Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Waders, waders everywhere

Well, of course we returned to Castro Marim but in spite of another very long walk we could find no sign of a Marsh Sandpiper or anything resembling one. Those who know Cerro do Bufo will not be surprised - it is a huge area of saltpans and impossible to cover completely. Still, we enjoyed searching and once again we were treated to lots of birds including numerous other Tringas - Common Redshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Greenshanks and Green Sandpipers, some of our very favourite species. We also flushed a Common Quail from beside the perimeter track and saw 24 Little Bustards. No doubt we will be back there again soon!

Meanwhile, we’ve been walking and driving the local patch: Tavira and Santa Luzia. Greater Flamingo numbers are now up to around 200 and there are almost as many Spoonbills. We improved our Stone-curlew count yesterday with a flock of 67 just down the road here and this morning we’ve seen 18 species of waders, plus Caspian Terns, Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls. A particular eye-catcher amongst the many Grey Plovers was this individual.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Sunday at Castro Marim

We spent four and a half hours this morning at Castro Marim, walking the track around the Cerro do Bufo area. After yesterday's rain the going was soft in places and we both grew by an inch or two as the mud stuck to the soles of our shoes!

From the photographs you could almost think it had snowed but this is, of course, an area of saltpans and the 'iceberg' is a huge pile of freshly harvested salt.

As soon as we got out of the car, we were adopted by this pesky dog that stayed with us the whole time we were there, mostly walking about 20 or 30 metres ahead of us flushing any birds within range - very frustrating. Only a Common Redshank put up any resistance, flying around just above the dog scolding it and kicking up quite a fuss just as it might have done if it had young to defend.

Among the morning's highlights were Little Bustards (30), Spoonbills (200), Black-necked Grebes (100), Caspian Terns (10), Black Terns (4), Audouin's Gulls (c300), Slender-billed Gulls (spread out in small groups and difficult to count) and Stone-curlews (40+). Migrant passerines included Northern Wheatears, Whinchats and Yellow Wagtails.

Just one of many Slender-billed Gulls

The absolute highlight though was what was almost certainly a Marsh Sandpiper. It was the right size (compared to the Common Redshank, Ruff and Black-winged Stilts that were with it), its legs looked yellow and its bill was black and straight. Unfortunately, it was just too far away to be 100% sure and there was no way for us to get any closer to it. After we had been watching it for just a few minutes, it flew even further away and we weren't able to re-locate it. Maybe we'll have another look tomorrow...

Saturday, 26 September 2009

A Wet Morning in Paradise

There was 8/8 cloud cover when we set out this morning on a walk around the local saltpans here in Tavira. The light was poor and rain was forecast and it was no surprise when we saw one or two distant flashes of lightning. After little more than an hour’s birding we decided to turn back, a good decision as we just made it to the car in time to avoid a soaking.

On the edge of town a Subalpine Warbler, a Cetti’s Warbler and a Common Redstart got us off to a decent start and when we started around the saltpans we soon saw as many as 17 species of waders including a Green Sandpiper and a couple of Common Snipe that flew over. We didn’t get chance to look carefully at the hundreds of gulls but at least a dozen each of Slender-billed and Audouin’s were amongst them. Most numerous now are Lesser Black-backs and we can expect to see numbers of Mediterranean Gulls increasing over the coming weeks.

Ducks included Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and Gadwall, there were Little Grebes, Little Egrets, Spoonbills, Grey Herons and 200 or more Greater Flamingos. Two Kingfishers were presumably birds that have arrived to spend the winter with us and the same is true of the many Chiffchaffs that were feeding low in the scrubby vegetation alongside the resident Sardinian Warblers and Zitting Cisticolas. Soon they will be joined by Bluethroats.

No photography today so here are a couple we prepared earlier (as they say) of today’s most numerous waders.

Black-tailed Godwit

Pied Avocet

Friday, 25 September 2009

Tavira & Santa Luzia

A couple of hours late afternoon was all the birding we could manage today as we tried to catch up with other things. And even this was almost entirely from the car as we checked a few of the local sites around Tavira and Santa Luzia. Mostly we concentrated on the saltpans where salt harvesting is now in full swing and where hundreds of (Pied) Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits are gathering. We were particularly pleased to find 65 Stone-curlews, a total which may well be our highest ever in Tavira.

Away from the water, a Blue Rock Thrush was exactly where we expected it to be and a Northern Wheatear was also entirely predictable.

Northern Wheatear

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Lagoa dos Salgados and more

Back in the Algarve and yesterday we headed for Lagoa dos Salgados. With a new camera to try out we concentrated mostly on the waders including a surprising Buff-breasted Sandpiper, the first time we have seen this species in Portugal. The camera is a Canon 50D and there's hardly been time yet to read the manual but here are a few 'first attempts':

European Golden Plover

Ringed Plover

Buff-breasted Sandpiper



Little Stint

Today we were around the Cape St Vincent area in the morning where Northern Wheatears and Pied Flycatchers were the most numerous passerine migrants. A Golden Oriole was an unexpected find but otherwise we saw the usual suspects including Red-billed Chough, Blue Rock Thrush and a flock of 19 Little Bustards. We had lunch at the raptor watchpoint but in our short time there saw only a Hen Harrier and a handful of Booted Eagles.

On the way back we stopped for an hour or so at the Alvor Estuary where we had an enjoyable walk and saw the expected Greater Flamingos, Spoonbill and a selection of waders that included Greenshank and Little Stint.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

California - safe and warm in L.A...

Our Avian Adventures tour in California followed closely the itinerary we have used in previous years: after flying into Los Angeles we worked our way up the coast via Ventura and Morro Bay to Monterey and then headed inland to spectacular Yosemite National Park before catching a return flight from San Francisco. It has been successful in the past and it worked well again this time.

California Quail

Two of our days around Ventura were spent with local bird photographer/film maker, Don Desjardin as our guide. We visited several of the well-known sites in the area and Don generously shared with us some others that were new to me. We saw plenty of birds, 80 or more species, but for our group probably the highlights were the California Condors, seven of them at least and some soaring almost overhead. In recent years Condors have been easy to see at the Grand Canyon on our tours in Arizona but this was the most I have seen in California - hopefully a good sign. There was also plenty of interest in the butterflies which included numerous Lorquin's Admirals and some impressive Western Tiger Swallowtails.

California Condor

Western Tiger Swallowtails

Our third day at Ventura was devoted to a trip across the Santa Barbara Channel to Santa Cruz Island, home of the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. The taxonomy of these birds was changed in 1996 and they are noticeably bigger and brighter-coloured than the Western Scrub-Jays on the nearby mainland; also their bills are proportionately larger. They are easy enough to find - once you're on the island.

As we headed north from Ventura we saw what is the only other species, apart from Island Scrub-Jay, that has never been recorded outside California - the Yellow-billed Magpie. Again they are easy enough to find although there have been reports recently of a decline in numbers. We also called in at Nojoqui Falls County Park where within just a few minutes of each other we found two vagrants from the eastern USA - Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Canada Warbler. As always when we find 'rarities' on tours we put word out about these birds as soon as possible.

Yellow-billed Magpie

We spent time at Morro Bay in the vicinity of Morro Rock where various gulls, Brown Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons and Sea Otters were the main attractions.

Heerman's Gull

Brown Pelican

Pelagic Cormorant

Our one full day in the area was divided between Morro Bay State Park and Montaňa de Oro State Park and in terms of the number of species recorded this was the best day of the entire tour. Many of these were shorebirds, with Marbled Godwits, Willets, Western and Least Sandpipers and Greater Yellowlegs particularly numerous.

Marbled Godwit

Greater Yellowlegs

From Morro Bay we continued north along the picturesque Big Sur coast to Monterey stopping regularly to admire the scenery and to look for birds mainly on the sea - scoters, loons, grebes and cormorants. We also stopped at Piedras Blancas to see Northern Elephant Seals. Hunted nearly to extinction years ago for their oil-rich blubber, these remarkable mammals are now protected and have made a remarkable comeback.

Northern Elephant Seals

From our new base in Monterey we visited Moss Landing, Elkhorn Slough and Moonglow Dairy. These provided what for me was some of the most enjoyable birding of the tour with hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes and Marbled Godwits and lots of other shorebirds including a Solitary Sandpiper and a couple of Pectoral Sandpipers. Also seen were Clark's Grebes, Surf Scoter, Red-throated Diver, MacGillivray's Warbler, Bufflehead and 30 or more Sea Otters.

Marbled Godwits and Willets

Red-necked Phalarope

Sea Otter

One of the high spots of any birding tour in California is a pelagic trip with Debra Shearwater and on our second day at Monterey we arrived at Fisherman's Wharf at 7.00am to board the Check Mate. It's amazing who you meet in such places! By chance, also there for the boat were old friends from the West Midland Club, Bob Normand, Jim Winsper and Mike West with their wives (a group that I also bumped into on a similar boat trip in Texas some years ago!), Mike Hodgson who I have met several times when leading tours in Lesvos, David Patick from Huntington, WV who June and I met in Texas earlier this year plus another tour group from the UK.

It proved to be one of the smoothest boat trips I've ever been on - the sun shone, there was very little wind and the sea was calm - and we saw an excellent variety of seabirds and marine mammals. Notable amongst the birds were Tufted and Horned Puffins, Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets, Pink-footed, Sooty and Buller's Shearwaters, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Black-footed Albatross, Sabine's Gull, Long-tailed, Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers and South Polar Skua. And, of course, there were whales and dolphins...

Buller's Shearwater

Sabine's Gull

Pink-footed Shearwater

Black-footed Albatross

After 10 days along the coast we headed inland to spend some time in and around Yosemite National Park. One of these days was taken up by a visit to Mono Lake, famous for its abundant brine shrimps which along with the countless alkali flies that inhabit the shoreline provide food for huge numbers of birds, especially Eared Grebes, California Gulls and Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes. It is estimated for instance that more than one million Eared Grebes congregate on the lake each year to moult and to feed up in preparation for their migration and there is enough food for them to double their weight during this time!

Mono Lake

California Gull and Alkali Flies

We also paid an early morning visit (before the tourists arrived!) to Glacier Point, the spectacular view from which is one of the major attractions of Yosemite. Our target here was Sooty Grouse and three of these birds were found almost immediately on our arrival and proved to be the most confiding creatures one could imagine. Nearby we found an Olive-sided Flycatcher, a Fox Sparrow, a White-headed Woodpecker and numerous Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees.

Sooty Grouse

All in all it was an excellent tour, rounded off by a brief visit to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and a glimpse of the famous landmark bridge.

Next stop: Tavira...

Monday, 14 September 2009

While the cats are away the mouse will ‘twitch’

With Gerry in Hungary and Pete away leading a tour in California, I’ve been kept pretty busy in the office. But following an afternoon phone call on Friday from non-birding friend Peter B in Tittensor, the weekend produced a “lifer” for me. "Why have loads of people with binoculars and telescopes turned up in the village?" he asked.

A quick check on the internet soon gave us the answer – A ROSE-COLOURED STARLING had been reported in one of the gardens that morning. With a promise that he would phone if the bird was spotted again I returned to work.

At about 10.00am on Saturday Peter B phoned to say the bird was around. Grabbing my bins I headed north. But to no avail, I arrived to find that the bird had disappeared. Four Buzzards and a Hobby gave some consolation but...

The general consensus was, that to stand any chance of seeing the Starling I would have to be in Tittensor before 8.00am the following morning.

Sunday dawned foggy and quite cool but I was on the road by 7.15am. I arrived to see quite a few cars already on the car park but no-one in sight. Heading towards the church I soon found the main group looking at the roof tops. I was dismayed to be told I’d just missed great views of the bird but was hopeful that it would soon pop in to view again.

It was my lucky day - before too long someone spotted the bird as it swung around pecking hungrily at a fatball in one of the gardens. Everyone rushed to the spot and all managed good views of the bird . After a few minutes it flew and its pale colouring was then more apparent. So there it was my life bird – a juvenile looking (just as described in the Collins Field Guide) like a washed-out young Common Starling!

Many thanks to the residents of Tittensor for welcoming us with good humour and patience.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Doxey Marshes

The return from a trip to Austria of Peter’s telescope and binoculars coincided this morning with the sun shining over nearby Doxey Marshes. It was an opportunity to see how the newly-repaired optics would perform and perhaps also to find some migrants.

We spent a couple of hours wandering across the reserve, twice popping into the only hide to dodge the showers. From a birding point of view it was predictably unproductive with just 33 species recorded but it was good to see more than 100 Lapwings and a dozen or so Common Snipe. Given the date and seeing the reports of passage waders down the road at Belvide Reservoir, we really might have expected to see more. However, for some reason management of water levels on the reserve seems to be a problem again and both ‘wader scrapes’ had way too much water on them to be of much use – one even had a Great Crested Grebe diving in it! We did think earlier in the year that this long-running problem had been resolved but obviously this isn’t the case. Very disappointing!

Northern Lapwing

As usual Canada Geese were overwhelmingly the most numerous species – we counted more than 350 – and at least eight Barnacle Geese were also present. A couple of Lesser Black-backs were amongst the many Black-headed Gulls and the ducks included a few Tufted, Shoveler and Teal – all pretty unexciting.

The 'Scrape', Doxey Marshes

A Common Buzzard and two Kestrels were probably the morning’s highlights and it didn’t take too long for attention to turn to photography.

Comma butterfly

Hoverfly - Helophilus pendulus

The main thing is that Swarovski have done a good job sorting out the optics and it will only be a few days now before some quality birding in California (Peter) and Portugal (June).


It was sad to read this morning of the death of Mrs Marion Paton of Patagonia, Arizona. Almost anyone who has been birding in SE Arizona in the last 20 years or so will have visited Birders’ Haven or Patons’ yard as it became known. This is probably the most famous of all the birdwatching gardens in the USA and one that our Avian Adventures tour visited again as recently as May this year. Mrs Paton and her late husband, Wally, generously allowed birders to just walk in through their gate and sit down in front of a row of feeders at the rear of the house to watch the wonderful selection of hummingbirds, finches, buntings, orioles, woodpeckers and more. As someone has already written elsewhere, the Patons typified all that is good about birding and will be sadly missed.