Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Birding in Germany - The Fischadler Strikes back - well, it nearly did

Spent a brilliant weekend visiting friends in Germany. Successful birding as well with a good variety of habitats visited and species seen.

First stop (Fri 29 April) the Kaiserstuhl in SW Germany just across the Rhine from Colmar in France, and to the west of Freiburg. This vineyard rich area with its distinctive sandy soil has a Mediterranean feel in looks as well as in its fauna. Hoopoes were showy and called frequently but Bee-eaters were not yet in. A pair of displaying Turtle Doves may have been also-rans in the past but, now, I gave them as much time as the Hoopoes and Black Kites present. A strikingly pale Common Buzzard was in the area.

A couple of visits (Sat 30 April and Sun 21 01 May) to the marshland reserve called Waghausel north of Karlsruhe held its goodies. Purple Herons attended their reedbed 'tower' nests but the Bluethroats were not as showy, only a couple of makes glimpsed from their reedbed song posts. Waders on the move with a dozen Greenshank, a couple of Spotted Redshanks and half a dozen Wood Sandpipers present, the latter down to one on the second visit. Raptors were good, 8 species seen with top billing going to an Osprey heading north mid pm on on the Sunday - flashback to 2003 when we also caught up with a passage bird. This one made three attempts to get lunch but left with empty wet talons. 6 Mediterranean Gulls present in the BH Gull colony comprised pairs at the 3 differing ages (1st summer, 2nd summer and adult summer) and a smart adult Little Gull slept before a Peregrine spooked the roosting gulls on the first pond.

Final day (Mon 02 May) and off to the Black Forest before flying home in the evening. A couple of Red Kites were noted and 1 or 2 Alpine Swifts briefly joined half a dozen or so Common Swifts feeding above an upland valley. A ski slope just off the 'Black Forest High Street' still sporting patches of unmelted snow held feeding Thrushes represented by: Mistle (12+), Blackbird (5+), Ring Ouzel (2) and Song Thrush (1). The Ouzels looked not to be local 'alpestris' birds but birds of more northern climes. A Wheatear added to the variety as did Chafinches. A little disappointing not to catch up with Citril Finch and Nutcracker as in years past, but birding sat outside a cafe eating cake and drinking hot chocolate with 'scopes primed cannot be bad. Perhaps we were just too lucky a couple of years? ago when we fluked an immature Pallid Harrier migrating through this Pass in mid April.

Cheers to Chris and Sue for their kind hospitality, looking forward to the next German pilgrimage. Trip report to be uploaded in the coming weeks.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Cyprus - Wagtails a plenty and likewise the Ficedulas

Thu 14th was a warm and sunny day temperatures reaching 28C inland of the south coast at Anarita 'Park', slightly cooler in the W/NW breeze on the coast. Started the day in the NW visiting Smiyies Picnic Site, the nearby Agios Minas area and a brief look at the Baths of Aphrodite in that order. At the first site caught up with Cretszschmar's Bunting, a singing male holding territory on the rocky slope. A female Collared Flycatcher was present in nearby pine trees, think I'm getting more confident about Ficedula id, and Serin was new for the trip. A singing male Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was by the church and the Baths of Aphrodite yielded Hoopoe and Chukar only. Off to Anarita 'Park' where up to 16 'Kestrels' flocked, presumed all to be Lesser Kestrels due to their flocking behaviour and subtle plumage characteristics. Not one adult male present, at least 1 imm. male amongst the female types. A ringtail Montagu's Harrier moved through and an adult male was in the southern end of this valley, plus a male Marsh Harrier. Another highlight being a pair of Bonelli's Eagle circling to the north for a few minutes. Ortolan Bunting showed well and an aerial feeding frenzy comprised Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts with the 2 Swallow species in attendance. Nearby Aspro. Dam held Wood Warbler and a female Golden Oriole. Paphos Headland was ok, a noticeable presence of Northern Wheatears (15+) and 'Flava 'Wagtails (Blue-headed ones picked out). A lone part sum plum Red-throated Pipit minded it's own business walking along the Roman ruins area, and a nice Wryneck added to the mix at the northern end of the Archaeological complex. Bee-eater(s) called from somewhere up above. Ended the day at Cape Drepanum where the island's Yellow-legged Gulls were joined by a Mediterranean race Shag on the rocks. Of note were the 'Flava Wagtails probably over 80 present when they all flew up as the sun dipped, but no more than 20 in view at any one time. Most were Blue-headed with several Black-headed present plus the pair shown below. One being a candidate 'supercilliaris' not sure of their status here and the yellow as opposed to white 'super', and the other a female type Citrine Wagtail. Nice to study albeit briefly as dog walkers entered the arena.

Akrotiri church was birdy this morning (Fri 15th), many Pied and 2 male Collared Flycatchers. The chain link fence held Collared and Pied Flys, Redstart. Whinchat, Northern and Black-eared Wheatears at one stage! Shared the offerings with KH & RH. Tawny Pipit and Woodchat Shrike were a good supporting cast, and a Kingfisher flew by late morning, bizarre! Nearby Bishop's Pool held the flycatcher duo. Tried Kensington Cliffs and later the cliff face east of Aphrodite's Rock for Eleonora's Falcon without success. Both sites held Kestrel and Alpine Swift. Kensington Cliffs played host to a pair of Peregrines and a Griffon Vulture took to the sky. I was lucky to pick up a male Pallid Harrier flying fast in off the sea here at approx 14:30. Mandria fields east of Paphos saw me connect with more Northern Wheatears and a Spur-winged Plover. Ended the day again at Cape Drepanum to the north west of Paphos. Northern Wheatears shared the scrub with a female Black-eared Wheatear. A Stone Curlew flew by and sungles of Tawny Pipit and Short-toed Lark were present with many Created Larks and Sardinian Warblers in the area. Only 1 'Flava' Wagtail present this eve. Home tomorrow, trip report to come soon. A nice trip, got the impression lots of birds already migrated through, look forward to returning to check out the migration a week or two earlier.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Cyprus - Eastern gems and subspecies twitching

Overnight rain eased first thing and after breakfast I was off to Akrotiri arriving at 0930 at the church SW of the village on the edge of Akrotiri Plain (Tues 12th). Birded this area with an English/Finnish couple of Cyprus Brown-necked Raven fame, excellent company and it was nice to gain some birding gen for the area. Migrants were in but it was still slow, Woodchat Shrike and Wryneck showed nicely with Whinchat and Pied Flycatcher for company. Pipits and Wagtails called overhead and a group of 6 Tawny Pipits were in the dune like scrub. Next stop Bishop's Pool. The walk from the road was productive with 2 smart male Collared Flycatchers present and a female Pied Flycatcher. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler sung by the entrance and Spanish Sparrows were mixed in with House Sparrows around the farm buildings. Overhead several Red-rumped Swallows joined (Barn) Swallows, Sand and House Martins. A majestic Alpine Swift mother ship drifted by flanked by 2 Common Swift fighters, rather apt for the location. The pool held chuntering Common Sandpipers, a Purple Heron trying to hide in the reeds and 4 Ferruginous Ducks a sleeping. At least 1 Pied Flycatcher, up to 2 Wood Warblers and a Willow/Chiff enjoyed insects in the trees by the steps leading down to the pool. Phassouri reedbeds next stop. Birders involved with local conservation kindly pointed to 3 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters (took a while to enter this due to fighting Google Keep spell checker) perched on the remaining reedbed tops, the area has been desimated by fire. Nearby 6 Glossy Ibis mooched around grassland in their typical manner and close by the Akrotiri Gravel Pits were none discript in both looks and occupants, spooked a lone Little Egret. Black Francolins called, both close and distant. Mid afternoon headed back west and tried the cliffs near Aphrodite's Rock for Eleonora's Falcon, not in at the moment and fields by the coast at Mandria held a couple of Northern Wheatears only. Near Acheliea the soakway was arid and the 2 Alsatian wannabies running alongside the car near Paphos sewage works persuaded me to leave the area sharpish. Fair play the one keeping up with the car at around 30 kmh about to savage a wing mirror was in good condition. Ended the day near Mavro. Dam where at least 2 Scop's Owl called and one showed on wires for a minute in the fading light. Cyprus Pied Wheatears were everywhere, as were Sardinian Warblers and Chukars were easy to see. A male Collared Flycatcher that popped up in a bush was perhaps unexpected, and it look like it was going to roost here. A Little Owl added to variety as it sat near a cliff top taking in the cool evening air. I think it flew off before a Chukar (phonecoped below) trod on it. On arriving back at the hotel the local Scop's Owl pair were again vocal.

No obvious migrants at the church on Akritori Plain this morning (13th) but nice to catch up with Cyprus Warbler - 1 or 2 singing males. Decided to venture north to the Troodos mountains to see the speciality subspecies around Troodos village. Alpine like scenery and a sharp temperature drop from 22C at Akrotiri to barely 8C at an elevation of over 1700m. A stop at a picnic site 2km east of Troodos village had patches of unmelted snow! This quiet spot held several 'Dorothy's' Short-toed Treecreeper, the sooty bellied (Cyprus) Coal Tit  and the (Cyprus) Jay. The latter was very shy and to be honest from the briefest of views it looked like how a Jay does back home. A silhouetted (Cyprus) Crossbill flew over calling. Wren, Blackbird and a pair of Masked Shrikes were present and a Cuckoo called in the distance. Nearby at Troodos village it was possible to see the specialties and Swifts over the village, well in the cloudy and drizzly conditions I couldn't safely identify them. Back down the road to Limmasol and a stop at the comparatively sweltering Zakaki Marsh produced looks at a male Little Crake and a Squacco Heron (boc photo below) was on the brown island at the back of the pool. Drove west arriving late afternoon at Aspro. Dam to the east of Paphos. As to be expected Sardinian Warblers scolded from scrubland bushes, a Willow/Chiff flitted about the trees north of the car park which held an elusive Pied Flycatcher. Venturing through the trees to the open area looking north over the Dam was a wise move. A flock of 80 Yellow-legged Gulls on the water or circling the Dam contained a subad/adult Baltic (LBB) Gull. A grey shape floating over the cliff edge looked interesting but it was passed off as another gull because it disappeared and an adult Yellow-legged Gull appeared from that location soon after heading out over the Dam. Glad I looked skywards a few minutes later as the grey shape was in fact an adult male Pallid Harrier. It circled with the gulls for several minutes and departed in a fast glide north. Wow, a stunner! A small flock of Short-toed Larks (15-20) fed in a stony field which was patrolled by a male Marsh Harrier. A female had drifted by earlier and to the south 3 or 4 Alpine Swifts were in the sky to the east of Mandria. Trip list ticking over.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Cyprus first observations

Back on Cyprus for the second time, first visit in Spring. Staying again in the north west at Droushia and first day (Sun 10th) spent in roughly the north west area. Having been rudely awoken by a pair of duetting (Cyprus) Scop's Owls at 01:00 the day, how dare they :)  , the day turned into a pleasant yet warm one with temps in the low 20s. Early cloud cover gave way to sunny afternoon skies with a gentle westerly breeze. The skies dominated by (Barn) Swallows and the land by Sardinian Warblers. The Baths of Aphrodite held few migrants early morning, but a Red-rumped Swallow was noteworthy and at least 2 male Cyprus Pied Wheatears showed well giving their 'electric' song, trying their best to be heard over the monotonous Sardinian Warbler background. Several lone Long-legged Buzzards took to the air in the north west, big beasts (one shown below together with its smaller cousin - boc). A colony of Spanish Sparrows at Theletra Gorge were nice to see as the 'House' variety were all over the towns and villages. Nearby a Squacco Heron crossed Evertou Dam and a Wood Warbler was feeding up in a tree by the track to the Dam. Late afternoon visit to Cape Drepanum produced a flock of 50 Glossy Ibises north and on terra firma bucket fulls of Crested Larks, singles of Whinchat, Fan-tailed Warbler and Woodchat Shrike. A couple of skittish flocks totalling about a dozen 'Flava' Wagtails comprised Blue-headed and Black-headed. Brief looks at a Wheatear (Northern/Isabelline). A few hours earlier at Droushia near the hotel a different ID challenge, a female Ficedula sp. Big white wing panel and decent white wing 'drop' patch but no 2nd wingbar. Mournful peep call when alarmed. Absence of 2nd wingbar suggests Collared Flycatcher? The day ended venturing a little south to connect with another (Cyprus) Scop's Owl- one calling bird near 'Mavro' Dam at dusk and it's mate seen in flight crossing the valley. A flock of 10 'kwoking' Night Herons flew high overhead and Chukar seen here on the tops.  This cracking location held Cyprus Pied Wheatear and a Common Buzzard (boc photo (bottom) below, points to Steppe?) attracted the attention of a Kestrel and Hooded Crows. Not to forget those pesky Sardinian Warblers that seemed to be in every bush!

A Hoopoe tried to give me a race as it flew alongside the car near Kathikas on returning to Cape Drepanum early morning (Mon 11th). At the headland it looked like an overnight clear out, very quiet. Of note a Greenshank eluded me as it called overhead going fast north, but a male Spanish Sparrow was seen present by the small harbour. Off to Paphos Headland and there were several Brit birders on site. Quiet for migrants at first, seemed like more birders present than migrant birds, but it seemed to pick up as the morning progressed. A couple of flocks of Bee-eaters (6 and 9) moved through and a Nightingale showed well. 'Flava' Wagtails flew around the headland producing no opprtunity for racial id and a couple of Red-throated Pipits offered brief looks only, and would have been easily overlooked if they hadn't given their distinctive 'spee' call. A flock of Spoonbills/Egrets remained unidentified as they disapoeared north and into the heat haze. 2 Whinchats showed and most bizarrely on leaving the site a pale phase adult Arctic Skua flew nonchalantly high west over the headland. A couple on site had told me earlier of a Hooded Wheatear, a rare visitor to Cyprus, they had found the previous day on the coast by Paphos airport. I decided to check it out as it was only 15 mins or so away, and after no sign it was picked up on the coastal fringe. A stunning bird, nice to see it in good light and at close quarters, interesting feeding behaviour very keen to hover in pursuit of an insect. Boc comparison photos of Cyprus Pied Wheatear (top) and Hooded Wheatear (bottom) below. Nearby a Black Francolin called but would not show itself. Spent the rest of the afternoon and evening an hour's drive to the east on the Akrotiri peninsula. The church near Akrotiri village held a lone male Pied Flycatcher but by now a strong westerly winds had developed making birding uncomfortable and no doubt keeping passerines down. Lady's Mile held Kentish Plovers and Little Stints plus 3 Greater Flamingoes, whilst a Northern Wheatear moved along the shingle/scrub across the road. Zakaki Pools held Water Rail, 7 Ferruginous Ducks, 5 squabbling Little Egrets and an onlooking Cattle Egret amongst other species. Again the strong wind wasn't helping and it got a bit parky as dusk approached. The scrub produced flight views of Black Francolin, a scolding Spectacled Warbler and a more peaceful Hoopoe. 4 Glossy Ibis roosted on the salt lake edge, which seemed miles away, the lake also sported a quartering cc Marsh Harrier. A nice way to end the birding day. As I type the overnight rain has started, thundery showers expected through the day tomorrow.

Friday, 18 March 2016

'It's a falcon, Jim, but not as we know it'

The title inspired by The Firm, it was a toss of a coin between that one and 'There's Short-eareds on the river wall, riverwall; there's Short-eareds on the river wall, riverwall, Jim'.

Last weekend the big brown falcon lay siege to Wennington Marsh/ Target Pools taking up base on the nearby pylons. A big brute and it looked like the falcon seen a few weeks ago. The question is, what is it?

Is it a pale big immature female Peregrine or a hybrid falcon, say a Saker cross? I've got no experience of Saker so cannot add to the hybrid debate. A couple of record shots above. Having seen it on the pylons and then later staring out a Buzzard and Marsh Harrier on the deck from the Serin mound noted:
  • Closed wing seen briefly to judge wing tip to tail tip. Looked like wing tip approached or was equal to the tail tip.
  • Pale underparts with dense but fine brown streaks
  • Pale trousers looked streaked.
  • Pale cheeks looked considerably whiter than the underparts.
  • White supercilium stronger behind eye forming a wrap around.
  • Crown pale with feathers above 'super' looking a bit chestnut in strong light, but looking really white crowned in dull light.
  • Dark moustache stripe extensive looked black and appeared to be broader at the tip. Black extending to behind the eye.
  • Upperwing brown and uniform.
  • Underwing barred and appeared to be uniform, didn't note a contrast between underwing coverts and rest of wing. Pattern close to immature Peregrine shown in 'Collins' guide.
  • Tail paler than upperwing and tip looked dark but not black.
  • Hunting style. Low level attack frightening anything in its way. Does this style of hunting betray it's identity or parentage?
Keep an eye out for it. Answers on its identity on a postcard to...

The Short-eared Owls were as stunning as ever showing well mid morning last Saturday as the mist gave way to low cloud. Several photos below. Less than 100 yards away 3 Avocets graced Aveley Bay and 10 Black-tailed Godwits fed quietly. Later a group of 70 + 4 'Black wits' flew onto the reserve, some acquiring summer garb.

Of note in warmish conditions on the Saturday (12th) was the clear out of say between 500 and 1000 Black-headed Gulls heading high east continent bound during mid afternoon over a couple of hours. A full days count would have revealed a much bigger movement. Similar but colder conditions on Sunday saw no such movement at all.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

February Birding at Rainham Marshes RSPB - a Brent Goose, a crazy Falcon and several cool Gulls. PS not to forget the Fulmar!

Typical late winter birding during February, continuing winter birds and a few nice surprises kept us entertained. The seemingly never ending conveyor belt of Atlantic fronts and strong SW winds were the order of the month apart from the weekends of 13/14 and 27/28 when at last an easterly component reminded us of winters past.

A Brent Goose pinged it's way between the reserve and the river was a highlight on the 6th. The following weekend saw the first Gull workshop of the winter. Despite the morning rain and bitingly cold wind from the east it was well attended and received generous donations. Helped DDL at the event who gave a fantastic commentary of the gulls on offer, of which the 5 typical gull species put on a show throughout the 2.5hrs. A 2nd winter Yellow-legged Gull added to the list, but it was not so obliging as it headed upriver at distance. Next day there were at least 7 Yellow-legged Gulls in Aveley Bay - 2nd winters and older. Back to the 13th and given the conditions I was hoping for an unusual seabird to come by. Around 15:30 news broke of a Fulmar drifting upriver (FS) and this had us scrambling out of the centre onto the balcony. HTV soon picked it up drifting into Aveley Bay. A cracking record and they don't half look unusual inland. The shocking white head and underparts with a downward angled head profile gave it a distinctive look. Noted that the gulls were curious of this visitor and even mobbed it on occasion, record shot below. The afternoon of the 13th also saw the finding of a Brambling at the feeders, well twitched for the Rainham Marshes 2016 Bird race, this species being generally scarce in the UK this winter. Also a crazy Falcon attacking anything that moved on the Target Pools a few moments earlier. This big beast, characterised by dark brown upperparts, pale head, heavily barred underwing and pale rump and tail was thought to be a hybrid - Gyr x Saker? At one stage it had a swerve at one of the Marsh Harriers!

Marsh Harriers showed brilliantly with 5 present on 21st comprising 2 ad/subadult males, 1 imm male and 2 imm females. An adult female present on 28th added to the mix. The wintering Rock and Water Pipits remained, the former getting brighter with the plumage change betraying their Scandinavian origins. One Water Pipit present briefly near Coldharbour Point (27th) seen in flight looked to be well into the plumage change. I saw a Dartford Warbler briefly on 28th in the usual spot, sadly it was just a brief look as it dived back into cover. Wintering ducks showed throughout with many becoming brighter and brighter as their thoughts turned to Spring with Pintail looking graceful as ever. Waders included up to 400 Dunlin roosting with Lapwing and Golden Plover (200) on the reserve at high tide. 13 Black-tailed Godwits favoured Aveley Bay (27/28) and Oystercatchers returned during the month. 2 Avocets could have been the stars of the 27th but for me gulls stole the show- as always!

Arrived at the centre just after 10:00 on Saturday 27th. Made a quick scan of the gulls on the mud on the Kent side of the river opposite the reserve hoping for a 'Caspo', and picked up on a pale immature that looked smaller than immature Herring Gulls that were alongside it. It wasn't side-on so couldn't clinch its ID at that moment, but it had the feel of a 1st w Iceland Gull - benign head and small billed. Alerted others of the possibility and after a couple of minutes (felt like ages) it swung itself around revealing paler primaries, noticeable projection even at such a range. Got the word out and the bird was well twitched. A coupe of record shots below. It stayed in the area for about 3.5 hrs before appearing to fly upriver around about 13:45. A 1st w Caspian Gull showed late morning near to the Iceland Gull (AL) plus the gang got onto a stonking adult summer Mediterranean Gull that did a flyby early afternoon (PS). With a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls seen we had a 9 gull species day.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Rainham Marshes RSPB - From Passenger Pigeons to a magical Merlin but not forgetting Lagopus lagopus scotica. All a bit of a Circus really!

Walking along the riverwall from Purfleet station to Rainham Marshes RSPB in a gale in the dark on a Friday evening (29 Jan 2016) is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea. The purpose to take in Dr Mark Avery's Fighting for Birds talk being hosted at the centre that evening. It was a well received event and a fascinating account being split up into 2 parts - firstly the historical aspects and the shocking demise of the Passenger Pigeon, thought to be the most numerous bird in North America in the 1800s, with part two concerning the impact of driven grouse moors on Hen Harriers amongst other aspects. With thanks to all for a brilliant evening. Looking forward to reading 'Inglorious'. On walking to and from the centre it was certainly an eye opener to see the light polution of the metropolis to the west.

If you go to Rainham Marshes RSPB and do a riverwatch from the balcony you can get distracted by model aircraft being flown over the Kent side, especially on a quiet birding day. They do 'loop the loop' rising on the vertical as they break the horizon of the river wall chasing imaginary prey. Sometimes you think you've got a raptor only to be disappointed seconds later! No such aircraft spotted today, so why mention this? This Saturday (30 Jan 2016) about a mile or so west of the centre I witnessed a true avian equivalent. It was after arriving at the Serin mound before 4pm on the 'long walk' back to Rainham railway station. Target was to wait to see if the Bittern, that had been sighted over several days on the reserve, would fly over the marsh as dusk approached. I set up the 'scope and scanned the marsh through 'bins. Straight away a small dark bird of prey apparently in pursuit was flying over the first field. After a few quick turns it landed in the field and a lone pole helped as a marker in picking up the bird in the 'scope. A female/immature Merlin. I managed to rattle off some right at the limit phonescoped photos of it as the light was still reasonable, and got the message out on twitter/text. It stayed in view for several minutes and allowed for other birders/photographers newly arriving at the mound to connect. It flew off in pursuit and was lost to view. About 4.25pm I picked up the bird absolutely motoring along low over the marsh at mid distance, so low it was barely above the ground and easily lost against the fragments of reedbed occasionally blocking the view. It continued to show on and off until 4.45pm. During the time at the Serin mound it was in hot pursuit of passerines on 2 or 3 occasions forcing them up off Wennington Marsh and vigorously chasing them in mid air, reminding me of the rising of the model aircraft mentioned earlier. It appeared relentless in pursuit of supper but was only successful close to dark when it was plucking something on the ground in the falling light. It was great to see a Merlin hunt, especially being able to follow it as it flew low over the marsh and witness its tactics of forcing the passerines up into the air and continue chasing them over the skyline. First time I've definitely seen Merlin at Rainham Marshes RSPB, two probables in the past which both zoomed by in a blink of the eye and could not be nailed down. Two Short-eared Owls played second fiddle on this occasion as they patrolled the edge of the marsh, and there was no sign of the Bittern from Serin mound up until leaving at just before 5pm.

Other highlights from today was a Knot which we saw briefly in Aveley Bay in the morning and then again in the afternoon in flight over the reserve with a flock of Dunlin heading towards the Target Pools at high tide. Water Pipits continue to be showy with singles frequenting the Target Pools and the riverwall respectively, and Marsh Harriers took to the air as the dull grey morning turned to sunny spells.

Within the book 'Frontiers in Birding' by Martin Garner and friends Martin invites the reader never to lose the ability to enjoy the wonder of birds, and to go and discover new things for yourself and others. Watching the Merlin hunt and being able to study its tactics was such a wonderful moment. Martin sadly passed away recently and the tributes paid to Martin on the internet show how inspirational he was to birders and non birders alike, including birders who never met him but have been able to share his passion for birding through his work on pushing the boundaries of bird identification.