Sunday, 16 June 2019

Birding the Rhine Rift Valley - (Germany 2019)

Annual trip to see friends in Germany, a long weekend birding in the Rhine rift valley north of Karlsruhe plus an afternoon in the north west corner of the Black Forest. Good weather throughout during this visit at the end of May/early June 2019.


Maybe not as world famous as say Cape May, NJ, USA, Cley and Rainham Marshes, Wath Ings and the South Yorkshire moorlands in the UK and not to forget Paphos Headland in Cyprus, Waghäusel is one of the top birding spots in Germany. Its essentially wetland habitat with hedgerows and small areas of farmland encompassed in a rectangular shaped reserve is well known within Germany for attracting rarities on passage as well as providing a summer home for many sought after species. These include nesting Purple Herons, a lure for birders and photographers alike, many Bluethroats, Red-backed Shrikes, mimicking Marsh Warblers and buzzing Savi's Warblers amongst others, attracting both local and international visitors.

A couple of visits this year didn't disappoint. All of the species mentioned above were seen with the exception of the latter, heard only. Turtle Doves purred away, hopefully not into extinction and several Red-backed Shrikes were on site. The ponds held a healthy population of Red-crested Pochards, the Black-headed Gulls were as noisy as ever at their nesting colony, drawing the attention of a Yellow-legged Gull in search of a snack, but their symbiotic nesting pals Black-necked Grebes were not that showy this time around. The many many singing Nightingales, perhaps taken too much for granted, meant the air was never silent, but when the birding was quiet on the ground skydancing Marsh Harriers, a hunting Hobby and the occasional circling Black and Red Kite maintained interest. Not to forget up to 20 White Storks present in the area at any one time. It was also nice to see a singing Great Reed Warbler in the NW corner, not caught up with this species here in many a year. In 2 visits we totalled about 70 species plus a single Crested Lark at the nearby McDonald's.

A new site to check out near the city of Bruchsal, and this beautiful meadowland stretching north with its sheltered wetland was productive. A couple of resting Ruddy Shelducks were presumably 'Category C' tickable and they shared the pool with a few other ducks and a White Stork. At least 2 Great Reed Warblers singing from reedbed islands and on show defending their patch. Marsh and Reed Warblers were heard but not seen and a look upwards would reveal both Kestrels and Hobby hunted emerging insects over the unspolit meadows. Insects on the ground and along the reed lined channels were of interest to us, and we saw a stunning Queen of Spain Fritillary butterfly and several damselfy species including Southern and White-legged Damselflies and many Banded Demoiselles.


 Ruddy Shelducks

White Stork

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Southern Damselfly

White-legged Damselfly

Black Forest

Rising up along the eastern edge of the rift valley and essentially to the south of Baden-Baden the Black Forest and its scenic drive along the Black Forest High Road (Schwarzwaldhochstrasse) draws many a visitor to this forested upland, in a way akin to the attraction of the Peak District on a weekend. Two sites were watched, firstly we made a circular loop of a couple of kms or so around the Hotel Schliffkopf, which in year's past have produced sightings for us of Ring Ouzel, Crossbill, Nutcracker and Citril Finch. The latter has disappeared from the area for a few years now and this visit late in the Spring season yielded singing Meadow Pipits and Willow Warblers with a glimpse of a dapper continental Coal Tit. A Camberwell Beauty butterfly sadly didn't linger but more showy were groups of Swifts feeding along the north-south ridge.

Off to Siebelseckle a few kms back up the 'High Road', namely the cafe at the bottom of the ski slope where Black Forest Gateau showed very well. With our scopes set up we scanned the slope to the south and the valley leading east, drawing in interest from visiting walkers, bikers and park rangers alike. Although unsure of how "Owt doing?" translates into German, I did my best to explain in reply to a forest ranger that were look for raptors and in return I got the impression that Golden Eagle was seen here last week. I left the talking to Chris and Sue. I could about understand that Ring Ouzels were in the area, as were Honey Buzzard and I believe there was talk of Capercaillie sightings as well, although maybe not recent? Skyward, a few Common Buzzards were seen and singles of the 2 Kites. A noticeable local feeding movement of Common Swifts up from the towns and cities below was taking place with many pausing to hunt over the top of the ski slope. A study of which gave us sightings of several Alpine Swifts mixed in with its smaller relative, allowing a test of our skills in picking out this species at distance and at times in shadow and in a Swift melee. The slower pace of the Alpine Swift when gliding, and with what seemed to be more deliberate turns at distance when compared to the flight of Common Swifts could be seen. One of my favourite birding locations, will never forget the passage ringtail Pallid Harrier that we fluked here back in 2014.

Please click here for a detailed report with a summary of the birding over the years in this western area of Germany along and about the Rhine Rift Valley.

With thanks to Chris and Sue for kind hospitality, looking forward to returning. After many years of trying surely Waghausel's elusive Little Bittern will eventually give itself a fly around... next time?

Friday, 3 May 2019

Spring Birding Pedigree - tweeting in the wing flaps of Cranes

Nice birding back home on the moorland edge over Easter. The song of Willow Warblers dominated the air, single Cuckoos called from several shallow valleys and bubbling Curlews meant these wonderful had not been lost from this upland habitat. Staging Ring Ouzels provided a fine sight and Buzzards were commonplace sharing the skies with hovering Kestrels.

One steady afternoon (Thursday 18 April) birding in the Midhope Reservoir area the tranquility was broken when a glance towards Upper Midhope saw 2 big birds gliding over heading towards the reservoir. Without bins they simply looked "rare", with bins they were Cranes and with scope they were quickly identified as Common Cranes, probably no other to be expected, but you never know. Wrestled the camera from its case and managed some record photos as they circled Midhope Reservoir, continued south before heading back to circle over Low Moor and then gaining height heading "south" towards Ewden Heights. Shame they didn't land at Low Moor. A quick tweet or two and a few texts to alert others in the area but sadly it looked like they moved straight on through. Were they the ones that dropped off briefly at Lound, Notts. later that afternoon?

With thanks for the likes and retweets on Twitter concerning the sighting, appreciated.

Most years Bramblings can be found along the moorland edge in varying numbers be it passing through in autumn only or staying to winter, attracted to available Beech mast. This 'winter' was fairly good for this finch, a Chaffinch relative that makes home in Scandinavia. Not ridiculously big numbers but in late March again at Midhope Reservoir a sizeable Finch flock held close on 100 Bramblings. They were quick moving and possibly migrants moving north along the moorland edge using the tree clad reservoirs as stepping stones. The flock would get up from the trees when a Sparrowhawk was on the prowl, allowing for a reasonable estimate to be made of the numbers and species involved. Anywhere between 200 and 500 birds mainly Redpolls, several Mealy types spotted, but also triple digit numbers of Siskins and as mentioned, Bramblings. Crossbills didn't want to be left out as they were present in double figures. Some of the Bramblings looked really smart especially in flight as many moved north during one afternoon. Nearby Ingbirchworth Reservoir held a dozen Bramblings by the feeders at around the same time, several singing males, a sound I've never heard before. This "swoosh" song a bit like a Greenfinch and perhaps with a hint of a Black Grouse! Several continued here to around Easter time, the one shown below may not be the greatest of photos of this species, but this individual enjoyed throwing its head back singing from the fence for a couple of minutes.

More photos from the period at 'Latest UK Bird Photos'.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Cyprus Birding Trip Summary Mar/Apr 2019

An excellent 10 days or so birding at the end of March / beginning of April 2019.

Decent weather throughout comfortable for birding and productive for migration with about 120 species seen. A full day by day trip report to be posted soon plus a birding video compilation, but please find the following summary showing some key sightings per area.

The North West - Cape Drepanum, Baths of Aphrodite and Neo Chorio

Cape Drepanum, the short headland below Agios Georgios lies 20 km or so north of Paphos, the next stop the Akamas peninsula. It offers scrub and short grassy/sandy ground bordered by a rocky shore. On the interior it backs in part into a craggy cliff. The location and habitat good for witnessing both overhead and on the deck migration, but the site is popular and mornings are best when the wildlife is less disturbed. A good selection of Warblers throughout the period with Ruppell's and Eastern Orphean seen on most visits with lots of Lesser Whitethroats and Sardinian as well. A Short-eared Owl rested here one morning whilst Wryneck, Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings noted on separate visits. Herons migrated overhead on a couple of dates including a mixed flock of ~40 Purple, 4 Grey and 3 Night Herons. Strong hirundine movements namely one date had a morning passage of Red-rumped Swallows (150) with Barn Swallows (200) on the move another evening. That same evening saw an impressive movement of "Yellow" Wagtails a minimum of 650 of which 450 flew north before sunset. Most very wary and from brief looks comprised 'flava', 'feldegg' and intergrade types.

The Baths of Aphrodite has always been hit or miss for me for bird migration, on this trip it wasn't too bad. Masked Shrikes, Ruppell's Warblers, Eastern Bonelli's and Wood Warblers, with Alpine Swifts noted and a couple of Pallid Swifts over the coast. Sadly, nearby, the track between Agios Minas to Smiyies Picnic Site near Neo Chorio was quiet for both resident and migrant birds.

Paphos Area - The Headland, Timi Beach, Mandria, Asprokremmos Dam and Anarita Park

Both the outer and inner parts of the headland at Paphos were productive throughout. One visit to the inner (Archaeological site) produced a nice movement of passerines north along the western edge with Eastern Orphean, Ruppell's, Savi's, Sedge and a Great Reed Warbler noted, the latter dwarfed a Whinchat sat next to it. A fairly long staying male 'Caspian' Stonechat looked bright, frequently tail-flicked to show its characteristic white outer tail feathers. Wheatears included several smart Black-eared, Northern and Isabelline varieties throughout with a long staying rarity/scarcity in the form of a female Hooded Wheatear covering the shoreline along the western side of the outer headland. Masked and Woodchat Shrikes noted and Hoopoes commonplace. At the point a summer-plumaged Greater Sandplover roosted one evening with 2 even smarter male Kentish Plovers and a Dunlin alongside. Kingfisher was regular by the rock pools. Red-throated Pipits in varying degrees of summer attire were reliable as were seeing the swarm of "Yellow" Wagtails of varying types. Local Kestrels hovered over the grassland throughout and male Pallid Harriers were very showy on several dates. A Black Kite flew in off one morning as did a Short-eared Owl on another date. Herons noted circling the point on occasion included groups of Purple Herons and a handful of Night Herons.

Timi Beach offered a temporary wetland, the flooded picnic area, that was an oasis to passage waders and herons. Little Egrets and Glossy Ibises were regular, a Squacco proved more elusive, and waders included dwindling sightings of Marsh Sandpipers and Spotted Redshanks. Ruff sightings were consistent throughout and Wood, Green and Common Sandpipers noted along with a couple of Black-winged Stilts and Little Ringed Plovers. One blustery day produced a flock of 9 blogging Gull-billed Terns offshore with 4 Slender-billed Gulls east. A male Collared Flycatcher was worth trudging through the muddy picnic site on the same date.

'The Bowl' by the beach at Mandria produced Wheatears, Larks and Pipits and Marsh Harrier sightings, and in general offered the same passerines feeding on the short grassy/sandy terrain as found at nearby Timi Beach and Paphos Headland. Laughing Dove by the greenhouses at the turn off down towards Lark Corner.

Asprokremmos Dam held Eastern Bonelli's Warblers (2 dates), and Wood Warbler with Semi-collared Flycatchers in trees nearby on one date. A male Pallid Harrier flew north one afternoon and on another a pair of Bonelli's Eagles patrolled the uplands.

Anarita Park, the rough grazing area rising into the hills north of Paphos Plain, gave a nice variety of birds. Great Spotted Cuckoos, many Hoopoes, Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings, many Black-eared Wheatears to mention but a few species. Passage raptors included Pallid, Montagu's and Marsh Harriers and a lone adult Peregrine. Quail called on a couple of occasions from fields at the southern edge of the 'Park'.

Akrotiri - The peninsula SW of Limassol a key birding area

The focus was Akrotiri Marsh which provided a decent diversity of sightings. Selected highlights included water birds - Cattle Egrets, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis, Ruff, and Marsh Sandpiper. An 'ocularis' White Wagtail was perhaps a returning bird and was interesting to see. Zakaki Pools were overgrown but the nearby shingle beach gave sightings of half a dozen or so Armenian Gulls. Too early for Eleonora's Falcons but a Griffon Vulture circled near Kensington Cliffs.

Larnaca and Cape Greco

Larnaca area - twitched Kiti Dam seeing my first Semi-collared Flycatchers, giving a nice comparison with a male Pied Flycatcher also on site. A quick look at Oroklini Marsh before flying back to the UK produced Little Crake, Cattle Egrets and several ducks including Garganey.

Cape Greco - the rocky headland at the SE corner of the island gave trip ticks on the final day - Spectacled Warblers and Rock Thrush (f), a swing around and you could see a Blue Rock Thrush (f) for comparison. Alpine Swifts flew in off and the typical Wheatears, Larks and Pipits could be seen on the hillside near the Sea Caves, the same could be said for other 'Sylvia' Warblers not mentioned. Ayia Napa, may not be immediately noted for its sewage works lying directly inland of the Cape, but this place was home to passage Eastern Bonelli's, Wood and Willow Warblers alongside Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps and a male Redstart. A Bee-eater species flew in off and quickly over the hill before its identity could be confirmed.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Early 2019 Birding - Bonaparte's Gull the headline act

January birding over 3 weekends at Rainham Marshes RSPB produced typical winter visitors including a nice build up of duck in their winter finery, nervous Lapwing flocks hosting a few Golden Plovers and a lone Ruff, and fly off at any moment Rock and Water Pipits which did just that along the Thames shore. A Brent Goose flew off the reserve heading towards the Dartford crossing mid month. Marsh Harriers showed very well throughout my visits and that rarity of the month, fine calm and sunny weather, saw the Harriers become more airborne on one visit. A couple of Peregrines, one a feisty juvenile that had yet to hone its hunting skills and the other, an adult staring menacingly at the occupants of the Target Pools from its pylon perch on the 3rd weekend visit. Of the waders the wintering Avocet flock continued to enjoy Aveley Bay and scattered groups of Black-tailed Godwits chatted away to each other when feeding on the exposed mud. Back over the river wall cryptic plumaged Common Snipe showed in big numbers along the edges of Purfleet Scrape but prolonged scans did not reveal any by the name of 'Jack', still time to connect with them here this winter.

It's winter 'gulling' season and from past experiences back home in Yorkshire an increase in Great Black-backed Gull numbers mid winter usually leads to sightings of the 'white winged gulls'. Particularly around mid January there was a noticeable increase in GBBs along this section of the Thames shore, compared with back in December. I came across a candidate white-winger that was hiding amongst its commoner gull friends on Wennington Marsh (19th). From first look surely it was an immature Iceland Gull, very white with small head and a fair primary projection. A closer study with the help of a few of the local birders soon suggested otherwise. The pure black bill, the extensive white upperparts without obvious flecking, still early in the 'gulling' season for it to be so white for what was perhaps a '1st winter' bird (dark eye). Also, was the obvious primary projection so obvious? Local knowledge was that a leucistic Herring Gull had been spotted and photographed a day or so ago in the area and the thinking was that this was the same bird. Nevertheless, an educating 'Larid', grainy record photo below of it in flight when it looked chunky. A shame it didn't stick around for a longer study.

Waxwings are annual winter visitors in varying numbers to these shores, their smart crested appearance gives them a look like no other species found in GB, and they prove to be of interest to birders and non-birders alike. Whilst birders await an irruption year, this is not such a year, but any sighting is always nice. One in central London just east of Euston station was hanging around a single Rowan tree whose berries were coveted by Blackbirds and wandering Redwings alike. Connected first thing one morning a couple days or so before the tree was stripped of its fruit.

Bonaparte's Gull, on appearance could be described as the North American equivalent of our familiar Black-headed Gull. A scarce to rare visitor to the UK with new birds usually found in Spring with a bias to the west / south west. Several (east) sightings along the Thames over the last few years probably refer to a returning bird which then settles in at Oare Marshes in Kent during summer. News broke (20th Jan) of an adult winter found across the Thames from the Rainham Marshes area (directly opposite Coldharbour Point). Another fantastic spot by some of the capital's dedicated gull watchers. At the time I was across the river at Rainham Marshes RSPB having completed a WeBS count along the shore from near the Stone Barges to the RSPB centre. Soon back up river to Coldharbour Point but the sunlight and distance counted against me as the 100s if not into the 1000s of Black-headed Gulls flew around Erith Pier. No chance of spotting in such conditions.

The Bonaparte's Gull was seen throughout the following week so I was off to Erith the following Saturday (26th) from dawn to late afternoon. The fact that the gull apparently favoured high tides and such tides were in the hours of darkness that weekend, this resulted in a no show all day to all comers. Literally 1000s of Black-headed Gulls were seen and a 2nd winter Yellow-legged Gull was present in the morning. An adult Mediterranean Gull sporting a partial black hood joined a flotilla of Black-headed Gulls as the tide finally began to rise late afternoon. Highlight was the Morrisons all day breakfast that showed very well but briefly just inland of the pier late morning.

I thought that was that, but then the Bonaparte's Gull was seen at around high tide the following Thursday, I believe this was the first sighting of the week. No news on the Friday after overnight snow continuing as a wintry mix in and around London the following morning, would the bird have moved on? Nevertheless, I was back at Erith Saturday morning (2nd Feb), this time the Morrisons breakfast showed well around 0900. Soon back on the pier in a biting cold northerly wind, but at least it was dry and part sunny. The first sortie of about 20 Black-headed Gulls came in and a quick check of the bills went something like, "red, red, red, red, red, black, red, red." Hang on a minute back onto the 'black-billed' gull, its pink legs stood out as did the white underwing at the 'hand'. It was in! Quickly noted the other features including the grey neck markings, the size and shape of the bill and the overall 3/4 size build of a Black-headed Gull when it was swimming on the Thames alongside it's commoner friends. It was bitingly cold and it took an age to tweet out the sighting. The bird continued to show well for the next hour then became a little bit more elusive up to leaving at 1200. It looked like all visiting birders caught up with this Nearctic visitor in the morning.

I took a lot of photos and videos of the Bonaparte's Gull and also spent time studying it, especially in flight... the gull not me!

  • At most angles it was difficult to pick out in flight at such close quarters amongst the Black-headed Gulls, but on occasion it would stop in flight and drop to the surface like a Little Gull or Tern, sometimes dropping its feet and looking like a Petrel.

  • At other times it looked smaller in flight but then was soon lost in the melee of the comparator Black-headed Gulls. When swimming on water it's diminutive size was clearly visible.

  • It called on occasion early on, I believe a feature that led to the bird being found a couple of Sundays earlier. A distinct short 'keek', higher pitched than the constant squawking of the Black-headed Gulls, almost goose like, and a sort of call that makes you wonder, 'What is that?'

  • A distinct feature of this bird was a slightly protruding central tail feather, a wannabe Ross's Gull.

If this was the same bird I saw a few miles up river at Crossness back on 06 July 2013, the weather conditions were now so different, as in July 2013 it was an unbearable 30C, a sharp contrast to the finger numbing -2C windchill greeting gull watchers on Saturday 2nd February 2019.

In years to come the person in charge of managing bread stocks at the local Morrisons will note a spike in sales of the white slice saver loaf back in late Jan / early Feb 2019. Some will interpret this anomaly as evidence of stockpiling for Brexit, but we know different. A 'B-word' was involved, but a different one...

A selection of photos below, more at the 'Latest UK Bird Photos' page. Please enjoy.

Monday, 7 January 2019

End of Year Birding

Winter birding at Rainham Marshes RSPB is focussed on the replenished pools and any movement along the Thames. The gathering of whistling Wigeon and elegant Pintail joining many noisy Teal are some of many duck species that visit the site found just inland of the Dartford crossing to the east of London. It's easy to take the winter spectacle for granted at this well watched RSPB reserve. The rising tide force waders either onto the marsh or up river to known roosts on a daily basis with such protagonists include Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Redshank. Avocets being the exception as a small group of 20 or 30 have different ideas and it is comical to see them swimming out the tide in the relative shelter of Aveley Bay instead of jumping over the river wall onto Purfleet Scrape or one of the other pools. Lapwing numbers are building up and the occasional Ruff and Golden Plover are found amongst them. A group of '17 'Goldies' present before Christmas was noteworthy, hope they linger and increase. This may paint an idyllic scene but the peace is usually shattered by raptors in particular Sparrowhawks and Peregrines patrolling the marsh. An immature Peregrine has caused panic within the inhabitants of Aveley Pools, when it is not busy tormenting one of the several Marsh Harriers to be found on site. A couple of Buzzards tend to mind their own business as do Kestrels. Speaking of which an absence of a cold snap to date means they are not competing with this season's wintering Short-eared Owls for rodent prey along the river wall. These disagreements do look spectacular when seen previously, but could be a matter of survival for the Owl or Falcon in such cold weather. No rarities seen on or passing through the site in my end of year visits, but a Brent Goose in Aveley Bay was noted and of the gulls I've only come across 2 or 3 Yellow-legged Gulls, away from the common five, but a candidate LBB x Herring Gull hybrid was a bit of a head-scratcher.

Elsewhere in London a Peregrine watched the public along the South Bank from top of the Tate Modern as the year drew to a close, and it's now not unusual to see Red Kites drifting over gardens in the NW of the capital.

Back home to Yorkshire over Xmas taking the indirect route of the North Norfolk Coast. These expansive salt marshes held hunting Hen Harriers, including a 'grey ghost' as our North American birding friends like to refer to the nearctic equivalent. Red Kite is now a regular sight here alongside the more common Buzzards and Marsh Harriers. The fields and marshes joining Burnham Overy with Holkham were full of Pink-footed and Brent Geese although, but perhaps the 50 or so Barnacle Geese also present had probably never been to Spitsbergen?

Finally back home and the moorlands remained magical. Buzzards are less numerous and less active in the uplands than in warmer months, but several lingered. Ravens were more noticeable and a a couple of pairs reinforced bonds by 'tumbling' regularly on their sorties. Also looking skyward skeins of Pink-footed Geese were a regular sight crossing the Pennines but in no clear pattern. Some days small groups headed west, the others either out east or north. Crossbills moved locally between moorland plantations that typically cloak hidden reservoirs, and towards the end of the stay at least two males were singing at a couple of sites. Only connected with a single Brambling flying over a moorland Beck, whereas Siskin and Redpolls were more noticeable moving around the uplands. The feeders at Broomhead Reservoir were packed with Coal T and other woodland visitors. The once in a lifetime sighting of the group of Two-barred Crossbills is now over 5 years ago. I still remember that distinctive trumpet call as well as the fast Redpoll-like chatter. I still listen out for them in ridiculous hope of them reappearing, but failing that here's a photo from Memory Lane... adjacent to Rushy Lane!

Don't worry - from 2013!

A couple of visits to South Gare just beyond Redcar and on the 2nd attempt connected with the winter plumaged Black Guillemot as it swam and fed close inshore (Yorkshire-side). Not going to get into a debate on political boundaries but from a birding perspective to follow the old Vice Counties, namely VC62 (North-east Yorkshire) this became Yorkshire tick No. 339 (337 BOURC). Guillemot present nearby and the Tees mouth also held both single Common and Velvet Scoters, a handful of Eider and Red-throated Divers. The beach in the seaward side yielded a flock of Snow Buntings (28) and a dozen or so Twites occasionally joined a similar sized group of Linnets.