Saturday, 28 February 2009

Reed Buntings at Oare Marshes

Today I spent most of the day at Oare Marshes a KWT Reserve and logged a total of 54 species. My first encounter was a small group of House Sparrows and Reed Buntings feeding on fat-balls and seed on the edge of the car park. One individual kindly posed for me.
As it was low tide when I arrived I decided to take the path to Dan's Dock and was rewarded with more sightings of Reed Buntings everywhere plus dancing Skylarks, a few Linnets and Meadow Pipits. Most unexpectantly a Goldcrest also made a brief appearance. A male Marsh Harrier was being mobbed by Crows on the other side of The Swale. Sparrowhawk & Kestrel were also seen. On my return walk I snapped these three "Tufties".
Konik are an unusual breed of small horse, or pony, originally from Poland. This stocky and hardy breed shows many of the characteristics of the Tarpan, which was the original wild horse of Europe's Forests. Koniks have proved to be ideally adapted to year-round grazing on grassland and wetland habitats and they have been used by several conservation organisations to help manage nature reserves both in Britain and Europe.
These two were having a running battle but when I got close enough for a picture they stopped fighting - just my luck!

Very few waders flew into the East Flood as the tide rose apart from good numbers of Common Redshank plus one Ruff (new tick for 2009) and I spotted at least 12 Common Snipe but none of them were particularly obliging nor was the light! So only managed a 'rear' view.And once again, nearly the last bird seen was another Reed Bunting...I lost count but it was definitely their day.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Memories #2 - Bulgaria Sept 2007

In Sept 2007 we opted for an organised birding tour to Eastern Bulgaria on the Black Sea coast. Arriving at Varna Airport at 11 p.m. we met our local guide Nikolay who introduced us to the ‘Yellow Rocket’ our transportation for the next 7 days. During our journey to Karvana we experienced the full force of an electric storm and arrived at our hotel at 1 a.m. in the middle of a torrential rain storm with the hotel in total darkness due to a power failure. This was something we would get used to over the next few days! The next challenge once inside the building was to locate torches hidden away in our main bags and then find our rooms. Power returned briefly sometime after 2 a.m.
Most of the bird photographs were taken by James Lidster, a professional tour leader who works for Sunbird Tours and are reproduced here (some after cropping) with his kind permission. For more images please visit his new ‘dutch’ blog where there are also links to James images from various tours.

Work in progress at Kavarna, Red-backed Shrike & Red-breasted Flycatcher

Every morning started with the usual optional pre-breakfast walk. There were regular cries of “Yellow Wags and Tree Pipit calling” from James and high above us we could just about locate the small dots flying southwards but never coming to ground. During our first day we drove to various locations around Kaliakra and Yailata; areas of vast open steppe and agricultural landscapes broken only by lines of trees planted to provide wind breaks and the coastal cliff-tops with low scrub vegetation burnt to a crisp by a very dry spring and summer. The highlights included massive flocks of Calandra Larks showing their dark under-wings in flight with excellent views of a pair of Saker Falcons plus Marsh and Montague’s Harriers.

Long-legged Buzzard
Other raptors passing overhead were 20 Common Kestrels, 7 Long-legged and 2 Common Buzzards following the coastline on migration southwards plus a single Short-toed Eagle. The road side wires provided resting perches for a few Rollers, 30+ Bee-Eaters and more Turtle Doves than I have seen in total over the last 15 years in the UK. A search of a rough stony roadside area produced Stone Curlew with attendant Hoopoe, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears. At Cape Kaliakra Nikolay showed us Pied Wheatears which breed locally followed by an interesting lunch of battered shark and chips. Throughout the day hundreds of Barn Swallows and House Martins passed overhead and Red-backed Shrikes seemed to be perched all around us.

Early Birder scanning Kaliakra, Pied Wheatears & Spotted Flycather

On day 2 we drove north towards the Romanian border. Again the roadside wires were littered with increased numbers of Rollers, Bee-Eaters, Turtle & Collared Doves and my first ever sightings of two Lesser Spotted Eagles floating lazily high above us. Scanning over the Black Sea from the shoreline at Durankulak Lake produced Great Crested, Black-Necked and Slavonian Grebes plus good numbers of Mediterranean, Yellow-Legged, Black-headed and Little Gulls. During a brief walk alongside the extensive reed beds we were rewarded with brief views of Great Reed Warbler, a skulking Savi’s Warbler and a single Quail shot across our path and disappeared into the reeds. Other notable sightings were a Bittern and Purple Heron in flight over the reeds plus 50+ Pygmy Cormorants roosting in the bare trees. A visit to Shabla Lake in the afternoon commenced with a verbal exchange between Nikolay and two local hunters - they didn’t appear too friendly! Despite low water levels we saw our first Common, Sandwich and 5 Caspian Terns plus a mixture of waders albeit at some distance. Nearby trees however held our attention with excellent views of Spotted and our first Red-breasted Flycatchers followed by fly past of a dozen Golden Orioles. Corn Buntings made their first appearance and Swallow numbers for the day reached 400+. Sightings of Marsh Harriers, mainly juveniles totalled 24 plus Levant Sparrowhawk and Buzzards.
Levant Sparrowhawk
Bulgarian Transport
We returned to various areas around Kaliakra and the coastal cliff-top at Rusalka on day 3 with numerous roadside stops for migrating raptors including juvenile Pallid and Montague’s Harriers, which tested our identification skills, 3 more Lesser Spotted Eagles, 5 Hobby plus Common and Long-legged Buzzards in various stages of juvenile plumage. The afternoon stop at Boleta Valley, a narrow gorge with verdant growth around a small lake and stream leading to the sea, was to prove a migration highlight. Clockwise from top right - Lesser Whitethroat, Boleta Valley, Common Whitethroat, Bee-Eater, Thrush Nigtingale, Golden Oriole & Your Summer Hideaway!

A massive fall of Sylvia warblers feeding on berries included 200+ Blackcap, 200+ Common Whitethroat, together with 50+ Lesser Whitethroats complemented by Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers, with Golden Orioles flying and calling overhead plus excellent views of two showy Thrush Nightingales located by James and Nikolay by their single note migration call which is very similar to that made by Common Nightingales. The experience was further enhanced with 8 Squacco Herons, a Ferruginous Duck, and Levant Sparrowhawk with the constant presence of Bee-Eaters and Alpine Swifts amongst the other hirrundines all around us. Everyone agreed that if you could pick a ‘local patch’ this site would be perfect with its wide mix of habitat and the gorge caves regularly holding a pair of breeding Eagle Owls. A dusk visit to a cliff face close to our hotel finally gave us a chance to scope an Eagle Owl perched high on the cliffs with another individual calling nearby but too dark to capture on film!

My lasting impression of this north-eastern corner of Bulgaria will be the superb scenery of vast open landscapes and the mainly unspoilt habitats although there was clear evidence of the effect of their very dry spring and summer with mile upon mile of devastated crops of Sunflower and Maize that will not produce any income plus the ever increasing installation of Wind Farms and their attendant services that will and already have damaged acres of land that in the spring are a riot of colour.
Our last day at Karvana started with an early pre-breakfast walk during which we located our first reasonable view of Syrian Woodpecker plus a fleeting glimpse of Icterine Warbler whilst seeking out Wood and Willow Warblers flitting about in thick vegetation. We then travelled south stopping at Goritsa Forest and although the woodlands were very quiet we gained brief views of Short-toed Treecreeper, Grey-headed, Syrian & Middle Spotted Woodpeckers followed by an excellent meal in the forest restaurant.
Building on the Saltpans at Pomorie!

For the last 3 days of the tour we were based in Pomorie, near Bourgas with its local Saltpans and extensive lakes. Whilst some of the saltpans around Pomorie are ‘protected’ there was again evidence of frantic building activity including the dumping of waste directly into the un-worked pools to provide additional building land! The lakes were stacked with birds, thousands of Coot, hundreds of Garganey, Ferruginous Ducks and Moorhen (I counted 147 in one location), with scores of Squacco, Purple and Grey Heron plus fly-byes of Black-crowned Night Herons. At the main Bourgas Lakes we were rewarded with the sight of over 3,000 White Pelicans on two days together with plenty of Dalmatian Pelicans to test our comparison skills plus 4,000 White Storks flying overhead and a few thousand dropping into roost in a field later in the day.
Booted Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Whilst raptor numbers stayed relatively low the variety increased with additional sightings of Goshawk, Booted and White-tailed Eagles, two groups of Honey Buzzard totalling 30 plus more views of Levant Sparrowhawks and Lesser Spotted Eagles including one individual perched in a field being ploughed and totally unconcerned at the proximity of the tractor. The furrows and muddy pools were also littered with juvenile Black-headed Yellow Wagtails (feldegg) busily feeding before moving further south. The various Saltpans provided a list of around 30 shorebirds and waders including 50 Marsh Sandpipers, numerous Little Stints with a few Teminck’s; Kentish & Little Ringed Plovers; good views of 6 Broad-billed Sandpipers plus lots of Wood Sandpipers (40+), Curlew Sandpipers (50+), a few Green Sandpipers, and the usual Redshank, Greenshank, Ruff and Dunlin etc. in various plumages. We also enjoyed the constant calls of large numbers of Common and Sandwich Terns with over 100 Black Terns together with several Whiskered, Gull-billed and one juvenile White-winged Black Tern.


The pace of this tour was very relaxed and enabled us to enjoy the superb, mainly unspoilt scenery, although there was daily evidence of the coastal strip development with numerous buildings, hotels and apartments, under construction and I can only hope that the local population do not get left behind with the scale of tourist lead expansion that is being carried out. Food during our tour was typically local dishes including large salads with plenty of cheese (goat, sheep & cow or a combination according to Nikolay) and I also gained a liking for Bulgarian yogurt, something I thought would never happen! Whilst my final total was 170 including 15 ‘lifers’ the lasting impression will be the pleasure of watching visible migration, the scenery, the food and all in the company of a very experienced and friendly Sunbird (James) and Bulgarian (Nickolay)guides.

“Glabodarya Bulgaria”, I will return someday. (Watch out for "Memories of Bulgaria May 2008).  FAB.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Garden delights - Euphorbia & Hellebores.

A few images from my garden, taken on Sunday in-between doing some paperwork and helping Anita to complete 70 odd 'handmade' Wedding Invitations for a friend. I was hoping to post a photo of the finished articles but Pam dropped by today and collected them.

First is the new 'reddish' blotchy growth on a Euphorbia and then the acid green bracts contrasting with the darker leaves on the more mature stems that have not been cut back.
EuphorbiaBefore our recent 'large' snowfall I cut back the old leaves on the Hellebores in order to more easily see the new flowers as they open. However, the weight of snow has done a lot of damage around the garden but a few hardy individuals have come through to present their fresh colours.
Helleborus orientalis

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Cetti's Warbler at Stoke Lake

Today's Surrey Bird Club meet was a walk at Riverside Country Park, including Stoke Lake & River Wey led by Jeremy Gates. Four people turned up and we were later joined by Steve Chastell.
The most interesting find was a Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) first located moving through a bramble bush then it flew into the bottom of the reeds along side the lake. This is considered a rare winter visitor and passage migrant. As this individual made no effort to utter its usual explosive song Jeremy believed it was a female. This is only the 2nd record for Stoke Lake, the previous record, also a female, was trapped and ringed by JG on 5th May 1998. Near Stoke Lock we also found 5 Chiffchaffs plus the resident pair of Grey Wagtails. Siskin were often heard but difficult to locate high up in the Alders. Back at the wet meadows were the usual Canada & Egyptian Geese plus one Greylag Goose, a single Common Snipe & at least 6 Meadow Pipits. Lots of Black-headed Gulls but only a single Herring & Lesser Black-backed Gull.
After a quick chocolate fix back at the car I decided to follow the tow path for about a mile and a half towards Send. There wasn't very much activity apart from locating a Nuthatch and a pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets but I enjoyed the peaceful solitude plus a chat with a local lad who was fishing and had just caught and was returning a Brown Trout into the river.

So today's sightings are as follows (in no particular order): Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Cormorants, Great-crested Grebe, Little Grebes(4), Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, Gadwall(6), Tufted Ducks(5), Shovellers(3), Greylag Goose, Canada Geese (14+), Egyptian Geese(8), Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, CETTI'S WARBLER, Robin, Blackbird, Goldcrest(3), Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Jay(3), Magpie, Green & Great-Spotted Woodpeckers, Skylark, House Sparrows, CHIFFCHAFF(5), Grey Wagtails(2), Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Treecreeper, Siskin, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gulls, Meadow Pipits(6+), Common Snipe, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, Rook, Woodpigeon, Starlings, Wren, Pheasant, Nuthatch, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Teal [heard], Reed Bunting [heard] and Water Rail [heard]. A total of 52 species.
Mallard Preening

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Birding by sound?

On Tuesday morning I stopped off at Bookham Common for a 20 minute walk at 7.40 am on my way to work. It was a calm, windless morning with the sound of birds coming from all directions but would I actually see anything?

As I followed the path from the Tunnel car park through the woodland I heard Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Great & Blue Tits, a Woodpecker drumming plus the strident call of a Nuthatch. A brief view through the trees of a Grey Heron probably returning to the heronry, 2 Stock Doves & Carrion Crow flew silently overhead. A scan of the tree tops behind the railway station produced NOTHING. As I returned to the car I thought I heard a Bullfinch.

On the drive into work I got to thinking (disastrous I know at my age) that it's that time of year again when I start to wonder whether I can remember the calls of those migrant visitors (warblers in particular) that will be arriving throughout the spring. I have never found it easy to listen to a long list of sound recordings on tape or CD and then store this information in my brain for prompt recall. My tactic has always been to go out into the 'field', listen and then try to locate the songster and match the sound to the 'face'. Generally this works but I often wonder what I have missed. It's a bit like "phishing", for me it’s a bit hit and miss!

A few of my memories of 'birding by sound alone':
Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for bird sounds - I particularly recall an autumn pre-breakfast walk in Mid-Wales with DC and in the space of 10 minutes he ID various calls of at least 15 species and we hadn't seen a thing - that's why he is a professional and I'm a mere amateur.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard the glorious sound of a Nightingale, singing on a warm humid evening, surrounded by biting insects, on Bookham Common just after the sun had set. (But not seen!)
The next occasion was a week later when I heard a Nightingale singing from within woodland at Bookham Common. I slowly followed the sound and eventually located the individual perched fairly low down but in the open next to a well used path. For the next 20 odd minutes I watched and listened as this male belted out his song and with an ancient hand held Dictaphone I recorded his song while at least two dog walkers quietly passed by and were presumably totally unaware of what I was doing. I used this recording for a few years to introduce others to the sound of Nightingale as it tends to be a species that few actually see. Regretfully the tape has long since disappeared but the memory is still strong.

During recent annual 'Dawn Chorus' walks at work the first hour is birding virtually in the dark and just using your ears to listen whilst trying not to bump into any of the 30 visitors who have come to witness this event as we head into the gardens. The problem is everyone wants to know which birds are making every single sound! My normal response is to suggest that they stand quietly for a few minutes and just listen thereby enjoying the growing additions to this orchestral feast of sound - this actually gives me time to get my brain in gear before attempting to identify all the relevant species. I'm sure I've made a few bloomers over the years but nobody seems to mind.

On previous annual camping holidays to Sandringham in Norfolk we would lie awake waiting for the local Tawny Owls to start talking to one another interspersed with their well known and often repeated 'kewick' shrills. Memories of my first birding trip abroad to Mallorca are directly linked to the daylight calls of the Hoopoe (a trisyllabic & repeated 'oop-oop-oop') and the nightly sonar-like 'tyuh' of the resident (Eurasian) Scops Owls which can be heard, I believe, up to a kilometre away.

A trip with friends to Stodmarsh in late January a few years ago when it was so foggy you couldn't see more than 10 metres in front of you and most of the water was totally frozen. The comment was uttered "what the hell are we doing here in these conditions"? Well I said "you'll just have to use your ears, I can hear Ducks somewhere out there" and reeled off a few specie names. Who was going to argue? Actually it turned out to be the best day for Water Rail as we counted no less than 15 individuals seen and a few more heard throughout the day AND a sighting of Bittern if somewhat hidden by the moving fog. So it wasn't all bad despite the conditions - You just have to adapt.

Finally on my arrival at work two 'honking' Greylag Geese flew overhead. As I headed across the car park I was greeted by the sounds and sight of Blue, Great & Long-tailed Tits plus Chaffinches feeding as they worked their way through the Alders. A pair of Great-spotted Woodpeckers alighted on a nearby tree and followed each other from perch to perch and then quietly flew away together while a Nuthatch called from the edge of Battleston Hill and the resident Robins and Song Thrushes were announcing their prowess from various song posts. The last sound was the squawking call of two Rose-ringed Parakeets as they flew into the gardens.

So what are your experiences of 'birding by sound' AND do you have any tips for improving your memory in order to identify both common and migrant species?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Cannine interruption!

On Sunday I only managed to get out for an hour or so, late am, as we had family guests for lunch and a holiday "pow-wow"! So a brief visit to Ashstead Common to explore a few more pathways. A lot of trees have been felled above the 'Stew Pond' car park and there was no avian activity or any discernible sounds of life. As I entered the woodland there were lots of Blue & Long-tailed Tits plus a few Great Tits and evidence of pair bonding was all around me but they certainly were not going to pose for a portrait.
Unfortunately my timing this morning was dreadful as everyone seemed to be walking their dogs. I wouldn't have minded but just as I spotted a Treecreeper and lined up the camera I was invaded by two large growling beasts. I adopted my usual 'horse whisperer' mode and the dogs changed from barking to hand licking mode and as you can guess the Treecreeper disappeared. The owners seemed absolutely oblivious to the fact that I may not wish to be disturbed in this manner and no effort to bring their charges under control! This event reminded me of another doggy encounter some years ago on Bookham Common when a large beast came bounding towards me with the obvious intent of grabbing some part of me and the owner calling out "it won't hurt you" - instantly recalling an incident when as a teenager I was delivering Sunday newspapers and a dog attempted to rip the bag from my shoulder - I adopted a very defensive posture and clearly told the owner that the dog wouldn't get the chance. Needless to say he was not very happy with my outburst but more importantly the dog also got the message. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike dogs, if fact I grew up with one, and we have a delightful creature called 'LaLa' living next door, but I fail to comprehend why certain owners cannot keep them under control. Actually I believe it is often the owners who need training and not their pets.
Apart from the calls of Nuthatch and drumming of a Great-spotted Woodpecker the only other sightings were two Rose-ringed Parakeets squawking their heads off atop a distant tree. On the fields behind Rushett Farm I also logged 50+ Crows plus a few Magpies and Jackdaws. Finally, I heard, but couldn't locate, a singing Skylark. (One addition to this years list at least).

So no bird photos just a few trees whose bark doesn't bite!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Dunnock

I have not yet been successful in photographing a Dunnock (Prunella modularis) in my garden so I thought I would share some pics taken of a confiding individual on a recent coastal birding walk. Adult plumages are very similar with House Sparrow-like brown streaked upperparts plus the characteristic lead-grey head. The breast, ear-coverts and crown are tinged grey-brown plus fine pale spots at the tips of the greater coverts often giving the appearance of a thin wing-bar. The males sometimes have slightly more lead-grey on the head and throat whereas juveniles are browner and boldly streaked particularly on the head and neck.

This very common but quiet and unobtrusive bird is often overlooked as it creeps along the edge of a flower bed or near to a bush, moving with a rather nervous, shuffling gait, often flicking its wings as it goes. When two rival males come together they become animated with lots of wing-flicking and loud calling. The main call is a shrill, persistent "tseep", which often betrays its otherwise inconspicuous presence.The song is thin and tinkling and often described as being similar to a squeaky trolley wheel.

Some years ago during a walk with Dominic Couzens he explained the spicy sex life of the Dunnock (Hedge Accentor) that only came to light in the 1980's thanks to the hard work of Nick Davies working in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. On our subsequent meetings Dominic has often challenged me to repeat the amazingly complex pattern of social and breeding behaviour, which he so eloquently describes in his book "Birds - A Complete Guide to all British & European Species". So here goes.......

Dunnock breeding behaviour has evolved into an amazing melange of systems, with them exhibiting monogamy, polygyny, polyandry and polygynandry, and any individual may embark any one of these possibilities during the breeding season, sometimes even changing its arrangements in between broods. Firstly it is important to understand that there are usually fewer females than males so it is the females that skirmish over territories in the spring and once border disputes are settled the occupiers make it known that the services of the males are required. The feminine territories are generally larger than most males can cope with so males have to enlist the help of another to keep the boundaries safe - the two may share singing posts and give the impression of teamwork. However, they are actually in competition for the females favours and an awkward hierarchy develops with one male nominally dominant (alpha-male) over the subordinate (beta-male) but the female takes no notice of this and is more than willing to copulate with the beta-male (behind the back of the alpha-male) because the males fathering a brood sign a contract to provide parental care in proportion to their mating success. In this polyandrous trio, three birds contribute to feeding the young.

Sometimes, a male comes along that is somewhat superior, and finds it easy to defend two female territories and therefore gains exclusive paternity rights in this polygynous trio. However, if he bites of more than he can handle and reluctantly recruits another male to help so we now have two males sharing the defence of two female territories or they may collectively be sharing the defence of three female territories - this is were it gets complicated and polygynandry enters the scene! Males try to ensure their paternity during courtship by pecking at the cloaca of the female to stimulate her to eject the sperm of other males with whom the female has recently mated.

Not sure who's giving who the eye!

Valentines Day - Another garden 1st.

I ventured out into the garden early this morning to refill all the feeders and was greeted by a Dunnock proudly singing from the top of a nearby conifer who was quickly joined by his partner and they flew off together. Next the Robin added his tuneful voice to the still cold air. The next job was to repair the netting on the roof of the fruit cage (now used for other purposes) which was damaged by the weight of snow that we recently experienced. As I inserted new clips with frozen fingers I heard the unmistakable call of a PIED WAGTAIL. It was perched right on top of the birch tree - great a garden first - although they are regularly seen in the immediate locality I do not recall ever seeing one stop in my garden before, but could I get a photo?
Blackbird perched briefly on the privet hedge and gave me the eye!

Not long after I returned indoors the birds decided to return and gorge themselves on the available food; Collared Doves (4), Feral Pigeons (2), Starlings (5); Great Tits (2), Blue Tits (2) plus evidence of courtship with food passing from beak to beak; Blackbirds (2); Magpies (2) but didn't stop long thankfully; Greenfinches (6); Long-tailed Tits (2) - same pair returning regularly; Robin (2); Goldcrest (1); Rose-ringed Parakeets (2); House Sparrows (male & female) and the pair of Dunnocks also returned. A definite pattern here on Valentines Day!

Goldcrest on Osmanthus & Fat Feeder

Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Coot

Most often seen swimming & diving for food on open water, it would be easy to think that the Coot (Fulica atra) is a duck. However a quick look at those long legs and large, individually lobed feet (rather than webbed), designed for walking, running & even sprinting, mean that this is a member of the Rallidae family. Unlike a duck, the Coot is able to spread it weight and can be seen walking over floating vegetation, including water lillies and in this instance was 'walking on the water'
Most rails are shy, retiring and therefore often difficult to see but the Coot is fairly tame, numerous and more often than not very noisy - uttering short-tempered "kut" calls plus other clucks and discordant noises. Apart from those extraordinary feet its most prominent feature is the white frontal shield (larger in the male than female) set against the coal-black plumage. It will challenge rivals by lowering its head and the aggressive threat display, starts with a charge across the water, then the adult leans back and attacks, striking opponents using its long legs.
The nest is a cup comprising any available plant material located just above water level. Coots are normally very attentive parents, but their aggression beyond adult rivalry, can seem sinister when very occasionally you may witness an adult attacking a chick sometimes fatally. This behaviour is thought to be linked to food supply - reducing the brood to match resources!


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