftop balcony, watching a large flock of Lesser Kestrel and a party of flyover Griffon Vultures.

Little did we know the latter were foreshadowing our fate.
Having just left Alcala, we soon became aware of a large number of Vultures dropped in height across the road, heading the direction we were travelling, and the cars in front of us had already capitalised on this with the first Egyptian Vulture of the trip. 
We followed the still falling Vultures until we saw the cause, they were descending onto a carcass adjacent to the road! Stunning views were had as they cruised low over out heads, and squabbled over the remaining scraps of food on the opposite side of the road.

Egyptian Vulture soon gave itself up, with a single flythrough, and 2 sitting on another roadside field where a few more Vultures had gathered. After a rather short showing, both the Egyptians flew off, circling the field before disappearing from view.

Slowly working our way along the service road (stopping regularly to enjoy the multiple Iberian delights) we made it to a viewpoint overlooking a large lake, primarily to see a pair of nesting Osprey. Both birds were present, and upon writing this it appears the birds were successful, raising 3 chicks.

 The reservoir kept us entertained for a while, but the overwhelming desire to visit a Spanish tip soon arose, however due to a change in practices it didn't have the usual number of birds hanging around, with only small numbers of Black Kite, Griffon Vulture and White Storks.

The drive away from the tip though was enlivened by rows and rows of nesting White Storks. There is a reason they call it the 'Stork factory'.

Again nearby, we moved to a mountain plateau, where due to the winds it was fairly quiet bird wise, but a Tawney Pipit and Short-toed Eagle proved interest.  Here we also managed to see both Sawfly and Tongue Orchid, and we soon learned that due to the wet spring many Orchids were emerging.

Trying to avoid the wind we moved down into the woodlands, where Crested Tits, our first Western Bonelli's Warbler and Short-toed Treecreeper were found, among the now 'standard fare'. Here was also very good for other aspects of Spanish wildlife, with numerous butterflies, inverts and reptiles. A couple of Mediterranean Scorpions were found, with one particular individual standing its ground very well!

Benalup was our next call, were the differences to UK birding very quickly became apparent (if this had not already done so!), with large numbers of birds feeding on the agricultural land, Corn Buntings everywhere and enough to keep your head constantly switching from one side of the car to the other. Woodchat Shrikes joined the Corn Buntings along the fenclines, Cicticolas 'zitting' everywhere and a pair of quartering Montagu's Harriers. A Cuckoo was also seen here before going searching for one of out target birds. 

The car had only just stopped before one of the group picked up the distinctive sound of a displaying Little Bustard, and soon, excellent views were had! 

Having had out fill, we dropped onto the side of an A-road below a steep cliff, where we were greeted by a flock of 14 Bald Ibis, part of the reintroduction scheme now trying to introduce them into this area Spain.

Below the cliff a large Cattle Egret colony resides, with many of the birds being at home!

With the light fading, it was time to head back, but a 'Sharpes' Green Woodpecker was seen and a quick stop at a vantage point of the reservoir below Alcala revealed a Great White Egret.

Day 3 (7/04) was another windy affair, so we decided to move further inland, to do some birding around the big open plains of farmland around Osuna. Even here, far from the windy Atlantic coast, the wind was still whipping through, making digiscoping neigh on impossible. However, the birds again didn't disappoint!  Simply while driving along the Spanish motorways we managed to find a number of decent birds, with the first Glossy Ibis of the trip when a flock of 3 flew over the car. The next few miles were particularly eventful, with further flocks of 5 and 10 Ibis, a happy sight considering not long ago these birds once held a precarious existence within the region. Following a population boom, they are once again a common sight!

Utera had the next delights, with a Pallid Swift, however this was overshadowed when a 'giant' lark launched into its song flight from beside us while going around 100kph. Instantly identifiable from its jet back underwings, our first Calandra Lark!

Osuna is an area basically consisting of one long, scarcely used road, with lots of habitat, pull overs (or make shift pull overs) and fencelines, the ultimate in birder curb crawling.

We stopped near a large bridge- in years gone by a decent lookout for Great Bustard- however non were present. We did however soon crack on with a good list of 'notables', a flock of Gull-Billed Tern flew through, 2 Hoopoe flew along the fenceline, a Short-Toed Lark sang, Osprey and Red Kite flew low over our heads!
A Hoopoe landed on the distant fenceline, and a shout soon came up 'Shrike'- not an uncommon shout on this trip considering the large numbers of Woodchats around. However this was different, a slight quiver in the voice, a little excitability... "Iberian Grey Shrike"!

Mad rush- scopes pointed, directions shouted, then a rather quick walk back to the car once we noticed it was sitting on a fence next to the road a distance further up. If only to say farewell, a pair of distant Montagu's Harriers only hinted as to the delights to come!

The Iberian Shrike was quickly located, handheld digiscoped out of the car window, before it moved away.

It was just a little way to a number of disused farm building appeared on the horizon, and curiosity took us along for a look. The group had spread out a short distance to explore the area when the shout of 'Montys' was made, which saw everyone spin on their heals and look in that direction, to see a flock of Montagu's Harriers (Yes.. A flock!!) squabbling low behind the farm buildings. Everyone seemed to gravitate towards the birds, and soon we were enjoying a mixed flock of males and females as they quartered low over the crops. A single sweep over the large expanse revealed a superb 7 birds, but it quickly dawned that behind there was a similarly large expanse behind where I stood, so turning around, it was great to add another 4 birds patrolling along. 
Incredible!! 11 Montagu's Harriers in one 360 panorama from where I stood. A total just shy of the entire UK population combined!

A single Marsh added to the Harrier fest at this location, but just like the wind, the birds moved through very quickly, and soon disappeared into the rolling plains.

Montagu's were nothing short of common here, and pretty much every stop on the side of the road featured at least one of these majestic raptors, and the list of 'others' continued to increase, Calandra's revealed themselves, and our Bustard search finally reaped reward when a male Little Bustard emerged from one of the crow fields, the heat haze now adding to the wind to further remove any opportunity to digiscope. A 'mediterranean' Peregrine flew over and a large Occolated Lizzard ran across the road. Stopping to confirm the ID of a distant Harrier, we stopped beside the road. Quickly ID'd as a Montys, we watched in awe as she quartered low over the crops, and in the process flush up two Bustards in the distance! Another 2 male Little Bustard took to the air, flying in panic from the raptor, in the process flying directly towards us, a quick shout to the photographers of the group had them raising their cameras and 10 seconds later the birds were flying overhead, at point blank range, our closest view yet!

Our luck with farm buildings continued, with a Little Owl roosting within the brickwork of one beside the road, and some 'unplastic' Red-Legged Partridge. The farm theme continued, as we dropped into an area known for Sandgrouse. A pair of Stone Curlew ran from the road as we drove along, but the most exited shout came as a Roller perched up on a post out in the field. Without even the time to set scopes up before it flew, in the brief moment I managed some very hasty video footage.

In the end, a pair of Roller stood next to each other distantly, but never allowed close approach. A surprise however came when the shout of a Barn Owl emerged, as the ghostly shape left one of the outbuildings!

Our efforts for Sandgrouse failed, the the abandoned buildings proved very interesting in a number of ways, lots of interesting Reptile and Butterflies were found, including a stunning juvenile Horseshoe Whip Snake.

As we left, a large flock of Spanish Sparrow fed beside us, on the edge of an orchard.

On the off chance we managed to arrange access to Laguna del Gobierno, a small nature reserve, with a few pools, and a sizable population of White-Headed Duck! We found this species with ease as soon as we parked outside the reserve, including some cracking males!

The lagoons were littered with all things buoyant and colourful, from swimming Greater Flamingos, to swarms of Red-crested Pochard, with lesser numbers of Common Pochard. And we hadn't even left the car!
Walking through the Jurassic Park style entrance gates, more akin to a high security compound than a nature reserve, we split up to explore. A Sedge Warbler attempted to scare us into believing it was something rarer, and some of the group saw a big purple bird. I on the other hand managed to pick out 6 Black Tern flying overhead, and a few of the banks contained waders, such as Black-Winged Stilt and Little Ringed Plover

With our time here limited, we moved back to the cars, for the return to Alcala, but not without seeing a Roller and a few more Montagu's Harriers for good measure!

Day 4 (8/04) proved to be a windy and rainy affair, with it only properly clearing up fairly late in the afternoon, but nethertheless, the group soldiered on, starting at the Barbate Saltmarsh, and by the looks of it we had timed it well, with lots of waders present. Kentish Plovers, Dunlins, Little Stints, Sanderlings, Stilts, all were represented very well, and some perseverance paid dividends with some additions such as 2 Curlew Sandpipers, Grey and Little Ringed Plover, 2 Redshank, a Ruff, a party of Avocet and a rather out of place Stone Curlew (not what you expect on mudflats!). And that was just the waders, Gull Billed and Sandwich Terns roosted, Iberian Yellow Wagtails bounced along the puddles in the road, absolute heaven! The real stars of the show here though are the Collared Pratincoles, with a large flock resting along the dirt tracks, giving stunning views. Around 40 of them were present in the rain, resting, flying around us, feeding in the fields. Sadly the rain killed my optimism to digiscope them, but we returned later in the week....

Pushing on to check the back of the site, 8 Spoonbill flew off one of the pools, and a flock of 5 Bald Ibis flew across and landed back near the main road, but here the interest turned to the superb short, flowery meadows surrounding the area. Calandra Lark song everywhere! Cracking views were had in the occasional sunshine, even down on the road, joining a few Tawney Pipit and Short-Toed Lark. A last bonus came in the form of out first Black-Eared Wheatear of the trip, running around in the fields with a Northern Wheatear as we drove away.

We drove further down the coast, stopping on top of a very windy hill famous for its vulture colony and being the first place White-Rumped Swift were noted as breeding in the Western Palearctic. A few Griffons were hanging around in the strong winds but it was a struggle to find much else. A bit of rock turning revealed a Fire Salamander.

An even more famous birding locality followed, as we turned off the main roads onto the dirt tracks of the famous La Janda, the site of a formally extensive lake, which rather depressingly has been drained completely to reveal miles huge of agricultural fields. We had hoped the rice paddies would be full of wader but it was rather depressing to find the water levels even lower than expected for the time of year, with no obvious Rice paddies found. However the drainage ditches still held a number of waterbirds, a Green Sandpiper, Glossy Ibis, 5 Spoonbill and Great White Egret were found among others.
This site is renound for its birds of prey, and a relatively quiet session still revealed, Merlin, Peregrine, Booted Eagle, Black Kite and Marsh Harriers among the more expected Griffon Vultures and Kestrels.

We stopped adjacent to a small pool, and upon leaving the car an exited shout from one of the group had me spinning around to see a bulky blue 'chicken' running through the rushes.. A Purple Swamphen!! A nice grip back considering I missed the previous one! It ran at full speed into a dense reedbed and disappeared completely.
A little further along the track, a pair of Wheatears that alighted next to the car proved to be one of the most stunning, plumage perfect examples of a pair of Black-Eared Wheatear, the male absolutely glowing!

We planned to head north for the day, to visit the (rather appropriately named) Bonanza Saltpans, on the very edge of the Donana national park.  We haden't even made it out onto the main area of Saltpans before the birding began, with the car grinding to a halt with a flock of Slender Billed Gulls showing very well next to the road, and from here it only got better. Black-Winged Stilts joined the masses of feeding Gulls, and Sanderling, Dunlin and Curlew Sandpipers were flying all around. A Caspian Tern lumbered past along the river and the skies around us were filled with Black Kites.

Moving out onto the Saltpans itself, we were soon treated to a 'bonanza' of wader life. Among the hundreds of Slender-Billed Gulls were hundreds of waders! The bulk were made of Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin and Little Stint, but the list of species was almost mind boggling! A great bonus came when a winter plumaged Red-Necked Phalarope was found feeding among a flock of Curlew Sandpipers, result!

We quickly noticed as well as sheer numbers of birds, across the entire site it proved excellent photographic opportunities, with many birds so habituated to human disturbance you could get excellent views of them!
A number of Iberian Yellow Wagtails showed well..

Flocks of Kentish Plovers were showing just as well!

And so did this nice trio.

A good flock of Greater Flamingo fed out with the Gulls, towering above them and showing considerably better than birds earlier in the week!

Further scrutiny revealed a number of new birds for the trip, such as Spotted Redshank, Spectacled Warbler, Turnstone, Little Tern etc and this was only our first stop of this excellent area for birding.

Just a kilometre or so further down the road lies the superb freshwater lake at Pinar de algaida which proved very attractive to Ducks, Herons and 'millions' of Mosquitos! A single drake Garganey slept on the far side of the pool, joining the rafts of White-headed Duck, Pochard and Red-crested Pochard. The island held a Heron colony, featuring Night Herons, Spoonbills, Little and Cattle Egret.

Others had much more luck than I did, but Nightingale, Western Subalpine Warbler and Western Bonelli's Warbler proved the highlights from this Serin filled pine woodland.

Sadly, like La Janda, the expected Rice paddies here were dry, so we made our way around to another saltpan further along, where we managed to find one of my trip targets, Marbled Teal!

Among many of the species mentioned for Bonanza we managed to find a Lesser Short-toed Lark feeding adjacent to the road.

A single Montagu's Harrier was found here, as well as a few Greenshanks, a Lesser Black Backed Gull (surprisingly scarce!) a male Redstart and a Purple Heron flew out of one of the roadside ditches.

With the light fading, it was time to find somewhere to eat, so where other than the Oceanside town of Chiponia.
The fact this town has one of the few breeding colonies of Little Swift in western Europe had no bearing on the decision, and we pulled up next to a warehouse on the seafront to immidiatly find ourselves surrounded by the sound and sights of Little Swifts!

Easily in double figures, we managed excellent views as the whizzed past us down to a few feet!
The below photos were taken on my 50mm SLR lens, showing just how close they were!  An amazing experience!

Not many places you can see this, 5 Little Swifts following each other!

In fact, this proved to be a rather good town for our birding, with thousands of Commic Terns flying offshore, lots of Turnstones, a couple of Woodchat Shrikes, a scattering of Pallid Swifts and the other two main highlights, a Great Skua and 6+ Mediterranean Gulls offshore as we ate our meal!

Having birded the lowlands, it was time to head up into the mountains to find another range of specialities we would be unable to find in any other habitat. As we climbed, Griffon Vultures soared, and Booted and Short-toed Eagles flew through. Even higher still and the Blue Rock Thrushes appeared, together with Black Redstarts and Chough.

We pulled off the road at various intervals and at one found a wooded stream, where excellent views of Short-Toed Treecreeper were had, together with an Iberian Shrike.

Our next destination proved to have loads of birds, and also fair numbers of Yellow Bee, Mirror and Birds Nest Orchids. With searching, a flock of Rock Sparrows was found, with both Alpine Swifts and Bonelli's Eagles wheeling overhead. This also proved a good area for Bonelli's Warbler, with at least 5 singing in a small area.

Wanting to venture even higher, we climbed further, until we managed to locate one of our targets, as a male Black Wheatear sat on the rocks in front of us. The group spread out, finding some interesting butterflies and eventually added to the bird list as 2 Rock buntings flicked between bushes at the bottom of the valley.

It was also here fairly large migrating parties of raptors, primarily Black Kites was flying over at a great altitude. With the area explored, unfortunately dipping out on the roosting Eagle Owl which is supposed to be at the site, we moved around to another nearby site, and while driving along, a herd of Iberian Ibex were showing. Before skilfully climbing up the vertical rockface behind them.

The whole valley proved popular for Black Wheatear and Black Redstart, but here the main highlight was a rather brief, and slightly distant female Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, glowing orange in the sun atop the ridge.

With the last day looming it was time to witness the feat of nature that happens in Southern Spain twice every year, the arduous Raptor migration across the Straights of Gibraltar. Here it is possible to see hundreds (thousands?) of migrant Birds of Prey in a day however due to the ongoing storm arriving off the Atlantic the number of birds cross the open water was lower than it can be. However for someone who has never witnessed this feat before, it was still somewhat of a spectacle.
Picking up a huge Short-Toed Eagle lumbering its way across the water with a background of oil tankers, cruisers and the African coastline is certainly one of those sights that really needs to be seen. In our few short hours at the Tarifa migration watchpoint, we logged over 150 BoPs, including flocks of Short-Toed and Booted Eagle, with similarly large numbers of Black Kite and Lesser Kestrel! Moving on a smaller scale were the 'smaller' raptors, however Montagu's Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks and Kestrels all made an appearance.
By the time they had approached Europe, most were feeling the toll of the long (by raptor standards) sea crossing, and therefore many would fly past at almost touching distance! We returned later in the day after a short journey out to check a couple of other sites, and a Booted Eagle missed by head by inches, a great experience!
Away from the Raptors though, a good variety of other birds were found, with seabirds consisting of Scopoli's/ Corys Shearwater, 5 Great Skua and flypasts from 3 Audouins Gulls!

The small woodlands were also alive with activity, with butterflies and birds everywhere, and with a bit of searching, a few Melodious Warblers and Singles of Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler were dug out, together with Redstarts and Cirl Buntings.

During the Tarifa vigial, the brief interlude elsewhere took us to 'Tarifa beach' (Playa de los lances) where we found 2 adult Audouins Gulls looking superb sitting among a flock of Yellow-Legged Gulls. Also here were some super gingery Short-Toed Larks and Kentish Plover with some tiny fluffy pom poms of chicks.
We chose to head back onto the Sierra de la plata, where, with the wind slightly less strong, we managed to see an Egyptian Vulture, as well as a few migrating Raptors moving up from Tarifa, with a bonus White Stork.

Before heading to our final location of the trip, we dropped back into Barbate marshes again, where the Collared Pratincole flock had increased to around 80 birds, and similarly to last time they were showing very well. And with the evening sun glowing off them it was well worth some time getting some photos of these stunning birds.

Many of the birds here were similar to the last visit, however this still included the great variety. A flock of Greater Flamingo fed out on the saltpans, and the Stone Curlews were still present on the first mudflat. As we sat with the Pratincoles, 2 large terns flew up off the distant pan and flew directly towards us and over our heads, 2 Caspian Tern giving a bins filling view! A single Grey Plover fed on one of the pools, and we had good views of 12 Bald Ibis as they pottered about around the fields next to the road.

With the day, and the trip drawing to a close it was time to finish with a bang, so we made our way to a known site for Black-Winged Kite, and we had only just pulled up when, rather distantly, a pair of these stunning raptors were found hovering and chasing each other. A superb way to finish the trip!

The photos aren't really worth showing, but while watching the Kites, a Quail started singing, and before we knew it, it was dark, and that was that, the end of the trip.

A huge thanks to all involved, to Oli for organizing it, and to some great company throughout the entire week.