Saturday, 28 January 2012

Projecto Arenaria 2011/12

Projecto Arenaria (the ‘Turnstone Project’) is a survey of non-estuarine coastal birds here in Portugal that is similar to the Winter Shorebird Count carried out in the UK in 1984/85 by the British Trust for Ornithology. Living at the time in Staffordshire, about as far from the coast as you can be in the UK, Peter was an unlikely volunteer to participate in that survey but that’s what happened with round trips of 300 miles being made to count shorebirds along the coast of North Wales. Madness!

Arenaria began in 2009/10 so this is its third year. Counts have to be made between 1st December and 31st January, a period for most of which we were away in Ethiopia, the UK and the USA, so we weren’t expecting to take part this time. However, we returned last Tuesday to find that there was a stretch of coast not too far away that still hadn’t been surveyed.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

So this morning we walked along the beach from Praia Verde to Cacela Velha and back. It was another beautiful morning with a clear blue sky and temperatures that at times exceeded the forecast 16°C. A three-hour walk in the sun was exactly what we needed! As part of the survey, we counted not just the birds but also the people and any dogs that weren’t on a leash and as it was Saturday there were plenty of both.

By far and away the most numerous bird species was Lesser Black-backed Gull totalling just over 500. There were only a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls and a single Slender-billed. A few Sandwich Terns flew by, Northern Gannets were diving off-shore and just off the beach there was a single Razorbill. Waders were represented only by Kentish Plovers and Sanderlings and there were few of either.

Slender-billed Gull


Single Spoonbill and Cormorant flew over but probably the only real surprise was when a flock of 22 Common Pochards passed over, heading east to and from who knows where.

Will our data be of any use to anyone? Well, of course we hope so but more importantly we enjoyed collecting it and what’s more we didn’t have to drive 300 miles to do it!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Snow Buntings

When we received an email on 6th January telling us that three Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) had been found on the beach near Vila Real de Santo António in the south-east corner of the Algarve, we were still enjoying ourselves in Arizona!

Snow Bunting is a rare species in the Algarve, particularly so at this eastern end of the coast. So, although we were having a great time in the USA, it was just a little bit disappointing not to be able to go and look for them.

Still, we did put a trip to VRSA high on our list of things to do once we were back here in Portugal, hoping that the birds might just end up being long-stayers. Today that trip reached the top of our list and on a beautiful, bright and sunny morning we headed for the beach.

The report had been of an adult and two 1st-winter birds and within just a few minutes of our arrival we easily located the two 1st-winter individuals feeding along the tide line. From their differing plumage, we took them to be a male and a female. We can claim no great expertise in the identification of Snow Buntings down to subspecies but it has already been suggested that they are birds of the nominate race, nivalis, and we could find no reason to disagree with that. Wherever they are from, they are a long way further south than their normal wintering grounds.

The beach looking towards Monte Gordo.

We stayed and watched them for about an hour and a half during which time they fed more or less continuously and didn't seem at all bothered by our presence. At one point, one of them actually approached to within a couple of metres of June. Unfortunately, at no time was there any sign of the adult bird.

Let's hope the two of them stay around for others to enjoy.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Back in the Algarve

It was still dark when we set out this morning. It was about as warm as you might expect it to be in the UK in January and it was raining. In short, we didn't need any persuading to be heading for Portugal.

We arrived at Faro airport on yet another on-time Ryanair flight at about 2.00pm; by 4.00pm we were in Tavira and another half an hour had us unpacked. Having stood for two months the car needed a bit of encouragement before it burst into life but by 5.00pm we were down the road watching four Short-eared Owls flying over the saltpans. We were supposed to be shopping for essential supplies but it's easy to get distracted even on such a short journey! A couple of House Martins were the only other birds of note seen before we reluctantly accepted the need for just a short visit to the Minipreço, our local supermarket.

Short-eared Owl - one of last winter's images that we hope to improve on during the coming days.

Doubtless there will have to more serious shopping tomorrow...but also more serious birding!

Sunday, 22 January 2012


After our few days birding in California we moved just a short distance east and spent more than two weeks in Arizona.

Arizona is the sixth largest of the United States behind Alaska, Texas, California, Montana and New Mexico and covers an area of 295,254 square kilometres. That makes it substantially bigger than the UK but with a population of only 6½ million people! In terms of the number of bird species recorded, it ranks third, behind only California and Texas, two states that have the obvious advantage of a coast line providing lots of seabirds and shorebirds.

We restricted ourselves to the southern portion of the state where we visited many of the well known birding sites that are familiar to us from multiple previous visits (this was Peter’s 19th time in Arizona). Some of this was part of an Avian Adventures tour but we spent a week on our own after the tour which included a few days spent with friends in Tucson when we even had some time off from birding.

Without doubt, Tucson is one of our favourite cities, not least because of its location close to such good birding areas. Sweetwater Wetlands, a wastewater treatment facility on the edge of the city is just the sort of place you would like to have on your doorstep. The nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is another must-visit attraction and then there are the Santa Catalina Mountains, notably Mt Lemmon. The city itself has several small parks that regularly turn up interesting birds and within easy reach there are countless other places to find birds.

Ruddy Duck - common on most lakes and not causing any problems!

Yellow-rumped Warbler - birds of the Audubon's variety were common.

There was plenty of snow left on Mt Lemmon.

In winter, the Sulphur Springs Valley, located between the towns of Willcox and Douglas is a great place to be birding. It’s a huge area and we made a couple of trips down there. It’s famous for its raptors and Sandhill Cranes. More than 16,000 Sandhill Cranes were counted while we were there – quite a spectacle!

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes

Red-tailed Hawk in its natural habitat, a power pole.

The San Rafael Valley is another area that is probably best in winter. The attractions here are again birds of prey but also sparrows, lots of sparrows and longspurs. It’s an area of extensive grassland with limited access but where a surprising number and variety of birds can be seen from the narrow road. We looked hard for Baird’s Sparrows but without success on this occasion. As it was, Chestnut-collared Longspur was probably our highlight here.

Horned Lark - a regular species in grassland areas.

The San Rafael grasslands are best approached from the small town of Patagonia where Patons’ Birders Haven is always on the itinerary. Wally and Marion Paton unfortunately passed away some time ago but for the past couple of years the feeders in their yard have been maintained by Michael Marsden and have continued to attract birds all year round.

Another must-visit site in this area is Patagonia Lake State Park. Always trying to avoid the crowds that result from its recreational uses, particularly at weekends, we always expect to see a few species that we don’t find elsewhere. In the past we have seen a wintering Elegant Trogon here and we were fortunate this time to find what may well be the same bird somehow making a living along the Sonoita Creek that feeds the lake from its eastern end. This was probably the bird of the trip for the Avian Adventures group.

The swellegant, Elegant Trogon.

We also spent a couple of nights in the Chiricahua Mountains in the extreme south-east of the state, even crossing briefly into New Mexico. Everyone we’ve ever taken to Arizona has loved the ‘towns’ of Portal and Paradise and nearby Cave Creek Canyon and although they're not at their best in winter we couldn’t resist going for a rare chance to be there on our own.

White-breasted Nuthatch - this one at the George Walker House in Paradise.

Out to the west of Gila Bend we had a good look at part of the 68,000-acre Paloma Ranch where we found a remarkable number of Burrowing Owls as well as plenty of Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, American Pipits, Horned Larks and a variety of sparrows. These and flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and doves at the cattle feedlots were a ready food supply for the Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Ferruginous Hawk and Merlin that we saw but it was less clear what an Osprey was doing there.

Burrowing Owl - always a favourite.

We also took a look at Madera Canyon and Florida Canyon (now a regular site for Rufous-capped Warblers); we had a walk along the San Pedro River and puzzled over empidonax flycatchers; we took a drive out to the famous ‘Thrasher Spot’ near Buckeye where we managed to see Sage and Bendire’s Thrashers as well as the main feature, Le Conte’s Thrasher; in the Community Park at Anthem (north of Phoenix and the furthest north we went), we were successful in finding the long-staying Rufous-backed Robin, one of several of this species present in Arizona this winter. Unfortunately, on a Saturday afternoon when the park was, to say the least, rather crowded with people, we failed to locate a Rusty Blackbird that has also been a long-stayer there.

Sage Sparrow - a sideshow when looking for Le Conte's Thrasher and much easier to photograph.

Rufous-backed Robin - braving the crowds at Anthem.

The Santa Cruz Flats, west of I-10 was where we went to find what we regard as one of the must-see species of a winter trip to Arizona – Mountain Plover. We managed to find a few and, in fact went back for a second look on our last morning before heading for the airport. We do like our plovers and sandpipers! Crested Caracaras were also notable birds in an area where, as in several places we went, the cultivation of cotton seems to have taken over, probably to the detriment of wintering bird populations.

Not snow, but cotton.

Eastern (Lilian's) Meadowlark

Vermilion Flycatcher - this one out on the Santa Cruz Flats.

All in all it was a great trip – great birding, beautiful weather and good company! What’s not to like about Arizona?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Salton Sea

Leaving behind the scenic California coast we headed east for a two-night stay in Brawley, situated near the southern end of the Salton Sea. Shortly before we reached Brawley we saw our first of many Greater Roadrunners and Burrowing Owls and also one of the least expected birds of the tour, a Zone-tailed Hawk.

Burrowing Owl – a close relation of the Little Owl, familiar to us in Europe.

The 35-mile long Salton Sea is the largest lake in California that owes its existence to an irrigation scheme started at the end of the 19th Century. In 1905, when heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell and breach an Imperial Valley dike it took nearly two years to control the river’s flow into the formerly dry Salton Sink and stop the flooding. The sudden influx of water and the lack of drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea. It became a desert oasis and a thriving tourist attraction but by the 1970s, as the sea grew heavy with salt, sewage and agricultural chemicals, disease outbreaks began to kill birds and fish and tourists stopped coming.

Cleaning up the lake became one of the issues championed by Sonny Bono during his two terms in Congress (1995-98). Who would have thought back in the 1960s when he was a successful singer, songwriter and actor, that following his premature death he would have a National Wildlife Refuge named after him as a result of his efforts to reverse the environmental problems of the Salton Sea?

Eared or Black-necked Grebe

Black-crowned Night Heron

Least Sandpiper

Great Egret

American White Pelicans

Western Sandpiper

The Salton Sea continues to be an outstanding location for birds and birders. Situated within the Pacific Flyway it provides important habitat for migrating and wintering birds. We had only a short time there but managed to see an excellent variety of shorebirds and wildfowl. As so often, it was large numbers of birds that impressed most – thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese, Sandhill Cranes and White-faced Ibises.

We were to see many more Sandhill Cranes in Arizona…

Monday, 16 January 2012

Coastal Southern California

We’re just back from the USA, a trip that included a two-week Avian Adventures tour in California and Arizona. This was followed by a week on our own in Arizona with just a brief excursion into New Mexico. Almost throughout our stay we enjoyed clear blue skies and most days the temperature rose to at least 21º C. Early mornings were sometimes cold but we always knew that it would soon warm up.

We flew to Los Angeles and spent our first night in Newport Beach, about 45 miles to the south. Birding began the following morning (Christmas Eve) on the hotel car park where Western Bluebirds, Orange-crowned Warbler, Anna’s Hummingbird and Black Phoebe were very confiding and threatened to delay our departure. However, we were soon on our way to Upper Newport Bay where our visit coincided with one of the year’s highest tides and ideal conditions to see the area’s most notable bird, the “Light-footed” Clapper Rail. Not only did we see several of this restricted range subspecies but also Soras, a Virginia Rail and two American Bitterns, all of them forced out of the cordgrass by the rising water. It was an ideal place to start the tour and in no time at all we had seen 40 or more species – ducks, shorebirds, pelicans, raptors and more local specialities in the form of California Gnatcatcher and the beldingi subspecies of Savannah Sparrow.

Black-necked Stilt with dragonfly

Later, we spent some time at the nearby San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, an area of freshwater ponds that boasts 11 miles of nature trails. Here we had good close views of a variety of common ducks and shorebirds and saw our first Vermilion Flycatcher, always a crowd-pleaser. From there we headed to Dana Point where sadly we arrived a day too late to see the Masked Booby that had been hanging out there throughout the previous week. Those in our group who hadn’t previously seen one were just as impressed by a Pacific Loon.

Pacific Loon

Christmas Day was spent birding around San Diego, including the South Bay area, Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge and along Monument Road that leads to Border Field State Park. The South Bay area in particular was full of birds and again we were fortunate to have a high tide to push the hundreds of shorebirds into close view. Tijuana Slough provided the Little Blue Heron that we had hoped for, not a very common species in California, but along Monument Road, in fading light, we were frustrated in our attempts to see the many Wrentits that could be heard singing from the brushy hillside. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was here within sight of the border ‘fence’ that we had our first encounter with the US Border Patrol.

US Navy ship in the South Bay with rafts of ducks, mainly Redheads and Lesser Scaup.

Willet - the western race inornata.

Little Blue Heron

Before leaving the coast we spent a most enjoyable morning at La Jolla, an attractive little town just north of San Diego where we were able to get up close to Harbour Seals, Brown Pelicans, Brandt’s Cormorants, Heermann’s, Western and Ring-billed Gulls and Royal Terns. More distant were Western Grebes on the sea and Black-vented Shearwaters flying over it. Shorebirds included Black Turnstones, Hudsonian Whimbrel and Willets. We might have hoped for more but on a beautiful, warm and sunny morning in such a scenic area, no one was complaining!

Brown Pelican

Royal Tern

Harbour Seal - looking a bit puzzled!

Next, the Salton Sea…