Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Timed Tetrad Visit

Our fifth day back in the UK and, with the sun showing at least for a while, we spent the morning on a Timed Tetrad Visit as part of the Bird Atlas 2007-11 Project organised by the British Trust for Ornithology. We volunteered some time ago to cover the tetrad SJ92B and today we counted birds in this 2km x 2km square for two hours. Timed Tetrad Visits are principally concerned with assessing the relative abundance of species so we were simply trying to determine the number and diversity of birds in our chosen area.

We chose SJ92B mainly because it is very close to our home in Stafford. It includes a small part of Doxey Marshes Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest managed by the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. In addition it has a nice mix of habitats (woodland, farmland, a small lake, a golf course) and importantly a good network of public footpaths making for easy access. Stafford Castle stands in the south-west corner of the tetrad and has done for 900 years or so.

During our two hours we recorded a total of just 33 species. Mallards (8), Coots (3) and Moorhens (3) were the only 'waterbirds' and there were no waders at all apart from a flock of about 100 Lapwings that flew over and which because they weren't actually 'using' the tetrad, we couldn't include. Mostly we found finches, thrushes and tits and amongst these Lesser Redpolls were the nearest we came to a surprise. The most numerous species was Wood Pigeon (or Woodpigeon as the BTO call it). Species seen only singly were Goldcrest, Stonechat, Reed Bunting, Pheasant, Sparrowhawk and Greenfinch. We saw as many (five) Great Spotted Woodpeckers as we did Wrens which wasn't expected.

Dunnock - 7 seen today in SJ92B

Clearly SJ92B isn't the most exciting or productive area for finding birds but no doubt our small contribution will help towards eventually putting together the 'big picture' in an Atlas. Also, after several days stuck in the house, we enjoyed getting out for a walk and it was good to find several species that we haven't seen for a while. It did seem odd, though, not to find any Black-winged Stilts or Flamingos! There will be more counting to be done in the same area come the breeding season.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Great Bustards

Our last birding in Portugal for a while involved a drive up to the Castro Verde area of the Baixo Alentejo. We covered most of the regular places and saw most of the usual birds although it wasn’t a great day for raptors and we saw neither of the eagle species that we have come to expect.

As always on visits to this part of Portugal we were hoping for an opportunity to photograph Great Bustards and finally we got lucky. They may not be the greatest set of Great Bustard photographs but they’re the best we’ve managed so far. They were taken from the main Castro Verde to Mértola road where a flock of 50 Great Bustards stayed (just about) within range of the 600mm lens (actually a 300mm f2.8 with a 2x Extender) long enough for us to get a few shots of them on the ground and later in the air.

It was our last birding here because we’re flying to the UK later today to prepare for an Avian Adventures tour in The Gambia later this month.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Isla de Canela

This afternoon we popped across the border into Andalucía for a rare visit to Isla de Canela. This is the south westernmost corner of Spain just the other side of the River Guadiana, south of Ayamonte. It’s not very far as the Redshank flies but an hour’s drive away.

The extensive area of salt marsh and abandoned saltpans is part of the Isla Cristina Paraje Natural, a designation that gives it at least some protection. The circular trail makes a pleasant enough walk and for us it was good to have a change of scene. There is even a somewhat randomly sited birdwatching hide here although it is hard to imagine ever wanting to spend much time in it. Unfortunately, we missed the best of the day’s weather - after a sunny morning, the afternoon was cloudy and quite cool.

The range of bird species seen was small. Most of the shorebirds were of the estuarine varieties: Grey Plovers, Curlews, Redshanks, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, Oystercatcher and Whimbrel with one or two Greenshanks, Kentish Plovers and Little Stints. A handful of Black-necked Grebes and Mallards were on one of the creeks; several Spoonbills (one of them colour-ringed) and a couple each of Caspian Terns and Sandwich Terns were along the main river channel; we flushed Little Egrets and a single Grey Heron. Passerines were few, just Crested Larks, Serins, Meadow Pipits and an occasional Chiffchaff and Sardinian Warbler. The only raptor seen was, not surprisingly, a Marsh Harrier. Fishing boats returning to Isla Cristina were being greeted by hundreds of Lesser Black-backed Gulls with just a few Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls also in attendance. It was very noticeable that the vast majority of Lesser Black-backs were adults.

Tomorrow is Día de Reyes, the Epiphany, the day when the Three Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem, arrived bearing their treasured gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus. It’s a public holiday in Spain. Today, while on our walk, we watched from across the river, the arrival by boat of the Three Kings for the start of the traditional parade through the town. A brass band played as they set off in their carriages accompanied by children, some dressed as angels, some in various other costume dress - it was a very colourful scene. Sweets were thrown to the children along the way and later as we drove back through Ayamonte we could see that a similar parade had taken place there as the road through the town centre was littered with sweets!

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Ludo & Quinta do Lago

We were at Ludo Farm and Quinta do Lago again today. We thought we should try for a photograph of the Greater Scaup that we saw on Thursday, which is after all quite a scarce bird in these parts.

Our arrival at Ludo coincided with the start of a torrential downpour including hail with the result that we spent the first half an hour sitting in the car. A selection of the common wader species and a couple of Caspian Terns kept us entertained until the storm passed.

Our walk to Lago do São Lourenço and back was an exact repeat of the one we did on New Year’s Day but today it took quite a lot longer. Mostly the weather remained reasonably sunny and bright with just an odd shower or two. We had e-mailed our friend Georg Schreier with news of the Scaup and he arrived shortly after us also hoping to see it. The three of us spent a long time searching for the bird but unfortunately there was no sign of it.

We did see today four species that we failed to find during our Big Day: Grey Wagtail, Green Sandpiper, Black-necked Grebe and Red-knobbed Coot. Of course, there were several species that we saw on Thursday that we didn’t see today! That’s birding. The Red-knobbed Coot was a bird with a white neck-collar that was first seen here several months ago but hasn't to our knowledge been reported since September.

As usual it was hard to resist photographing Purple Swamp-hens.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Big Day

After five consecutive days of cloudy, gloomy weather with a lot of rain, yesterday was an improvement…of sorts. We did at last see the sun but only for an hour or so late morning. In fact once the fog had cleared it was pleasantly warm for a while. And then the clouds returned and by mid-afternoon it was almost dark and once again pouring with rain. Not a great day for birding!

However, it being the first day of a new birding year we went out early, before we knew how the weather was going to be, to see as many bird species as we could during the day. We started by driving to Ludo Farm where we arrived at 8.00am. Visibility was poor, we couldn’t even see the planes taking off from nearby Faro airport; finding birds wasn’t easy. As we set off for what was going to be a four-hour walk, Cetti’s Warblers were calling, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and a couple of Penduline Tits showed, but we decided not to worry too much about the smaller birds for the time being and instead hope for an improvement in the weather that would make them easier to see later on.

By the time we reached Lago do São Lourenço we had seen most of the expected duck species and we soon added Red-crested Pochard, Tufted Duck and Greater Scaup to the list, the last of these a bonus that we hadn’t expected. A single Glossy Ibis eventually made a brief appearance but there was no such co-operation from the Little Bittern that we had hoped for.

The walk back to the car produced all the wader, gull and tern species that we expected here. Weather-wise this was the best part of the day and whereas earlier we had seen only one or two other people, there were now quite a few walkers and joggers along the trail. In spite of this activity we found plenty of Serins, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Common Waxbills, a couple of Corn Buntings and a Bluethroat as we headed back. Raptors were also flying: Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, Common Buzzard and Booted Eagle were added to our list.

Before leaving Ludo we had three species to look for that we knew we wouldn’t find elsewhere: Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper and Crested Tit. We had parked the car at the edge of woodland, it was just a question of how much time we could afford to spend. In the event we settled for two out of three, gave up on Crested Tit and at 12.20pm set off to Castro Marim with our species total standing at 85.

After days of rain we needed our wellies for the trail around the saltpans at Cerro do Bufo. We planned to spend no more than a couple of hours here and we had a list of target species most of which we found without difficulty. Mostly these were birds that were exactly in places where we have seen them before: Greylag Goose, Shelduck, Golden Plover, Black Redstart, Southern Grey Shrike, Ruff, Audouin’s Gull. We were let down by the Peregrine Falcon that for once wasn’t sitting on the fencepost that we have seen it on at least six times; we simply didn’t reach the point on the trail from which we could have seen the flock of Black-necked Grebes. By 3.00pm it was pretty gloomy but a few hirundines were flying, including a single House Martin as well as the expected Barn Swallows and Crag Martin.

Next, as the weather deteriorated further, we wasted 45 minutes looking in vain for Little Bustards and Lesser Short-toed Larks. By now it was raining and very little was flying. There was time for one more stop before we returned to Tavira but not surprisingly there was no sign of a Little Tern.

In Tavira we went first to the quarry but it was now so gloomy we could barely see the rocks let alone the resident Blue Rock Thrush. We hoped for a Grey Wagtail here but that, too, was missing. We checked a Barn Owl roost-site but it was unoccupied. We were tempted to give up and go home. But no, there were two species of which we remained confident and both Slender-billed Gull and Northern Gannet were duly added to bring our total for the day to 106 (plus Feral Pigeon, if you will).

As always happens on these so-called “Big Days” we missed seeing several species that we would normally expect to find without even trying. For instance, we’ve seen Grey Wagtail in the town centre this morning and Dartford Warblers are fairly widespread and usually pop up somewhere. However, the weather was the important factor that limited our New Year’s Day total and given different conditions we would hope to see maybe 115 or more. Maybe next year!

We got wet and muddy and had some fun along the way but once a year is enough for this kind of birding. Now we’re back to actually looking at the birds, not just ticking them…