Saturday, 4 March 2017

Phylloscopus warblers

Among the many birds that we saw during our recent visit to Thailand were ten species of leaf warblers from the genus Phylloscopus.  That’s Phylloscopus from the Ancient Greek phullon, “leaf”, and skopus “seeker” (from skopeo, “to watch”).  They included Dusky (P. fuscatus), Radde’s (P. schwarzi), Two-barred (P. plumbeitarsus) and Yellow-browed (P. inornatus), all of which have long been autumn vagrants to Western Europe and Eastern Crowned (P. coronatus) and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (P. tenellipes), which have reached Britain for the first time only quite recently.

Identifying some of these warblers can be a bit of a challenge and so we were very pleased to have Neil Lawson with us to help sort them out!  Mostly they are very similar looking birds with greenish or brownish upperparts and off-white or yellowish underparts; most of them have eye-stripes and/or crown-stripes.  The fact that they tend to be very active, constantly moving and flicking their wings as they glean the foliage for insects, sometimes high in the trees, often makes it difficult to see them well and distinguish the finer details that are required to differentiate between them.  Although some have fairly distinctive calls, some don’t and anyway it takes time to get tuned into them.

 Yellow-browed Warbler - Algarve 2013

Although it was no longer calling and close inspection was possible, the Pale-legged Leaf Warbler that was found dead last October on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, remained unidentified until analysis of its DNA.  That’s how difficult some of them can be!

Common Chiffchaff - Algarve 2008

Of course, we have seen more than a few Yellow-browed Warblers over the years but the status of this species in Western Europe has changed markedly in recent times.  These are birds that breed in Siberia and normally migrate to spend the winter in the forests of South-east Asia.  However, every year in September and October a small number could be expected to arrive ‘by accident’ on the east coast of Britain.  Gradually over recent years the number of Yellow-broweds arriving in Britain has increased considerably and last autumn was exceptional. Back in the 1970s an annual total of about 70 birds was the norm; in 1988 there were more than 700 and in 2005 at least 1,250 were recorded.  Last year it was believed that there may have been 5,000 or more!

Common Chiffchaff - Algarve 2008

Not surprisingly, the increase in the number of Yellow-browed Warblers occurring in Britain has been reflected in the numbers seen in the Iberian Peninsula.  One theory is that these birds have taken to wintering in West Africa instead of South-east Asia and are passing through Spain and Portugal on their way south.  In Portugal the numbers occurring are still relatively small (about 40 in 2015) but the upward trend is clear and there have now been at least two or three instances of birds actually wintering here, including one that remains this week, reported again by Georg Schreier.

Iberian Chiffchaff - Algarve 2017

It was partly with the intention of tracking down the wintering Yellow-browed Warbler that together with Ray Tipper we set out a few days ago to Fonte Ferrea.  However, we also had another aim, which was to see and to photograph three species of Phylloscopus warblers in one morning.  It seems unlikely that there is currently any site in Europe other than this small park in the Algarve where this might be possible and the window of opportunity is quite a short one.  Presumably, the Yellow-browed can be expected to leave any day now and the same is true of the Common Chiffchaffs (P. collybita) that have been with us, as usual, throughout the winter but will breed further north.  The third species, Iberian Chiffchaff (P. ibericus), is now just returning to breed here after spending the winter away so there is just a small period of overlap.

Iberian Chiffchaff - Algarve 2017

Not surprisingly, our ambitious mission met with only limited success!  We did manage to see all three species but the Yellow-browed showed no inclination at all to be photographed. Common Chiffchaffs are numerous in the Algarve in winter and have been photographed many times so in the end we didn’t bother much with them.  Instead we concentrated our efforts on the Iberian Chiffchaffs, which obligingly sang to confirm identification and sometimes remained still for just long enough for the lens to focus.  Eventually we did manage to get a few reasonable images, which all importantly are better than our efforts in previous years. It's interesting to compare these images with some of our old ones of Common Chiffchaff and to see how difficult it is to separate these species by plumage alone.

We have photographed Yellow-browed Warbler here in the past (at Castro Marim in 2013) and have included one of those images here.  It will be interesting to see what the autumn of 2017 brings but it seems very likely that there will be more opportunities to catch up with this remarkable little bird that seems to be undergoing a serious change in its migratory strategy.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Thailand - 3

When we were preparing for our trip to Thailand we were made aware by Neil Lawton of some photographic hides near Keang Krachan National Park that might be included in our itinerary.

The story was that during the dry season poachers had been attracting wildlife, (mainly birds and mammals) to a series of small water holes that they had created along dry stream beds. Species such as Green-legged Partridge, Chinese Francolin and Lesser Mouse Deer were being shot and taken for eating; White-rumped Shamas, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes and others were being trapped and sold in the markets as song birds.  The poachers also left food such as papaya and bananas by the water and simply returned each day to replenish the water and food as necessary.  They could then sit in a makeshift hide nearby and harvest whatever species they could attract.

 Lesser Mouse Deer (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/250 sec)

White-rumped Shama (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/200 sec)

Thankfully, with the help of the Thai military on whose land this activity was taking place, these poachers were eventually persuaded that there might be more money to be made from their water holes if the killing and trapping stopped and if the hides were instead rented out to photographers. This all happened several years ago and we were told that poaching in the area has been brought to an end as the hides have now become very popular and have to be booked in advance.  Not only that but the water holes were attracting a surprising variety of species including some difficult to see birds, such as Red-legged Crake, which as a result have been found to be more common than previously thought.  All in all it's been quite a success story and one that might be repeated elsewhere.

 Streaked-eared Bulbul (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/400 sec)

 Black-naped Monarch - male (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/250 sec)

 Black-naped Monarch - female (ISO-16000 f/5.6 1/400 sec)

Jungle Fowl (ISO-16000 f/5 1/400 sec)

Our trip to Thailand was supposed to be more about seeing birds than photographing them but a few hours in a hide at the water holes was an attractive prospect.  There was just the one problem: although this was indeed the dry season, we had been greeted on arrival in Thailand by three days of almost continuous rain.  As a result, when we reached the so-called 'dry' stream bed where the water holes were located we found it running with water.  This shouldn't really have been a surprise as wherever we had been at that stage in the trip we had found water lying.  It was obvious that in these conditions the water holes wouldn't really be especially attractive.  Not only that but it didn't seem as though the food supply had been stocked up in recent days.  Undeterred, we settled down in the two small hides to see what might come.

Green-legged Partridge (ISO-16000 f/5 1/400 sec)

Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush (ISO-5000 f/6.3 1/200 sec)

It was immediately obvious that photography was going to be something of a challenge.  Simply, it was an extremely dull, cloudy day and there was very little light reaching the area where any birds might be within range.  However, it wasn't long before birds arrived and in the next hour or so we had a variety of species at least in view if not within camera range. Particularly notable were Jungle Fowl, Black-naped Monarchs, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, Puff-throated Babblers, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, White-rumped Shama, Pied Fantail and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.  And there were mammals, too: Lesser Mouse Deer, Grey-bellied Squirrel and Northern Tree Shrew.

Grey-bellied Squirrel (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/200 sec)

Pied Fantail (ISO-5000 f/5.6 1/200 sec)

The photographs here were all taken with a recently purchased Canon EOS 7D Mk II.  It was at least an opportunity to try out this new camera's performance in low light conditions!  Camera settings have been included in the captions.

If (when?) we manage another visit to Thailand, it would be nice to have another session in one of these hides but only if it really is the dry season and the sun is shining!

Friday, 10 February 2017

Thailand - 2

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Thailand was the three-hour boat trip we enjoyed at Bueng Boraphet, one of the country’s largest wetlands, located near the city of Nakhon Sawan, about 240km north of Bangkok.

We always like boat trips but especially ones that are on flat calm fresh water lakes like this one and on a stable boat with comfortable seating.  Add hundreds of birds, good light for photography and a boatman who could spot birds and identify them and we had a near-perfect morning.  As well as the birds, a fine array of water lilies and lotus flowers were quite a sight in themselves and made a very nice setting for many bird photos.


Most of the birds we saw were, of course, wetland species and several of them were familiar to us from Europe.  There were many Great & Little Egrets, Grey & Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Glossy Ibises and Little Grebes.  However, lots were new including Bronze-winged & Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Little & Indian Cormorants, Oriental Darters, Grey-headed Swamp-hens, White-browed Crakes and most numerous of all, Asian Openbills.  The Pond Herons we saw here were presumed to be Chinese Pond Herons but separating this species from Javan Pond Heron is nigh impossible unless they are in breeding plumage.

 Pheasant-tailed Jacana

 Grey-headed Swamp-hen

 Indian Cormorant

 Purple Heron

 presumed Chinese Pond Heron

 Oriental Darter

 Cotton Pygmy-goose

Asian Openbill

There were a few passerines such as Bluethroat, Zitting Cisticola and Striated Grassbird and raptors, too with Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Black-winged & Black-eared Kites all seen well.

Black-winged Kite

Bueng Boraphet will forever be associated with the enigmatic White-eyed River Martin, a species that presents one of the most puzzling mysteries of Asian ornithology.  Although quite distinctive in appearance it had been completely overlooked until it was discovered during a ringing expedition there in 1968.  It was recorded again at the lake during several subsequent winters but it hasn’t been seen with certainty anywhere since 1980.  As a result very little known about it but it’s an interesting story that you can find here.

White-eyed River Martin remembered

We returned to Bueng Boraphet at the end of our tour for a walk around the Waterbird Park on the south side of the lake.  This area of wetland with reedbeds and scrub proved to be quite productive and it was here that at last we saw Siberian Rubythroat.  Other highlights of the morning were Burmese Shrike, two Indian Nightjars, Blue-tailed & Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Freckle-breasted Woodpecker, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker and Brown-throated Sunbird.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Friday, 3 February 2017

We Sora crake in Silves!

It always seems to happen when we're away from the Algarve - someone finds a rare bird here!  Just recently, while we were in Thailand, news reached us of a Sora that was showing well along the Arade river in Silves, a small town best known for its red sandstone castle and its cathedral.

This is the first record in mainland Portugal of Sora and it's perhaps not surprising that it was initially misidentified as a Spotted Crake, a close relative but a species which itself would have been unusual in January.




Sora is a species of crake in the genus Porzana that breeds in North America and migrates to spend the winter as far south as Ecuador and Colombia.  They can be quite secretive birds and difficult to observe and the possibility must be that this one in Silves arrived there some time ago, perhaps during the autumn migration season in October or November, and has remained undetected for several weeks.

Thankfully, it was still there this morning when we went to take a look.  We watched it for about 45 minutes as it scurried about below us and frequently disappeared for short spells in the riverside vegetation.  As the photographs show, we were looking down on it, which made it easier for us to keep track of it.

We have seen many Soras in various different parts of the USA but it was good to see one here, our first in Europe.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Thailand - 1

We’ve recently returned from a two-week birding trip to Thailand.  Over the years our travels have taken us to quite a number of countries in Europe, Africa and the Americas but we have had little experience in Asia; for June just one visit to Taiwan in 2006 and for Peter it was China in 2013.  So when we were invited by friends, Graham & Chris Weston to join them on this trip we jumped at the chance.

We prefer, when we can, to fly out of the UK from Birmingham and so we chose flights to Bangkok with Emirates via Dubai. We’re sure that a great many people who currently have little choice other than to fly out of Heathrow would elect to use a regional airport instead if appropriate flights were available. Certainly, we hate the inconvenience of early morning flights from Heathrow.
 
Departure from Birmingham was at 8.15am on Saturday.  Flying time to Dubai was just short of seven hours; after a three-hour layover there the onward flight was another six hours.  When we arrived in Bangkok the local time was 7.30am on Sunday. The Airbus A380-800 is probably the most comfortable aircraft we’ve been on and while it would be an overstatement to say that we enjoyed the long flights it really wasn’t too bad a journey.

We were met at Suvarnabhumi International Airport by Neil Lawton who was to be our guide throughout our time in Thailand.  Neil spends roughly half of his year in Thailand and half in the UK where he is employed by Natural England as warden of Scolt Head Island National Nature Reserve in Norfolk. He and his wife, Pennapa, looked after us very well throughout the trip and were very good company.  They also took away any language difficulties we would otherwise have had.

January is part of what is known as the ‘cool season’ in Thailand.  Neil had said to bring a light waterproof jacket but that rain was unlikely.  Our internet research confirmed this forecast.  When we arrived, therefore, it was a bit disappointing to find that it was already raining.  More disappointing was that it continued to rain throughout Sunday and Monday and well into Tuesday.  It wasn’t just a bit of drizzle either.  It was the kind of serious rain that comes with a cyclone that further south in the country caused major flooding with loss of life.

Fortunately, after three days the weather improved and for the rest of the trip it was pretty reasonable with comfortable temperatures and no further rain.  There were days when we didn’t see much of the sun, which didn’t help the photographers amongst us, but after the awful start we were pleased to be drying out.

We spent the first three nights at Ban Bang Home Resort, just a two-hour drive from the airport.  It proved to be an excellent base from which to visit the coastal areas of Pak Thale and Laem Pak Bia.  Birding here around saltpans and mudflats in the pouring rain was actually much better than it might have been had we been in a different habitat such as forest.  Sure we had to contend with a lot of mud as well as the rain but the birds were mostly waders, gulls, herons, terns and other waterbirds and relatively unaffected by the weather.  Also, many of them were familiar species, easily identified if we took time to wipe dry our binoculars and telescopes!  For the most part cameras were left behind in the vehicle.

 Painted Stork

 Red-wattled Lapwing

Little Cormorant

On the day of our arrival we managed to see more than 70 species.  Of these 28 were waders including Pacific Golden Plover, Asian Dowitcher, Red-necked & Long-toed Stints, Great Knot, Lesser & Greater Sand Plovers, Terek & Broad-billed Sandpipers and Red-wattled Lapwing, some of which were new for one or both of us.  On the second day we saw an additional seven wader species including Nordmann’s Greenshank and the all important Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  We do love saltpans!

Pak Thale is well known as a place to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers and before our departure from the UK we had been seeing reports of up to five of them there.  Classified by BirdLife International as Critically Endangered, Spoon-billed Sandpiper has a population estimated to be no more than 200 pairs that has been undergoing an extremely rapid decline. This is said to be the result of a number of factors, including habitat loss in its breeding, passage and wintering grounds. Disturbance, pollution, hunting and the effects of climate change are also implicated.  Considerable efforts are being made to try and save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from extinction.  You can read about them here and perhaps make a donation.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper 
(By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

We took a boat trip to Laem Pak Bia sandspit, which on another day would probably have been a great experience.  As it was, it proved impossible to land the boat and we had to wade ashore. There were lots of gulls, waders and terns to see but in heavy rain and with a strong wind blowing it really wasn’t much fun. We stopped just long enough to identify Malaysian & White-faced Plovers and Chinese & Pacific Reef Egrets.  White-faced Plover is treated by most authorities as a subspecies of Kentish Plover but BirdLife International have now given it full species status and we suspect that others will follow.

In spite of the awful weather and the resultant lack of photographs, we couldn’t be too disappointed with our first few days in Thailand.  How could we be anything but delighted to have seen so many new birds and in particular that ‘Spoonie’?

Our accommodation at Ban Bang Home Resort on the day we left with some blue sky for the first time!


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Our birding week

There's been some fairly mixed weather this week but that’s what we expect at this time of the year.  We’ve had warm sunshine, we’ve had storms with strong winds and torrential rain and one morning we had to change our plans because of thick fog.  At least it hasn’t been too cold.

We helped out with the monthly count of wetland birds at Castro Marim on Monday.  In addition to the Cerro do Bufo area and Sinexpral, we also covered the Esteiro da Carrasqueira with the whole count taking four of us almost four hours.  Cerro do Bufo is a huge area which held close to 3,000 birds.  Counting them without disturbing them is a challenge and on this occasion we weren’t help by the presence of a couple of Marsh Harriers, an Osprey and a Peregrine Falcon that caused panic among the ducks and waders whenever they appeared.  The Shelducks were particularly flighty and we have to admit that our total count of 364 might not be the most accurate.

Osprey

Greater Flamingos (700) were the most numerous species; there were 18 wader species, seven duck species; 112 Cormorants and 70 Black-necked Grebes.  A single Great Egret was the nearest we came to seeing anything unusual.

Black-necked Grebes

At Sinexpral we found around 1,300 birds more than half of which were Dunlins; there were about a dozen Curlew Sandpipers amongst them.  In fact there were more than ten times more Dunlin here than there had been at Cerro do Bufo and lots more Ringed & Kentish Plovers, a pattern we have seen before.

Easily the most numerous species of the day were the Eurasian Coots on the Carrasqueira, about 900 of them.  On another day we might have searched through them for a Red-knobbed bird but we have to be in the right mood for that sort of thing and this wasn’t the time.  About a dozen each of Great Crested & Little Grebes were with them plus just a handful of ducks and gulls.

Great Crested Grebe

As well as Marsh Harriers and Peregrine Falcon we saw an Osprey, a Sparrowhawk, a Common Buzzard and a Common Kestrel – a six raptor day!  The following day at Quinta do Ludo we beat this with seven raptor species.  These included a Black-winged Kite, a Hen Harrier and no fewer than ten Booted Eagles.

Black-winged Kite

We always enjoy Ludo but for some reason on Tuesday it wasn’t at its best.  There was a marked lack of waders on the saltpans and an almost complete lack of ducks on the Ribeira de São Lourenço.

Thankfully, when we reached the lagoa de São Lourenço it was a different story - there were lots of birds to sort through and to photograph in the really nice afternoon light.   On the way there, we saw a Water Pipit, which wasn’t unexpected and a Woodcock, a species we see only rarely which was certainly a surprise!  Unfortunately, the Woodcock was dead by the roadside, probably hit by a car.

Eurasian Wigeon

Lagoa de São Lourenço is well-known as a place to see Little Bitterns and although this is a species that is considered to be a trans-Saharan migrant, it’s usually possible to find them here through the winter.  Today we saw three different birds.
 
Of course, this is one of the best sites in the Algarve to get close to and to photograph various common duck species and also Western Swamp-hens (a name, incidentally, we are still struggling to get used to).  Glossy Ibis and Black-headed Weaver are species that we expect to find here and in recent times we have regularly seen Water Rails.

Western Swamp-hen

Hoopoes are fewer here in winter but can usually be found on the neighbouring golf course, which is also the favoured feeding area for Mistle Thrushes.

 Hoopoe

Mistle Thrush

We got our required wader fix first of all in the Ria Formosa at Praia de Faro and later, on the way home, at saltpans near Olhão.  We often find a few Knots here and on this occasion were able to more or less walk up to one for a photograph.  This is also a regular place to find Slender-billed Gulls and we weren’t disappointed.

 Olhão saltpans

Red Knot

We finished the week with a trip west to Sagres and this turned out to be another six raptor day with Short-toed Eagle and Red Kite amongst them bringing the total of raptor species for the week up to eleven.

Short-toed Eagle

This was planned to be mainly a photography day and we hoped to find Alpine Accentors, Rock Pipits, Ring Ouzels and Purple Sandpipers.  As it was we had to settle for Cormorants, Black Redstarts, Thekla Larks and other more common species but had an enjoyable day in spite of that.

 Great Cormorant

Black Redstart

In fact we had a very pleasant week, dodging the worst of the weather and enjoying a great variety of birds.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Book Review: Algarve Wildlife - the natural year


Written 'mostly' by Clive Viney with photographs 'mostly' by Ray Tipper, this is the second edition of a title that first appeared in 2009. It is a much more substantial volume than the original with a hard cover and text that has been both revised and considerably expanded. There are also many more photographs, almost 500 in total.

As previously, the core of the book is the bimonthly accounts of the Algarve’s wildlife.  The year is divided into 24 half months and for each period there is a description of the various wildlife features that might be encountered at that time of year.  Although birds and wild flowers predominate there is something for everyone in these sections with mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, fungi, trees, fish, reptiles and amphibians all receiving due coverage.  On average each half month is given about seven pages with variation depending on the number and size of the photographs.

As an example, the section dealing with the current period, 1st to 15th December, makes reference to the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time; there is a list of some of the plants and trees that are in flower; several butterfly species are mentioned and illustrated; a whole page is devoted to two conspicuous fungi (Oyster Mushroom and Fly Agaric); birds that are referred to range from the very common Chiffchaff to the extremely rare Sociable Lapwing and there is a paragraph detailing the seasonal occurrence of hirundines in the Algarve; finally there is the suggestion that this would be a good time of the year for a coastal walk or a visit to Rocha da Pena.

Inevitably, dividing the year in this way results in some statements which, taken in isolation, could be misleading.  For instance, the first half of December may well be a good time to see Caspian Terns but is it really the best time to see a species that is fairly common here outside the breeding season?  Also, although visiting gulls at this time certainly do include Audouin’s Gulls and Slender-billed Gulls in reality both species are present more or less throughout the year.

Whereas in the first edition the bimonthly wildlife descriptions accounted for about 85% of the book, in this new version they are only about 60% as a result of several new chapters being added which cover geology, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies and mosses and liverworts.  There are lists of the English, scientific and in some cases the Portuguese names of the flora and fungi that are mentioned in the main text and a gazetteer with brief information about the many place names featured and a map showing their location.

Naturally, it was the chapter on birds that we turned to first.  It is in the form of an annotated list mostly of species that occur annually but also a few others including, somewhat bizarrely, Small Button-quail that hasn’t been recorded in Portugal since the first half of the last century!  Most (but not all) species are given a code to denote the likelihood of seeing them but, unfortunately, the three categories described really don’t work at all well giving rise to much scope for debate.  In several cases (e.g. Red-billed Chough, Slender-billed Gull and Spectacled Warbler) the brief descriptions of the status of a species seem at odds with the category code that it has been given.  In several instances, the status descriptions suffer from brevity.

The scientific names, English names and taxonomy are said to follow the British Birds list of Western Palearctic Birds but it is the 2013 version that is used.  The impression given is that the authors may not entirely accept the taxonomical changes that were made in the 2015 version.  They have, however, elevated to full species status Iberian Green Woodpecker, Western Subalpine Warbler, Western Olivaceous Warbler and what they call Iberian Azure-winged Magpie but have chosen not to recognise Iberian Grey Shrike.

The chapters on mammals, reptiles and amphibians and on butterflies are also in the form of briefly annotated checklists, while that on dragonflies is little more than a list of the 55 species that have been recorded.  These chapters will be a useful reference for visitors and residents alike and they underline just how much wildlife interest there is in the Algarve.

The photographs are mostly of good quality and some are really excellent but others suffer from their small size and several from a printing process that has rendered them somewhat darker than they might have been.  The choice to include comparatively large photographs of Ruddy Shelduck and Calandra Lark is a bit odd given the status of these species in the Algarve.  There is nothing amiss with having more than one photograph of the same species in different sections of the book (e.g. Bee-eater) but presumably it wasn’t intentional to have the same photograph of Caspian Tern on pages 66 and 205.

We will certainly recommend this book to anyone who expresses an interest in any aspect of the Algarve’s wildlife. The bimonthly sections give a very good indication of what to expect and look out for at any given time of year.  It may not help much with identification issues but it will in many cases point towards which species are likely to be here and thus narrow down the choice from those presented in say a field guide covering the whole of Europe.