Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Southern Spain, September 2008

I've been to Spain numerous times and seen some good birds but normally in the company of non-birders so this was a much anticipated birding trip. I went with Tim and Janet Davie, and John Wright. We travelled by Easyjet from Liverpool to Malaga and stayed at Meson de Sancho, which lies on the main road between Algeciras and Tarifa.Although the main purpose of the trip was to observe the spectacle of raptor migration, there is wide range of wonderful habitats, mostly within an hour of Tarifa that we managed some excellent general birding during the week.

I find it a pain embedding photo's in the blog so I'm experimenting with picassa web albums. I've uploaded the photos from the trip to picassa and embedded a slideshow here.

To view the slideshow in full size click here

Alternatively to see pictures in a gallery, click here.

Day One

The first birds of the trip were a couple of parakeets that flashed over the road in front of the car on the way from the airport. We first thought these were ring-necked but later decided they were more likely to be monk, due to the number of monk parakeets that we later saw near Malaga and the fact that we didn't see any other ring-necked during the week. The most notable event of the trip from the airport was a forest fire in the hills to the east of Tarifa, quite close to where we were staying. Flocks of cattle egrets flying into their roost with the smoke and flames raging in the background made for quite a impressive sight. Later we observed several pallid swift and about 40 bee-eaters over the hills to the south of the hotel before darkness fell.

Ruppëll's vulture

Day Two

With much anticipation we headed off for the migration watch-points that are stationed strategically along the coast around Tarifa, but not before ticking the first griffon vultures and alpine swifts of the week outside the hotel. The first main stop of the day was Calzada watch-point where raptor migration was much in evidence. This established viewpoint is easily accessed of the Tarifa road and overlooks the nearby hills that are coated in wind turbines, which must surely be a major hazard to the birds. On our arrival visible migration was in full swing with a steady stream of booted eagles, honey buzzards and short-toed eagles passing overhead at close range (later in the week the birds seemed to pass over much higher). Several flocks of alpine swift passed by along with a few black kite and bee-eaters two red-rumped swallows, a common swift and 20 spotless starling.

Next stop was Barbate estuary where we connected with 30 black kites and an osprey along with a few waders and gulls. The adjacent Barbate salt marsh was proved productive with 25 Kentish plover amongst a more familiar cast of dunlin, greenshank, redshank, turnstone, common sandpiper, sanderling and whimbrel. Four little and 15 sandwich contributed the first terns of the week.

After a leisurely lunch we headed inland to La Janda, a flat cultivated plain to the west of Tarifa and a real birding gem. Immediately upon arrival quality birds were apparent. The pick of the bunch were montagu's harriers with up to 4 juveniles, a male and a female putting in an appearance over the rice paddies although two distant black-shouldered kites vied for top billing . Up to four marsh harriers were also seen along with 150+ glossy ibis, 87 white stork, 15 collard pratincole, 1 night heron and 1 squacco heron.

Black Kites over Calzada watch-point gaining height in a thermal

Day Three

An early morning start saw us make a pre-dawn departure for Bolonia estuary where white-rumped swifts were known to come down to drink at daybreak. The fetid green swamp we encountered on arrival was not an encouraging sign and during a fruitless wait no swifts appeared. However 20 audouin's and 20 yellow-legged gulls were on the beach and a few Cory's (presumed scopolis) and one Balearic shearwater were offshore.

Mid morning we headed off to La Janda again but this time approached it from the eastern end and worked westwards towards where we started the previous day. The first stop produced a rufous bush chat and an olivaceous warbler (missed by me!) as well as a good selection of other passerines. Another four sightings of monty's were had as well as a common buzzard. The journey back towards Tarifa produced the first Hoopoe of the trip.

We headed back to the watch-point at Trafico for some more raptor migration. Less birds were coming through but these still included several booted and short-toed eagles, one honey buzzard, 83 white stork, four black stork, four black kite, four alpine swift and 40 bee-eater. We finished the day a short distance away at Playa de los Lances – Tarifa beech – where we picked up another eight Hoopoe, two roller, several short-toed lark, three juvenile woodchat shrike and two tawny pipits along with the pleasingly abundant corn buntings (not like home!).

Day 4

First stop was the Los Alcornocales migration visitors centre a short way up the road from the hotel in the Al Jazeeras direction. In the woods surrounding the visitors centre were five firecrest, six hawfinch and one short-toed treecreeper. Crested tit was heard but not seen. It was starting to warm up and we noticed raptors were passing overhead so we headed the short distance to El Algorrobo watch-point literally "across the road". It was 10am and we were just about to be treated to a honey buzzard bonanza as at least 91 passed over in several groups. A supporting cast of other migrants kept things interesting and few passerines were added to the trip list including serin and redstart.

After about an hour here we headed back up to our favoured watch-point at Calzada and at 12:30 were rewarded with first one and forty minutes later another ruppëlls vulture. With a totally different pattern of pale markings on the underwing coverts and darker coloration overall these were not difficult to separate from the many Griffons that were in the area. We later saw the ruppëll's on the ground at a carcass with about 100 griffons and an egyptian vulture. The ruppëll's is easy to pick out in the picture below (because it's circled in red!) as it's darker than the griffons which have the bicoloured dark flight feathers with a sandy brown back. Once again there were plenty of other raptors passing through as well as one of two swallowtail butterflies seen during the week.

We spent the early evening back at La Janda where the usual marsh and montagu's harriers were observed as well as four collard pratincole, several flocks of glossy ibis, and several white stork.

Day Five

A change of tack today as we headed inland to Laguna de Medina to look for white-headed duck. What a pleasingly location it proved to be with several white-headed duck in evidence as well as red-crested pochard, black-necked grebe, black-winged stilt, spoonbill, purple heron, greater flamingo, black tern, whiskered tern and good selection of other wetland birds. In the fields surrounding the laguna were up to 50 Stone-curlew and a black-shouldered kite.

After lunch we headed for Algaida woods, an area of coastal pine woods on the fringes of Coto Doňana . A Bonelli's warbler, and elusive golden oriole were the main highlights. The ground was covered in tiny hair like spines from some of the vegetation which stuck into your feet and made walking around the woods a very uncomfortable experience. This was also probably the hottest and driest location we'd been in and we were plagued with flies while walking around. On the whole I we were glad to move on.

We started heading back along the coast towards Tarifa and stop of at the wonderfully named Bonanza salt-pans. A good selection of waders were present on the pans including black-winged stilt, redshank, avocet, ruff, common sandpipier, dunlin, knot, greenshank, little stint, curlew sandpiper, black tailed godwit and greater flamingo (over 1000). A lesser-short toed lark put in a brief appearance and the first slender-billed gulls were noted. The highlight for me however was the small water tank no more than about 50 metres square that had five tern species all within one view simultaneously – these being whiskered, common, black, little and sandwich.

Day 6

An early morning visit to Playa de los Lances produced a few Kentish plover, 12 night heron, 150 calandara lark, six short-toed lark, two wheatear and 40 bee-eater. We then tried a new spot on the coast, Zahara lighthouse for a brief spell of sea-watching combined with raptor migration. A cory's shearwater, whiskered and sandwich tern were seen over the sea and overhead passed 60 honey buzzard and a male montagu's harrier. The first blue rock thrush of the week was also seen here.

Further up the coast again and another new site – Barbate pine woods. Most notably birds here were a Dartford warbler and a chiff-chaff with an unusual call that we had down as Iberian at first but after some post trip research by JW was put down as a regular P. collybitta.

Heading back east towards Tarifa we called in a La Janda where we were greeted with great views of 10+ collard pratincolea along with five monty's and 4 marsh harrier, 150 glossy ibis, 100 white stork, and a squacco heron. There was also a significant movement of swallows during the hour we spent here with a steady southward stream of 500+ birds.

In the evening we followed up some local info that white-rumped swifts might still be using a know roost at Bolonia caves. It looks like we were about a week to late for them, but we were compensated with two very brief little swifts which appeared for about 10 seconds before entering the caves to roost.

Day 7

The morning found us back at Playa de lo Lances where a single Dotterel went over and a about 100 calandra lark put on a good display. Twenty honey buzzards were also seen including several birds on the beach.

By 12:30 we were back at Calzada watchpoint where in the next three hours we estimated that at least 10,000 birds passed over on their way across the straits of Gibraltar. A truly awesome experience. I could not keep an accurate count of each species but several thousand each of booted eagle and black kite went over and at least 250 honey buzzard in obviously ideal migration conditions.

We ended the day with another attempt for the white-rumped swift but had to settle for the admirable little swifts again. We were joined however by some amiable Polish birders who were delighted with the little swifts which put on a slightly longer show than the previous night.

Day 8

The final day started unsurprisingly at Calzada watch-point where another fine display of raptor migration was in evidence. Eventually and reluctantly we had to leave for Malaga. En-route we called in at Sierra Crestellina where JW was the only one of us to get good enough views of two rapidly departing Bonelli's eagles. We were some way in land here and about a hour east of the straights but there was still an impressive number of raptors, especially black kites, passing over.

The final stop of the trip was the Guadalahorce estuary very close to Malaga airport. An nice spot to round of the trip, it produced a noisy roost of monk parakeet, a southern grey shrike and osprey and a (presumed) red-necked nightjar along with a good selection of waders.

And so ended a fantastic week's birding in a very accessible location. Raptor migration easily ranks with any of the world's great wildlife spectacles and this week produced great memories that won't have faded that much before I'm back here again.

Click here or the image below to see the gallery of pictures from the trip


Sunday, 24 August 2008

Biscay Wildlife Cruise, 16th - 21st August 2008

I have crossed the Bay of Biscay several times before, mainly on the Brittany Ferries ship the Pont Aven sailing between Plymouth and Santander and have had some memorable wildlife sightings.  However, this time. accompanied by Bill Aspin and John Wright we spent six days on a dedicated wildlife cruise, spending a good amount of time over the rich waters of the continental shelf.

Our journey began on the ferry from Dover to Calais where we boarded our cruise vessel, the Princess Danae.  Setting sail in the early evening, we spent some time on deck noting the following bird species for the first day - little gull, common turn, common scoter, black tern, dark-bellied brent goose and raven.

Day two was slow going through the relatively unproductive shallow waters of the English Channel where we added bonxie, arctic skua, manx shearwater, balearic shearwater, storm petrel and the first cetacean, harbour porpoise to the trip list.

Days three to five saw us over deeper water of the continental shelf in initially reasonable conditions but with a strengthening swell that on day 5 kept many passengers in their cabins.  The calmer conditions produced sabines gull, sooty shearwater, storm petrel, arctic tern, arctic skua, long-tailed skua, hundreds of cory's shearwater, great shearwater and a red-backed shrike (just of the northern coast of spain).

The cetacean species including superb views of a lunge-feeding fin whale, long-finned pilot whale, common dolphin, striped dolphin, and bottle-nosed dolphin.  In addition ocean sunfish were regularly seen.

More species were seen by other passengers as a whole and gives more details.

Here are some of my own photos from this memorable trip.
Fin whale

Long-finned pilot whale

Long-finned pilot whales

Fin whale

Fin whale

Ocean sunfish

Sabine's gull

Sabine's gulls and common term

Cory's shearwater

Great Skua (bonxie)

Long-tailed skua

Bottle-nose dolphins


Great Skua

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Local Birding

Managed to fit in a couple of hours at Brockholes quarry on Saturday, where things were quiet. Most of the birds moving through like Ringed Plovers, a Garganey and a Grey Plover had clearly taken advantage of the settled weather and moved on. The highlight was a double figure count of Tree Sparrows including juvs around one of the feeding stations. Tree Sparrow is an uncommon breeder in the local area and it is real pleasure to see them so close to home.

Tree Sparrow, Brockholes Quarry

On the way back home this Little Owl was sat on wires by the roadside 300 metres from my house. It was totally unconcerned as I reversed the car to within a few meteres of it a fired off a few pictures.

Little Owl, Mellor

Monday, 19 May 2008

Black Grouse Lek - Yorkshire Dales

I like my bed so it took extreme motivation to get up at the brutally early time of 03:30 today to attempt to see black grouse. Unfortunately there are no black grouse in Lancashire so I needed to go further afield. I knew of a couple of well publicised sites in the Yorkshire Dales so that's where I headed. As I was pulling out of the driveway I looked at the dashboard clock which read 02:50! Double checking the time with my watch confirmed that it was only ten minutes to 3! I had inadvertently got up an hour earlier than intended because the alarm clock was an hour ahead. Trying to quickly turn this cock-up to my advantage I thought briefly about heading up to Upper Teesdale - a longer journey but I now had time to get there before dawn and this area has the highest density of black grouse in England. I quickly dumped that idea and went back in the house to my half finished cup of tea!

A few minutes later I quietly left the house again and headed off. I made quick progress on the quiet roads and within 70 minutes was driving along a moorland road in the dales. I stopped about 15 minutes short of my first intended location for a quick recce and a pee. As I stepped out of the car I was greeted with the most amazing sound; It was 04:10 and in the pre-dawn half-light the moorland dawn chorus was in full swing. There was a backdrop of waders calling with a wailing little owl quite close - very eerie, but closer still was the unmistakable sound filling the crisp, clear morning air of black grouse, seemingly only metres away! I had stopped right next to a lek, but it was too dark to see anything!

I quickly grabbed my bins and started scanning the area where the bubbling black grouse calls were coming from, but couldn't see much. There was quite a bit of light in the sky now but the ground was still cloaked in near darkness. I waited, and as the light levels increased I could make out a rise in the ground about 30 metres to the east of the road and beyond this I could see movement. Looking through my bins I could make out what look like the heads of grouse. In order to get a better view and without risking disturbing the birds by going closer I ended up first on the bonnet and finally on the roof of car. From this vantage point I could see beyond the rise and there 35-40 metres away were seven black grouse lekking!

Slightly further down the road I noticed a stone track leading up to the lekking area. I realised that this passed behind the rise that was obstructing my view, so I drove down to this area and got out of the car. Staying behind the car at all times so as not to disturb the birds I could see the whole lek, where eight cock grouse were performing. Absolutely amazing!

As the grouse continued to lek, the little owl was still screeching and by now the skylarks and meadow pipits had joined the chorus. This was a magical moment - British wildlife at its absolute best and in my view comparable with anything anywhere.
I decided to check the two sites that I originally set out for, so I left. These produced no black grouse which somehow made finding the lek even more rewarding. I decided to return to the lek. When I got back it was about 05:30 and fully light, the bird song had receded and the black grouse were calling much less intensively. They were alternating between feeding and half-hearted displaying. It was now I realised that accidentally getting up an hour early meant that I was here much earlier than intended and witnessed the lek at its peak. In fact had I been running to my planned schedule I would probably have driven straight past this spot in favour of the original (grouseless) sites.

I scanned for female grouse but didn't see any. Hopefully breeding has already taken place earlier in the Spring and the females are brooding. Black Grouse in the north Pennines are a rare conservation success story and lekking males are on the increase. Hopefully one day they will be back in Lancashire but even then I think this place will see me visiting regularly every spring from now on.

I left at 06:00 and was home at ten past seven. I was knackered at work the rest of the day but it was worth it! Wildlife seen this morning included: Black grouse, red grouse, grey partridge, red-legged partridge, snipe, curlew, lapwing, meadow pipit, skylark, little owl, buzzard, kestrel. Mammals: rabbit, hare and rat.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Bonapartes Gull - Stocks Reservoir, Lancs

On the evening of Saturday 10th May we were at my sister's house enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and having a barbeque. Normally these family affairs can get quite raucous due in no small part to the amount of alchohol consumed. It was my turn to drive so I was stone cold sober and would have to put up with my drunken relatives all evening. But at least I'd wake with a clear head in the morning. What a bonus this turned out to be as instead of nursing a hangover I spent a pleasant 45 minutes watching a Bonapartes gull at Stock reservoir. This cracking bird was found the evening before by Mike Watson (see his blog for details), and hung around just long enough for a few local birders to see it. It is the first for Stocks and only the second for east lancs. It didn't give particularly close views and this is the best shot I got of it. I suspect Margaret Breaks may have got some better digiscoped images, and Mike Watson's photos are of the bird on the ground. As far as I know this is the only flight shot of the bird (it's the right hand bird, the other two black headed gulls are left in the frame for comparison). If anyone has any better images I'd like to see them.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Ross's Gull, Lytham

A couple of days after missing the Ross's Gull I want back and this time the bird showed really well. Due to it's rarity and approachability this is certainly the most photographed and blogged bird in Lancashire this year, so I'll make do with just a single picture.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Ring Ouzel and Dotterel - Pendle Hill

The short hike up Pendle is one of my favourite walks and something I do several times year. Between late April and early May Dotterel can be seen on the summit and the slopes often have Ring Ouzel. This is one of 5 Ring Ouzel that were seen during the weekend. There were also a couple of Dotterel on the summit, that were unfortunately flushed by inconsiderate photographers so I didn't get a very good view of them. I didn't have the time to hang around and my non-birding wife Jeanette was with me. I have become quite an expert on how far I can push it when birding with Jeanette and she wouldn't have enjoyed hanging around the summit of Pendle getting cold while I tramped around looking for the Dotterel so we came down after only a few minutes on the summit. I went up a few days later though on my own and got a much closer view of Dotterel. I didn't get any photos though - I don't get hung up about photographing everything I see, sometimes I think it's more worthwhile to just watch and enjoy.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Lytham / Fairhaven

While I was in Ibiza a Ross's gull turned up on the Ribble estuary near Fairhaven Lake. It had been showing very well for several days and the first chance I got to go for it was on 25th April. This was the day it decided to become elusive and wasn't seen during the entire morning I spent looking - it turned up later in the day after I'd left. Consolation came in the form of two summer plumaged adult Little gulls in the channel a short way upriver from Fairlawn road. There were several distant "commic" terns further out - probably Arctic but I wasn't certain. There were also good number of waders on the mud including several stunning summer plumaged grey plovers and a few summer plummaged knot. Other waders included black-tailed godwit, dunlin and ringed plover. Photographically I had to settle for this linnet. It didn't deserve not to have its photo taken just for being common so here it is.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Ibiza 13th-19 April 2008

Every year I normally spend a few days in Ibiza. This is a work trip and spare time is severely limited but I always manage to get a few hours birding in. This year I was hoping to track down Marmoras/Balearic warbler, but missed out. However one of Ibiza's birding highlights is the abundant Audouin's gull which can be observed at close quarters.

The other abundant gull on Ibiza is yellow-legged gull.
The picture above shows the islands of Es Vedra and Es Vedranella, breeding site for Eleanora's falcon. April is a bit earlier for this raptor. Well, that's my excuse for not seeing any.
Most people picture Mediterannean islands as barren lumps of rock, which they normally become in the height of the summer holiday season. However in Spring, Ibiza is surprisingly colourful.

This very distant woodchat shrike was the only one of the trip.
Other birds seen included 3 sandwich tern, 2 possible Balearic shearwater, 100+ cory's shearwater in San Antonio bay on 18th April, Mediteranean shag, thekla lark, corn bunting, serin, sardinian warbler, bee-eater, the first swifts of the year including a possible pallid swift and a Hoopoe on the way to the airport on the 19th.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Hortobagy, Hungary 8-11th February 2008

I was accompanied on this short birding break by Bill Aspin and John Wright. The main purpose of the trip was to photograph White-tailed eagles from an underground hide with an additional days birding in the Hortobagy. Bill has done a full trip report, for which see his blog which is in my list of links. This trip was without doubt my best overseas birding experience to date and one of my lifetime birding highlights. Here I've listed just a few of my better photos that help me remember the trip.

This is probably the best buzzard photo I took on the trip. Many bird of prey portraits you see are of captive birds, but this was truly wild and was taken from about 5 metres distance from the underground hide.

I love this long eared owl shot. It really takes me back to the day. The weather was clear and crisp and Janos our guide took us to a suburban roost which are apparently common in this part of europe. Janos estimated there were about 150 owls in the roost of which we counted about 90. It was such a weird sight seeing so many owls in roadside trees with passers-by walking a few feet beneath the birds. The owls seemed so unconcerned - so different to long eared owl sightings in the UK.

We were supposed to be photographing white-tailed eagles, but despite many sightings during our visit, none decided to appear on the cat-fish that had been staked out in front of the hide, so we had to make do with Caspian gulls. Bill and John are gull aficionados and have started finding caspian gulls locally in recent years. They appreciated the time to study so many different plumaged caspians at such close quarters. It was a real learning experience for me too having not come across caspian gull in the UK and in some way made up for the lack of w-t eagles. To see what we should have been photographing take a look at Mike Watson's blog for December 2007!

All is not lost on the w-t eagle front as Janos promised us a return visit as we blanked on the eagles. I think this is partly because the this was the first year for the hide and it's location was somewhat experimental; on sunny days the early morning sun illuminates the inside of the hide and even with camoflague clothing and scrim netting it is nearly impossible to prevent spooking the birds from the slightest glint from a camera lens. Janos informed us that the hide will be rotated a few degrees further towards the north in the summer so next winter the sunlight problem should be eliminated. Hopefully we'll find out when we return.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Reed Bunting

This reed bunting was a garden tick and one of three that frequented the feeders during the winter. Hopefully they'll stick around to breed nearby.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Slavonian Grebe, Lower Barrow Lodge, Lancs

This Slavonian grebe was the first in east Lancashire for some time. It was also extremely accessible deciding to spend a few days on Lower Barrow Lodge, near Clitheroe and immediately adjacent to the A59. It's been well photographed and blogged elswhere so here's a single shot of it as a blog record.