Saturday, 20 July 2019

The Birding Year continues - Spring into Summer

May Day Bank Holiday

A bit of twitching in unseasonably cold weather. On Saturday 4th May saw the half a dozen White-winged Black Terns picking at the surf of Abberton Res., Essex in a strong northerly. An hour or so later and in more sheltered south east Suffolk, the adult male Red-footed Falcon hunted from the landing lights of the old airfield at Rendlesham Forest. A Woodlark was atop a neighbouring light. Also my first Hobby of the year gave even better looks as it flew overhead ahead of a rain shower. Driving west through the Suffolk countryside mid pm towards Cambridgeshire to twitch the drake Baikal Teal at March Farmers the outside thermometer went as low as 4.5C, a little bit parky for the time of year. The drake showed at distance as viewed in a biting wind from the flood bank. It was good to bump into Nick O, a birding pal from back at Uni.

Red-footed Falcon

Then headed back home to Yorkshire and with my dad twitched the Iberian Chiffchaff and Ferruginous Duck at South Kirby the following day The former just outside and the latter just inside the Barnsley Area... wish they had switched places! The Iberian Chiffchaff performed very well, nice to hear its two song types the characteristic one ending with a rattle and another, perhaps a warm up, in the form of a harsh "chiff chiff chiff chiff chiff".

Iberian Chiffchaff

6 nights in Extremadura in mid May

Stunning scenery, hot weather and top birding, but where were the Montagu's Harriers? Many highlights, with the Trujillo Lesser Kestrels putting on a great show. One sighting of Honey Buzzard and nice views of Spanish Imperial Eagles plus other raptors. Good birding variety, not just raptors stealing the show.

More on this trip can be found by clicking here.

Honey Buzzard

Spring Bank Holiday

Always nice to get a tick on your lists. In calm sunny conditions twitched the Great Reed Warbler at Wintersett Res. with my dad early on the Saturday (25th May). The giant Acro. had now settled down into what would eventually be a few weeks stay, and was readily belting out the croaky song as we walked down the track from the Anglers Country Park car park. It showed reasonably well at the far edge of the reedbed. Yorkshire Area tick 338 (+ Fea's Petrel type and Isy Shrike type) and Barnsley Area tick 233.

Great Reed Warbler

Over this weekend along the South Yorkshire moorland edge we saw several raptors including passage Marsh Harrier and many Curlews were in the fields. Are the Redstarts  disappearing from the NE corner of the Peak District just like the Wood Warblers? On a happier note at 2pm on Spring Bank Holiday Monday (27th May) a raptor maintaing a shallow M-shaped wing profile started to circle Midhope Res., South Yorkshire. This profile ruled out the local Buzzards and grabbed my attention, scoped it and finally a passage Osprey. Got my dad and Stu G onto the bird and it then drifted off towards Ewden Heights.

A weekend in Germany

A long weekend visiting friends near Karlsruhe at the end of May / early June. Varied birding focussed in the Rhine Rift Valley with a trip to the Black Forest. The wetlands at Waghäusel were as rewarding as always with Purple Herons showing well at their nest 'towers' and Bluethroats giving their 2nd song of the season from their reedbed territories. Red-backed Shrikes present as well.

More details available by clicking here.

Red-backed Shrike

Late Spring/Early Summer

A couple of visits to Rainham Marshes RSPB, London in mid June, quiet summer birding as to be expected and the focus soon turned to dragonflies and butterflies. However, literally the first bird I saw on the Thames was a highlight, a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull feeding alongside Black-headed Gulls just off the river wall. Non bird highlights included sightings of Broad-bodied and Four-spot Chaser dragonflies and many butterfly species with notables being Green Hairstreak, Marbled White and Small Heath.

Mediterranean Gull

Marbled White

Back to the birds and there were, and perhaps surprisingly for the time of year, 1000+ large gulls about the landfill, most being Herring Gulls. On one visit in June they were spending their time either commuting between the southern slope of the landfill and the Thames to bathe. I could not pick out any Yellow-legged Gulls but a visit on the opposite side of the river to Erith Pier in early July produced this striking dark-eyed Herring Gull.

Herring Gull

Sunday, 14 July 2019

May 2019 - Extremadura and Sierra de Gredos

6 nights in Extremadura, Spain in mid May, 2019. This beautiful region in the centre of the Iberian peninsula offers a variety of habitat, be it plains of extensive grasslands and dehesa crossed by the occasional river carving out shallow valleys, a rocky ridge home to Monfragüe National Park plus scattered historic walled cities and towns. To the north the Sierra de Gredos mountain range on the border between Extremadura and Castile and León looks down on Monfragüe across a separating plain. These areas are well known for their birding opportunities, all are within a few hours reach of Madrid 250 km or so to the east of Trujillo. A summary of what this birding trip delivered in May 2019 follows.

For a full day by day trip report, please click here.

Trujillo and Cáceres Plains

Home to a regularly seen trio of Crested Larks, Corn Buntings and Calandra Larks found on this trip in decreasing intensity, with careful scrutiny revealing Short-toed Larks present. White Storks fed in good numbers out on the plains over which Black Kites, Booted and Short-toed Eagles hunted alongside patrolling Griffon Vultures. In lesser numbers, Eurasian Black/Monk/Cinereous Vultures, however you may know them, were seen. The song of Hoopoes provided the backdrop to most stops with the presence of Bee-eaters betrayed by their distinctive call. Spotless Starlings flocked throughout but Spanish Sparrows did so only towards the end of the trip. Rollers could be relied upon at a traditional site east of Cáceres where the only Great Bustards of the trip were seen. No Sandgrouse seen which was disappointing but Woodchat and Iberian Grey Shrikes could be counted upon perched along roadside fences, with packs of Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies moving through the dehesa in quick succession. These were some of the many highlights but the lack of Montagu's Harrier compared to years past was worrying. Monty certainly got a raw deal, just one 1st summer male sighted, were they moved on because of early season harvesting?

 Great Bustards

                                                          Iberian Grey Shrike

The Río Almonte valley south of Monroy was very birdy, offering a nice variety be it nesting Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper along the riverbed, secretive Hawfinch and Golden Oriole hiding in the trees along the valley bottom, Black Storks or wandering Griffon and Egyptian Vultures overhead alongside the 2 Eagle species mentioned above.

                                                                Black Stork


So who would play second fiddle to the masters of this National Park, the Spanish Imperial Eagles? You could argue the sighting of a smart Honey Buzzard looking tiny alongside a Griffon Vulture, a Golden Oriole breaking cover to take a dislike to a Black Kite, displaying Blue Rock Thrush or the Alpine Swift giving Crag and House Martins a flying lesson over the Tagus. But what about the Nightingales trying to out sing each other or the six Black Storks circling the Peña Falcon, where a Short-toed Eagle hovered from a ridiculous vertigo inducing height? This area offered a great variety of bird species from the small to the very big, there was always something to look at. The natural beauty of the River Tagus carving out its path was not to be forgotten.

Spanish Imperial Eagle


Sierra de Gredos (over in Castile and León)

Offering Alpine habitat and a respite from the heat of the plains (24C on the only visit, compared with 36C on the same day in Trujillo). Following the Gosney Guide to Finding Birds in Extremadura a walk south west from the Platforms towards Laguna Grande across Alpine Meadows and into the broom scrub. After a picnic stop this area eventually gave up its 'no spot' Bluethroat. Also, Ortolan Bunting and elusive Water Pipit seen, plus a chance encounter of a displaying male Rock Thrush. The Iberian Ibex allowed for photos, a few seen close but also up high on the most precarious mountain top tracks. At the car park Rock Bunting looked for scraps from the visitors and could be 'ticked' on arrival before getting out of the car.

Rock Bunting

Rock Thrush

The walk out from the Plataforma reminded me of the walk out from Mortimer Road up to the Ewden Cabin on the South Yorkshire moorlands, surely you can see the similarities?

Sierra de Gredos

Up to the Ewden cabin

You may argue that only one of these upland locations holds Bluethroat, Ortolan and Rock Buntings, Griffon Vultures, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Iberian Ibex in the summer, but both Skylarks, Dunnock, Raven and Northern Wheatear can be seen at both localities. Ok, the very studious / pedantic reader may note that the latter has a different subspecies at each location.

The drive up to the Sierra from Trujillo doing a zigzag along the motorways was over a couple of hours, not the most direct route but easy driving. The plains separating the Sierra from Monfragüe was home to an amazing density of Black Kites, many gliding low over the motorway. En route every pylon seemed to have a nesting pair of White Storks, a sight very much repeated throughout Extremadura.


The walled city perched above the southern Extremadura plains home to a beautiful square (Plaza Mayor) with its nesting White Storks, 'fluty' Spotless Starlings and Common and Pallid Swifts tearing above the historic rooftops. Crag Martins flew by at a slower pace. The aerial avian delights also included a wandering Lesser Kestrel or two from the nearby bullring colony and a Black Kite causing panic among the Feral Pigeons in the early mornings. The historic city with its picturesque square and its medieval churches and convents attracted visitors and locals alike to take in such sites, including enjoying an evening meal eating out at many of the restaurants about the square. The Lesser Kestrels showed well at the bullring a gentle 15 minutes walk down from the Plaza Mayor, where it wasn't a surprise to have flyby Bee-eaters, Swallows, displaying Spotless Starlings, singing Serins and a glimpse a Booted Eagle whilst waiting for a Lesser Kestrel to give that sought after flight photograph. The variety of bird species encountered within this urban area just shows how rich the bird life continues to be in Trujillo, whose relative ease of access by car from Madrid to the east or Seville to the south offers an excellent base for birders visiting Extremadura.

 Lesser Kestrel

For a full day by day trip report, please click here.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Two beema or not two beema - that is the question!

Two beema, or not two beema, that is the question: not to forget those head scratching ones that are the Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail intergrades!

I don't know if Shakespeare was a birder, but if he had visited Cyprus in late March / early April he would have marvelled at the wonderful 'Yellow' Wagtails moving through. The grasslands at Paphos Headland, and links-like short grass cover found at Cape Drepanum, Timi Beach and Mandria held, at times, many feeding feldeggs. Their call edging towards that of Citrine Wagtail but not quite there.

Given the numbers, sometimes 200+ in a wandering flock, what else could be found amongst a wave of Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtails? Several elusive Blue-headed, one or two Grey-headed and many variable Black-headed 'intergrades' were often present, but how about Sykes's Yellow Wagtail?

A starting point to identification, namely looking at the plate showing the head patterns of male 'Yellow' Wagtails in the 'Collins Guide', together with my 'basic' interpretation -

  • Feldegg (Black-headed Wagtail) - uniform black head appearing to extend onto the nape, full yellow throat.
  • Flava (Blue-headed Wagtail) - blue head with a white supercilium, yellow throat with a hint of a white submoustachial stripe.
  • Thunbergi (Grey-headed Wagtail) - very dark blue/grey head with slightly darker ear coverts, and a hint of a white submoustachial stripe against a yellow throat.
  • Dombrowskii ('Black-headed intergrade') - dark blue/grey head with a striking white supercilium, yellow throat and a white chin.
  • Superciliaris ('Black-headed intergrade') - black headed with a striking white supercilium appearing broader behind the eye, and a yellow throat.
  • But is it that simple when it comes to intergrades? What about Xanthrophys ('Black-headed intergrade') - not shown in the 'Collins Guide' but from a web search, characterised with a yellow supercilium?
  • Beema (Sykes's Yellow Wagtail) - pale blue head with a white supercilium, extensive white on the ear coverts, white throat merging without a clear demarcation into yellow underparts.

Can all of the following photographed in Spring in Cyprus be identified to type?


Are these two wagtails examples of beema (Sykes's Yellow Wagtails)?

Wagtail #1, Timi Beach, Cyprus, April 2019 (x2)

                                       Wagtail #2, Akrotiri, Cyprus, April 2019 (x2)

Dombrowskii / Superciliaris / Xanthrophys 

Is it possible to separate the intergrades, or are the ones shown below best left as Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail intergrades?

                                                 Wagtail #3, Cape Drepanum, Cyprus, April 2016 (x5)

                                   Wagtail #4, Cape Drepanum, Cyprus, April 2016 (x1)

                                            Wagtail #5, Akrotiri, Cyprus, April 2019 (x1)

                                               Wagtail #6, Cyprus, March 2018 (x2)


Sadly the only photo I have of this type.

Grey-headed Wagtail, Timi Beach, Cyprus, April 2019 (x1)


A stunning taxon.

Black-headed Wagtail, Cyprus, April 2016 (x1)

                                  Black-headed Wagtail, Paphos Headland, Cyprus, April 2019 (x2)

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'.