Tuesday, 30 June 2009

BTO Atlas fieldwork

We're back in the UK for just a few days - in fact June is flying out to the Caribbean tomorrow - but we found a couple of hours this morning to complete our coverage of SK92B, our chosen tetrad for the BTO Atlas Project.

Two timed visits are required during the breeding season, the first in April or May and the second in June or July. Our early visit was made on 12th April when few migrant species had arrived so today we expected to add several new birds to the list.

We have sometimes been a bit disparaging about Doxey and from a birding point of view (or any other really) it doesn't compare well with our other base in Tavira. Having said that, life is full of surprises and this morning's two-hour walk across to Stafford Castle and then through the golf course to Castlefields and back produced two species that we would not have predicted: Kingfisher and Grasshopper Warbler.

We didn't see the Kingfisher well enough to determine its age or sex but it was certainly quite a way from any likely breeding habitat. It was seen at a small balancing lake, not far from Stafford railway station. A pair of Mute Swans with six cygnets, a Coot, a Great Crested Grebe and 25 scruffy-looking moulting Mallards were its only company at what is not an especially attractive site. Our guess is that it will soon move on.

Mute Swan

We have occasionally seen and heard Grasshopper Warblers at Doxey Marshes Nature Reserve, no more than half a mile from where this morning's bird was reeling but it was still very unexpected. This had become quite a scarce species in Staffordshire although recent years have seen something of a recovery in numbers which is perhaps continuing.

The point is that we were really too busy to go birding today but the BTO Atlas Project was our excuse to take time out. Not only that but it took us to an area which wouldn't have been our first choice as a birding destination. And we saw plenty of birds!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Crested Lark or Thekla?

Some years ago Tucson Audubon ran a series of articles in their newsletter under the title 'Dastardly Duos'. These were guides to the identification of confusion species such as Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers, Eastern and Western Bluebirds, Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes and very useful they were. In fact, they're still available online.

We have at least a couple of dastardly duos of our own here in Portugal. Let's take, for instance, Crested and Thekla Larks. We are regularly surprised how readily birders visiting here, often with no previous experience of either species, confidently identify them. Maybe we're missing something!

So what are the differences between the two?

Let's start with the excellent Collins Bird Guide (Mullarney, et al). This tells us that close views are required to separate them. Fine, that shouldn't be too difficult. But it then goes on to say that Thekla is marginally the smaller of the two and then mentions a number of other features that really aren't much help unless you've got one of each species side by side or until you've got your eye in and see them regularly.

It tells us amongst things that the plumage of Thekla is greyer, that its bill is 'usually not so pointed' and 'often slightly darker' and that 'the mantle and back on average (are) somewhat more distinctly streaked'. There's not much to argue about there but equally none of that is going to clinch that sought-after tick for the first-time visitor. When it says 'the uppertail coverts (are) more reddish-brown' we start to wonder whether we shouldn't just tick both of them and move on!

In our view, no more helpful is the difference in the shape of the crests of the two species that is suggested by the illustrations - this seems to vary with individuals and can be affected by the wind, by moult and probably age. The illustrations do show that the streaking on the breast of Thekla is always distinct but the text concedes that some Cresteds are similar.

So what about songs? Again, although there are a number of comparative descriptions in the field guide, the statement at the end of them that Crested Lark is 'often difficult to separate from song of Thekla' doesn't send us out into the field full of confidence! It does, though, confirm our experience.

And then there's habitat. Although there is some overlap, as pointed out by Mullarney et al, Thekla is generally a bird of arid, barren, rocky areas, while Crested is the much more likely bird in cultivated areas or near human habitation. You might well see a Crested in Thekla habitat but a Thekla in Crested territory is much less likely.

As far as we are concerned, almost as useful as any of these things is one of the first bits of advice we were given when originally faced with this problem: if it's perched in a bush, a tree or on a pile of rocks, it's very probably a Thekla; if it's on the ground, the likelihood is that it's a Crested.

Finally, what for us is easily the most useful feature: bill shape and length. Simply, Theklas have shorter, stubbier, more triangular bills with the lower mandible often slightly convex, while Cresteds have longer, more tapering bills with a generally straighter lower mandible. Usually! As the man said, 'close views required'.

Let us know via a comment what you make of these birds, all photographed in Portugal:

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Santa Luzia

Just a short visit late this afternoon to the saltpans at nearby Santa Luzia. The number Audouin's Gulls there had increased to 63, some Kentish Plovers had young while others were still incubating and there was a taste of things to come - the prospect of more and more waders to photograph!

Audouin's Gull

Kentish Plover

Black-tailed Godwit

Friday, 19 June 2009

A Tour of the Saltpans

We took ourselves off to Olhão yesterday afternoon. It’s the next large town along the coast to the west of here. We were hoping to see Collared Pratincoles, which we eventually did. Not surprisingly, Kentish Plovers, Little Terns and Black-winged Stilts all seemed to have young around the saltpans and it looked as though a few pairs of Pied Avocets might also have nested.

Little Tern

Black-winged Stilt

With all this breeding going on it was hard to think about ’autumn’ wader passage but there were at least 120 Black-tailed Godwits in the area, plus a couple of Ringed Plovers and presumably these are birds that have returned here from breeding grounds far to the north. Let’s hope they’re not all failed breeders! Later at Santa Luzia we saw more Black-tailed Godwits and two Oystercatchers.

At Santa Luzia there were 26 Audouin’s Gulls. A colour-ring on one of them was easy to read from the photograph, but unfortunately that isn‘t the case with the Spoonbill - one of at least 50 of this species seen at Castro Marim this morning. Also at Castro Marim were yet more Black-tailed Godwits and two Greenshanks but what really had us looking twice at the calendar was the sight of a drake Northern Pintail!

Audouin's Gull

Eurasian Spoonbill

Yesterday we spent a while watching Bee-eaters taking food to nest-holes here in Tavira. There was no possibility of photographing them but this morning at Castro Marim we were able to almost walk up to one.

European Bee-eater

We also managed without much difficulty to photograph a Little Owl in Tavira - presumed, as it was on the same building, to be a bird that was completely unco-operative on a previous visit. That's birds for you!

Little Owl

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Hawfinch and more

With the temperature now regularly reaching 30° C or more, these days we aren't doing many long walks! Sitting and waiting for a few birds to photograph seems to be a much better plan.

Hawfinch is not a species that we see every day in the Eastern Algarve so the opportunity to photograph one this morning was a rare treat. Unfortunately, it didn't stay around very long and seldom held an attractive pose but we did get a few reasonably pleasing images. Although we have seen no clear evidence of it, we assume that olives must form an important part of their diet here.

Red-legged Partridges are common enough, although not seen so much along the coast. We haven't always found them easy to photograph - their usual habit is to walk away leaving us with a shot of a disappearing rear end. For once this one just kept on coming towards us.

When we are guiding we find that Cattle Egrets often don't merit a second look from people but they really are quite attractive birds at this time of year and we certainly weren't going to turn down the chance of this portrait.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Rabbits, frogs and a few birds

Did you know that although it has been widely introduced elsewhere in the world, the European Rabbit is native to only Spain and Portugal where its numbers have been severely depleted by disease? In Portugal it is now classified as "Near Threatened" while in Spain it has been classified as "Vulnerable". This matters particularly to two highly dependent predators: the Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle both of which have suffered population declines that can in part at least be traced to the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s and rabbit hemorrhagic virus in 1989. As a result, conservation measures are being taken in both countries to help the Rabbit, although you can, of course, still go out hunting them twice a week!

This individual came to drink three times this morning while we were trying to photograph birds, each time following the same route to the water's edge. We especially liked this photo of it licking its lips.

We were also distracted today by numerous, very vocal Iberian Water Frogs and sundry dragonflies.

Iberian Water Frog

Emperor Dragonfly

Crested Tit, Dartford Warbler, European Bee-eater and Hawfinch were among the birds seen during the three hours or so we spent baking in our hide. Goldfinch, Crested Lark and Eurasian Collared Dove were the ones we photographed!

European Goldfinch

Friday, 12 June 2009


We tend to think of Kingfishers as migrants and winter visitors here on the Algarve coast so we were surprised to see one earlier this week when we were walking around the saltpans here in Tavira. Like so many Kingfishers it wasn't much more than a flash of colour as it flew away across the water.
Yesterday we were a few miles inland by a dried up riverbed and were just as surprised when we saw another one about 50 or more metres away. There was just a very small pool of water remaining that presumably had some food item in it but really it was hardly more than a puddle and not somewhere we expected a Kingfisher.
And then this morning, still in the Algarve, we saw another one. We were at quite a large pond just sitting and watching the birds that were coming to drink and bathe. There were lots of young Goldfinches, several Crested Larks, Red-legged Partridges, a Blackbird or two and then suddenly there was a Kingfisher. And we were ready for it, camera in hand!

It stayed for about 10 minutes during which time it used several different perches and fed on dragonfly larvae and small fish.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Little Terns

We had to make a trip to Faro airport yesterday so where better to go afterwards than Quinta do Lago - yet again!

We walked in through Ludo farm and used the last hour or so of light trying to photograph Little Terns, a surprisingly difficult task. In fact we managed no more than half a dozen images but got lucky with this one. Not brilliant, but our best so far.

Little Tern

We arrived back in Tavira at 9.00pm just an ideal time for us to check on our local Red-necked Nightjars. No pictures but good views as usual and again we enjoyed seeing an assortment of bats flying about in pursuit of the many moths and other insects. We also watched two juvenile Little Owls, one of them running about just a few yards in front of our parked car, picking beetles off the road surface. All of this to a background of singing Nightingales - an excellent end to the day!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Little Grebes

We were at Quinta do Lago this morning for the third time in a little over a week. Little Bitterns and Purple Swamp-hens continue to capture the limelight but for us this family of Little Grebes were the cutest birds on show.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Pallid Swifts

Tavira, our base in the Eastern Algarve, is one of the few places where Pallid Swifts have been reported nesting in palm trees. This is not new behaviour but it does seem to be unusual. We have tried photographing them in previous years and we had an hour with them again yesterday. The trees are right in the centre of the town, close to the old market. The speed at which they come and go makes counting them very difficult but maybe as many as 50 pairs could be present.