Tuesday, 30 May 2017

American Golden Plover at the Gann.

Our annual trip to Pembrokeshire rarely provides me with a new bird species for my list. Back in the day when I first started visiting, many species like Guillemot, Razorbill, Chough, Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater were all seen for the first time here. Around 12 years later though, I still visit to enjoy the coastline and its wildlife ever year. With our visit in late May, the majority of the migration period is tailing off on the west coast. A few arctic breeding waders or a late Skua can liven a day up so what I was not expecting to occur on the first day of this years trip was for a national rarity to turn up. A Turtle Dove as soon as we arrived at our accommodation already made for a good trip, however late evening, news filtered out of an American Golden Plover at the Gann.
As well as being a lifer, ‘AGP’ would complete the trio of Golden Plovers in the UK, added to the fact it was at one of my favourite sites in Pembrokeshire, it was clear where we were heading the next morning. Luckily, by the time we were just ready to leave, news was already out confirming the bird as still present. With the tide now coming in fast, we arrived and walked the shingle to the river mouth. A couple of birders were present and quickly gave a relieving message that is was still present and was on the small section of beach still not covered by the rising tide.
What a stunner!

A full breeding plumage male American Golden Plover!!

Sleek, sexy and leggy, this out of place yank gave good views as it slowly walked its way towards the shingle spit it roosts on as the tide rose. We had about 10 minutes viewing at ‘close range’ (that still being around 150ft away) where the bird fed and showed off all its defining features, primaries beyond the tail, short tertials, extensive black on underbelly/tail as well as the bold golden and white spots on its mantle and wing feathers. 

The last feature to be given away was the dark grey/ bronze underwing colour, when the bird took flight with a Grey Plover and flew around the bay, before coming back to settle on the shingle bank with a flock of Oystercatchers at the river mouth.
We stayed around across high tide, hoping the bird would come out to feed onto the fresh mud, however it moved more distantly with its Grey Plover companion and fed on the saltmarsh north of bay. It looked stunning in the freshly emerged sun, but unfortunately a little too distant for any photos.

A good spattering of waders made for an enjoyable visit, with 6 Whimbrel joining the roosting Oycs, 3 Black-tailed Godwit dropped onto the lagoon, 17 Dunlin, 1 Ringed Plover and 2 Redshank. A couple of colour ringed Oystercatcher took a while to read, however 20 minutes of effort gave me 1 code to report.

 All in all a good visit and an excellent start to the trip!

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Eyes to the skies- Extremadura, 8th-16th April 2017

If Extremadura was famous for something more than its steppe habitats, it would be its wealth of raptors that make it world famous. With around half of the world population existing within Spain, and one of the highest densities, Extremadura is renowned for its populations of European Black Vulture. Together with good populations of the endemic Spanish Imperial (Iberian) Eagle, among a wide range of raptor species, it makes Extremadura a must visit destination for Raptorholics.

It is the Spanish Imperial Eagle which I was most hoping to connect with and over the course of the week, we were well and truly spoilt for the species. We managed to see the species on almost every day, with superb views from our very own balcony, with regular views of at least 3 overhead. It was great to get to grips with this species, often at close range as they soared along the ridgeline above. Most commonly seen was this adult bird, which we very quickly saw has a satellite transmitter on its back. It would be very interesting to see who was tracking it and where it has been!

Also commonly seen was this immature bird (4cy) with a very interesting mixture of juvenile and adult plumage. This also happened to be a very vocal individual, often scrapping with (presumably) its parent. Its low, and fairly quiet ‘barking’ call was often heard while enjoying our lunch on the balcony! It also happened to be one of the last birds I saw when we were packing the car to leave!

As well as getting a bit of gip from its younger companion, a number of the more common species also chose the opportunity to mob the larger Bird of Prey, with this Black Kite giving a fair bit of effort for a few minutes.

Like the Spanish Eagle, Black Vultures were seen regularly throughout the trip, in many habitats. They were commonly seen from our accommodation, over the plains, sitting among livestock and around breeding sites within Monfrag├╝e national park. Some great views were had with patience, including one a number sitting in fields on the Santa Marta loop, looking rather like the grim reaper among the sheep and cattle.

The Montagu’s Harrier is one of my favourite raptor species, their light elegant flight, stunning plumage and rarity (particularly in the UK) all add to their appeal. It is always a pleasure then to see good numbers in the Iberian peninsula, where they are significantly more common than my homeland. As with any extensive area of habitat, views tended to be distant, however we also managed a number of close flybys, often from the car while driving past. Later in the trip however we dropped into a site well known for large gatherings of the species, and as we did were lucky to see a ‘flock’ of Montagu’s Harriers perching on fence posts next to the road a little further up. With a bit of curb crawling, excellent views were had from the comfort of our car seats! The female birds in particular were rather showy, happily sitting on the fence posts until another birder pulled up in a car behind us, and proceeded to get out!! And that was the end of that!

The male bird on the other hand proved more difficult, not being helped by an ongoing territorial dispute which had him chasing a rival male every couple of minutes. He did join the females on the posts briefly, but was mostly seen in flight. It was nice to watch sky-dancing Montagu’s Harriers again, something I haven’t seen for a couple of years.

Although nowhere near as common as I have seen elsewhere in Iberia (probably due to their positions close to raptors flyways), good numbers of both Short-toed Eagle were seen, with just under daily sightings. We managed our best views from the balcony of our accommodation, where 2 birds often patrolled the ridgeline.

Booted Eagle in my opinion are one of the more striking birds of prey in Europe. Being smaller and less imposing than their larger Eagle cousins it is easy to not be so impressed. Many of the birds in Iberia however are examples of the pale morph, with its striking contrast between white underwings and body, black flight feathers and warm brown head and mantle, this creates one stunning bird. All 3 colour morphs were seen; pale, intermediate and dark, allowing for some good scrutiny of their variances in plumage.

Being so close to Trujillo, and the nestbox scheme on the Santa Marta loop, another Raptor commonly seen was Lesser Kestrel. The smaller, lighter and more agile relative of the Kestrel. Many good views were had as the birds held territory around ‘their box’. A visit to the Trujillo bullring in the heat of the day meant that the birds were hunting in the fields around the town rather than perched near their nests, however good views were had of them hunting above the town centre as we explored the winding streets of an old Mediterranean town. 

Although it is easy to highlight the rarer raptors, it is hard not to ignore the more abundant species. Species like Griffon Vulture and Black Kite can be regarded as two of the most commonly seen species of the trip, however the spectacle of seeing so many large raptors in the sky is rather awe inspiring. Even this far inland, far away from the migration hotspots of Tarifa and Gibraltar rock, large kettles of both species were seen almost daily. Combined with mixed White Storks and a various assortments of rarer raptor species, it was always a sight to behold.
Excellent views were had of both, including some phenomenal views of Griffon Vultures within Monfrag├╝e, perched at their cliff face nesting sites.

Despite still being common, it is poignant to end on a note that even now, the populations of many of these species have declined. As with any developing country, space for the species is gradually being restricted and as land use change occurs, the resulting population levels suffer. With the use of the veterinary drug Diclofenac still being discussed for use in Europ, it is worth looking at the effect that is has had in Asia. Having spent some time in India earlier this year (more in an upcoming blog post), it was shocking to see the extent of the damage to the vulture population that the drug had had, with a handful of individuals left in a tiny relic population. It is not difficult to imagine a similar outcome here in Europe.
Here is hoping that the right decision is made, and efforts are made to protect the superb Raptor species present in Iberia.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Birding the plains- Extremadura, Spain, 8th-16th April 2017.

Following a number of successful birding trips in the UK for the last few years and with an increasing desire to explore to a wider scale, plans were hatched in late 2016 for a short trip birding to the Iberian peninsula. As one of my favourite European countries, it didn’t take a huge effort to be on board for a group trip. Following some discussion, plans were formed looking to explore the pseudo-steppe habitats in Extremadura, an area that I had not previously visited, and with a small list of specialist species which I had not seen to date. For the rest of the group however, it was the first time many of them had ventured to the Iberian peninsula.
Our base for the week was located on a ridgeline overlooking one of the best areas of Steppe in Extremadura on the edge of a picturesque Mediterranean town, Sierra de Fuentes. Our accommodation proved to be very lively for birds, with many of our ‘target’ species being seen from the balcony of our accommodation!
One of our main reasons for our choice of accommodation was due to its proximity to the Steppe habitats of the Santa Marta loop, well known for its populations of many range restricted species.
The area is well known for its populations of both European Bustard species, Great and Little, however both have declined significantly, as mirrored across many areas of Iberia. However, both still exist in good numbers in the ‘loop’, with many giving fairly good views from the tracks and roads that cross their preferred habitat.

Great Bustard in particular proved particularly easy to find, with one seen flapping its way heavily over the motorway before we had even reached our accommodation for the first time. Not a bad way to start the trip! Needless to say, with our proximity to the Santa Marta loop, the species was seen on most days, with many sightings from the motorways.  When venturing onto the plains, we often managed half decent views of the species, with good scope views on many occasions.  A few displaying males were seen in full ‘bubble bath’ mode, gleaming white on the short grass fields. Varying numbers were seen, with flocks of up to 25 noted, but sightings of one, or a small number were much more common.

Little Bustard, (almost in contrast) was fairly difficult to find. Although seen frequently when birding the area, numbers were very low and we were often lucky to note more than a couple at a time at a single location. Maybe due to their habit of inhabiting longer grass areas they may have passed undetected, but few were also heard calling their ‘raspberry’ like call. Small numbers were noted throughout the trip though, and we managed a nice view of 1 male, displaying from atop a rock near the road.

For me in particular, one of my main targets for the trip were the 2 Sandgrouse species. Having previously visited areas with small, fragmented populations of these species, I had missed them on previous trips. However, we were well into their core range in Extremadura however they still proved difficult to pin down. On our first morning we managed to hear both species, but frustratingly could not locate the source of the sound. A number of mimicking Calandra Larks did not help the matter, with some remarkably similar sounds replicated in their songs by at least 2 individuals in areas we checked regularly. An early morning trip on the 13th to the area we had heard them previously finally produced the goods. Following a number of calls being heard, 3 Sandgrouse flew up quickly from behind a ridge. As they rose, we could hear them calling and with a slight movement, revealed a large black patch on their belly. Black-Bellied Sandgrouse! They flew straight towards the horizon, meaning only 2 of our group saw them before they disappeared. While scanning the same small ridge, another familiar call could be heard, Pin-tails!  In a similar fashion to the earlier Sandgrouse, up rose a large flock from behind the ridge of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, skimming low across the plains. Following a short, circling flight, the flock dropped onto the near side of the ridge, allowing us some distant, but very enjoyable views of a flock of 17 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse!

 As we watched, a distant sounding Black-bellied Sandgrouse led to great views of a pair as they flew towards us and across the road very quickly, by far the best views we managed of the species. A couple of rushed digi-scoped shots were taken in record time as they continued away from us.

Many other birds were seen over the course of the trip, and posts over the next week or so will show some of the highlights. of which there were many!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Spotted Sandpiper at Belvide

It has been a while.

With the stresses of uni now being a thing of the past, free time for writing for enjoyment has came about. So why not start with today!

I don't 'subscribe' to notifications for many people on twitter, I struggle to cope with the sound of constant notifications, however I have followed Steves @BelvideBirding account for a number of years. As one of the foremost birding sites locally, and with now regular visits during the summer months due to bird ringing, the updates have proved first class.

 Just 2 weeks ago, a notification popped up 'Belvide mega', and a few hours later, following a couple of successful meetings, I was standing next to the small reedbed that held a singing Great Reed Warbler. Great! 3 hours later, staring at reeds to not even get a glimpse of it!
Needless to say however, a first record for the site, and a 2nd for Staffordshire. Surely a contender for bird of the year already?

Roll forward to today. [15/05/17] And there it is again. 'Belvide mega'. This time, Spotted Sandpiper.
I have put off twitching this species for a while, as with Rose-coloured Starling, it is a species that seeing them in their 'typical' plumage in the UK means their drab winter/ juvenile clothes. Interesting non-the-less, but a little below par for what can be stunning birds.
A quick text to Steve confirmed a summer plumaged adult, and I was on my way to Belvide a few minutes later. Twitching has dropped off my radar recently, so dropping everything to go and see it felt like spreading my wings a little. (feel free to mock me for that comment).

For anyone who knows Belvide, the walk to the west end is not for the faint hearted, the midlands equivalent to the trudge along the Blakeney shingle or the point at Spurn. In reality, the walk is only around 1.5 miles, childs play when considering I walked 8km in search of a Pallid Harrer last week (and didn't even see it!). However, at the end lies one of my personal favorite hides, the Hawkshutts hide. Being right next to some superb muddy shoreline, the views from here are often crippling. If coincided with an evening visit, with the light behind you and the reserve completely to yourself, it makes for some great birding.

A 'brisk' walk got me to the hide in record time, only even beaten by the occasions I have acquired the 'belvide bike', entering the hide to see the 'yankee Common sand' running straight towards us.

What a time to arrive!

For the next 2 hours, phenomenal views were had of a 'spotty' Spotted Sandpiper as it ran back and forth along the shoreline in front of us. Being a mere 40ft away on occasions, it was the best views many have had of this species on this side of the Atlantic. In this plumage, truly unmistakable! Stunning!

A great bird at a great reserve, found by a hardworking patchworker, bringing valuable points towards their Patchwork Challenge score. However, on a final note... Upton Warren still thrashed you on the all dayer...