Friday, 7 July 2017

Avalon Marshes

This week we managed at last to visit the Avalon Marshes for the first time, an area that we used to know as the Somerset Levels.  It was just a day trip so our time was limited and we concentrated on what are probably the two best-known sites, Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserves.

The nearest town to the Avalon Marshes is Glastonbury.  Maybe it was seeing television coverage of Jeremy Corbyn on the Pyramid Stage at the recent music festival that inspired us to visit the area or perhaps it was friends who were down there last month and came back enthusing about the birds, butterflies and dragonflies they had seen.  You can decide which!

Ham Wall with Glastonbury Tor in the distance

As the two reserves are situated only about 10 miles from the M5 and our starting point was near the M6, there was only one practical route for us to get there – 152 miles and motorway almost all the way.  Optimistic as usual, Google Maps suggested the journey might take us 2½ hours.  In fact, it took 3½ hours.  We should never underestimate the ability of the M6 traffic to extend travelling times even when we make an early start.  It’s funny how we never seem to have that problem with the Via do Infante de Sagres!

 Shapwick Heath NNR

Most British birders will know that much of the Avalon Marshes is a landscape formed from peat. In the 1960s huge quantities of peat were removed by machine for horticultural use but subsequently this landscape has been transformed into one of lakes, reed-beds, fens and woodland by the RSPB and by English Nature.  Both Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath have extensive reed-beds created with the particular intention of encouraging Eurasian Bitterns to the area and this has been an amazing success.  Two nests at Ham Wall in 2008 were the first in Somerset for 40 years and since then numbers have increased rapidly with 47 booming males reported in the area in 2016.

 Great Egret

Marsh Harrier

Not surprisingly, other wetland and reed-bed species such as Little Egrets, Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits, Reed, Sedge & Cetti’s Warblers have also benefited from the provision of what appears to be a perfect habitat.  What probably wasn’t anticipated was the arrival of Great & Cattle Egrets, and Little Bitterns, all of which have bred here in the past few years and Glossy Ibises, which also seem ready to do so.  It’s not difficult to foresee Purple Herons and Spoonbills also colonising.

Black-tailed Skimmer

 Tufted Duck with young

Great Crested Grebe juveniles

Although we had a very enjoyable day, the truth is that we should have been there a month or even two months earlier when there would definitely have been much more breeding bird activity.  We weren’t disappointed as we knew beforehand what to expect and, of course, most of the bird species that have been causing excitement in Somerset are ones that we are used to seeing regularly in the Algarve or in Doñana.  It was simply good to see an area that we have heard so much about and which seems to be an ongoing success story.  Maybe next year we can go there in May!  

Friday, 23 June 2017

Catching up!

As usual, March, April and May have been busy months for us and we have been left little time for blogging.  Now we are catching up and able to at least share a few photographs from our days out in the Castro Verde area as well as around the Algarve:

Red-crested Pochard - breeding birds seem to have been even more numerous than usual this year, particularly at Castro Marim and at the Lagoa de São Lourenço.

Little Bustard - easy enough to find when they are calling and displaying but after that they disappear!  There is a suggestion now that the population of these birds in the Baixo Alentejo may be at a much lower level than previous estimates.
Great Spotted Cuckoo - to find these birds, look for their preferred host species, Common Magpie. Those Magpies that failed to chase away the Cuckoos earlier in the year can now be found feeding their young ones!

Thekla Lark - common enough in the Castro Verde / Mértola area and in the western Algarve, perhaps best separated from the similar Crested Lark by the shape of the bill.

Calandra Lark - a very distinctive and easy to identify lark and one that is easy to see in the Alentejo at most times of the year but especially when they are displaying and singing.

Rock Bunting - in the Algarve, probably most numerous in the hills of Monchique and Caldeirão but this one was less than 15km from Castro Marim in the east.

Eurasian Nuthatch - most often seen (by us) in the woodlands of the Serra do Caldeirão but also regular at Ludo.

Spotted Flycatcher - an uncommon breeding bird in the Algarve but we found this one at what seems to be a regular site where in previous years we have also seen breeding Common Redstarts.

 Crag Martin - we have followed the progress of this easily viewed roadside nest for several weeks.  It's amazing how they manage to stick the nest to vertical walls.

Little Owl - a common enough species but this particular bird is very obliging and usually to be found in this same roadside tree.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - we mentioned this nest in a previous blog.  It was in the same agave where a pair nested in 2011.  When we last visited, they were feeding young.

Little Ringed Plover - commonly found breeding around reservoirs and along rivers and streams; passage birds are sometimes seen in the Ria Formosa; we call them 'lurps'.

 Greater Short-toed Lark - quite widely distributed but nowhere really numerous.

 Blue Rock Thrush - a recently fledged juvenile that we came across in the Eastern Algarve.

  Stone-curlew - one of a pair breeding in the Ria Formosa.  Habitat loss has resulted in fewer birds around Tavira in recent years.

  Pallid Swift - we always enjoy the challenge of photographing these birds that nest in the trunks of palm trees in the centre of Tavira.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

A Day in Doñana

Regular readers of this blog and those who have visited the Algarve will know that our base in Tavira is only 30km or so from the border with Spain.  This allows us occasionally to make a day trip to Doñana, still regarded as one of the most important wetlands in Europe and an excellent location for all sorts of wildlife.  We were there just recently and although only a small part of the area can be seen in a single day, we had reasonable success visiting the Dehesa de Abajo and the José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre.

There aren’t many bird species available in Doñana that don’t occur regularly in Portugal but notable exceptions are Marbled Duck and White-headed Duck, both of which are classified by BirdLife as Globally Threatened, and Red-knobbed Coot, which is widespread in Africa but scarce in Europe.  However, finding any of these in Doñana isn’t guaranteed and on this recent occasion we found only one of them: there were four White-headed Ducks at Dehesa de Abajo, three males and a female. It’s quite possible that there were Red-knobbed Coots present, too, but on this occasion there wasn’t much enthusiasm for standing in the blazing sun peering through a telescope trying to find them amongst hundreds of distant Eurasian Coots.
What Doñana does offer is better opportunities to see species such as Great Reed Warbler, Savi’s Warbler, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco Heron and Black Kite, which are not ‘every day’ birds in the Algarve and much greater numbers of European Reed Warblers, Purple Herons and Glossy Ibises.

 Glossy Ibis

Purple Heron

We have written before including  here, here and here about previous visits to Doñana.  One of the features of visits in the breeding season has been the spectacle of hundreds of nesting herons, egrets and Glossy Ibises at the José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre so it was disappointing this time to find virtually none there at all.  Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we were able to at least find where they had re-located to but it is no longer possible to view them at such close range.  However, there were countless birds constantly flying to and fro and endless opportunities for flight photography.

 Squacco Heron

Black Kite

Short-toed Eagle

Other than Lesser Kestrels and hundreds of Black Kites we saw disappointingly few raptors but at least one Short-toed Eagle allowed close approach.

Mid-June would not be our recommended time to visit Doñana but if you can put up with temperatures of 40ºC and higher, it still offers some good birding.  Better, though, to go in April or early May when more birds are singing and there’s the prospect of seeing some migrants.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

South-east Arizona

An Avian Adventures tour in Arizona has become a regular feature of late April and early May and this year has been no exception.  Each year the itinerary tends to be similar, concentrating on the south-east corner of the state and the Santa Catalina, Chiricahua, Huachuca and Santa Rita mountain ranges.  There have been quite a number of blogs about previous tours, e.g. here, here, here and here.

Not for the first time, an important target species this year was Olive Warbler (Peucedramus taeniatus).  Although superficially this species seems like a typical New World wood warbler, evidence from anatomical and DNA studies has placed it into a family of its own, the Peucedramidae.

From time to time we have clients whose aim it is to see at least one representative of each of the world’s 200-odd bird families.  As Olive Warbler is the only member of the Peucedramidae, it therefore has particular significance.

It isn’t what you would describe as a difficult species to see but they do tend to forage high among clumps of pine needles and they never seem to be particularly vocal.  Finding the first one is always something of a relief!  Maybe one day I will manage to photograph one…

Here are some of the birds I did manage to photograph, although photography is never the main aim of these tours and that applies especially to the tour leader – me!

Vermilion Flycatcher – mostly found near water but a fairly common bird.  We saw them along the San Pedro River, at Whitewater Draw, at Patagonia Lake and Sweetwater Wetlands.

Elegant Trogon – another ‘must see’ species in Arizona.  Like so many species it’s not too difficult to find if it calls but can otherwise be elusive.

Northern Tufted Flycatcher – the first record in the USA was in 1991 and only a handful have been seen since then.  This bird was in Carr Canyon in the Huachucas.

Acorn Woodpecker – a very common bird and easy to see but always popular.

Eastern Meadowlark – this is the lilianae subspecies, earmarked as a potential future split, Lilian’s Meadowlark. 

Great Horned Owl – we saw seven owl species during the tour.  This one was at Whitewater Draw but a pair of Great Horned Owls also had young in a tree right next to Portal Peak Lodge.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird – the former home of Wally & Marion Paton in Patagonia, now taken over by Tucson Audubon, has long been the best place for this species.  We also saw one in the nearby state park.

Rufous-capped Warbler – a very scarce resident in SE Arizona but regularly seen in Florida Canyon.

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet – the curious name refers to the species’ lack of the rictal bristles that are a feature of most other tyrannulets.  This bird lacks almost any features!

White-throated Sparrow – a scarce wintering bird in Arizona, this was the only one we saw.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker – a bird of the desert and other arid areas where it nests in cavities in trees and cacti.

Cooper's Hawk - this accipiter is a surprisingly common bird around Tucson.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Changing fortunes

The occasional occurrence in the UK of European Bee-eater, Blue Rock Thrush and Woodchat Shrike seems to do little to diminish the popularity of those species with British visitors to Portugal. In spite of being twitchable in Britain they retain a degree of rarity value, they are bright and colourful and they are still crowd-pleasers.

 European Bee-eater

Blue Rock Thrush

On the other hand, increasing numbers in the UK of species such as Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-winged Stilt and Spoonbill mean that these birds no longer feature as highly as they once did on the ‘wanted lists’ of those many birders who arrive here wanting to see ‘something different’.

Little Bittern

This change in the status of bird species does, however, work both ways.  For instance, we still have Turtle Doves in Portugal, maybe fewer than previously but we still see (and hear) them regularly. And we have Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, a species that by all accounts has become difficult to find in many if not most parts of Britain.

Eurasian Turtle Dove

Today was my first day back in the Algarve after three weeks away, part of which was spent leading an Avian Adventures tour in Arizona, more of which later.  While I was away I was alerted to the presence of a Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers’ nest not far from Tavira which might offer the possibility to photograph the birds once they are feeding young.  It was only when I got back that I received precise details of the location and much to my surprise it turned out to be exactly the same site where June and I watched and photographed Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in 2011.  Have they been nesting there regularly in the intervening years, I wonder?  I have to admit that we haven't checked.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (photo from 2011)

As usual, while I was away I missed a rarity here in the Algarve, this one actually in Tavira. Fortunately, this time it was ‘only’ a Red-necked Phalarope so not too much concern.  However, this species is a genuine rarity here requiring reports to the Portuguese Rarities Committee so it’s as well that June managed to photograph it.  A bird photo by June is probably rarer than the bird itself!

Red-necked Phalarope

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Photos from Tanzania

If I said we had seen vultures, eagles, falcons, shrikes, bustards, sandgrouse, storks, rollers and larks, you might well think I was referring to one of our regular trips to the Castro Verde area in the Baixo Alentejo region of Portugal.  Certainly those are birds we might expect to see there and June and I have had a couple of great trips in that direction during this past week.
However, these birds are also some of those that were seen during the recent Avian Adventures tour in Tanzania.  The itinerary for this tour that included Arusha, Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Serengeti National Parks, Ndutu and Ngorongoro Crater was very similar to previous years and there have been quite a number of blogs about Tanzania in the past, most recently herehere and here.  So this time I’m just going to share some photographs and I’ve chosen to include those of the nine bird families referred to.

This was my sixth time in Tanzania and it really has become my favourite among the Avian Adventures tours that I lead.  There is nothing not to like about it.  It is definitely one of the world’s top wildlife destinations.  We were there mainly for the birds but we still saw 40 mammal species including the so-called ‘big five’.  Huge numbers of Wildebeest and Zebras provide a great spectacle and backdrop to some really good birding and everyone enjoys seeing the big cats and the small ones – this year, as well as Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs, we saw African Wildcat and Caracal.

And the photography is much easier than it is in Portugal...

 Rufous-naped Lark

 Isabelline Shrike

 Lilac-breasted Roller


 Saddle-billed Stork

 Yellow-billed Stork

 White-bellied Bustard

 Grey Kestrel

 Kori Bustard

 Yellow-throated Sandgrouse

 Long-crested Eagle

 Tawny Eagle

 Hooded Vulture

 Brown Snake-Eagle

 Lappet-faced Vulture

 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

Common Fiscal