Sunday, 27 May 2012

Last Week's Birding

It’s been another week when most of our birding has been around the Castro Marim area but we’ve also spent time in the Ria Formosa and yesterday we had a complete change by leaving the coast and heading about 40km inland into the countryside.  There have been no rarities to report but plenty to keep us interested.

At Castro Marim our survey of the Lesser Short-toed Larks has more or less come to an end; we’re not expecting to find them singing/displaying beyond the end of May.  In truth, the areas that we have been responsible for haven’t been very productive but while looking for larks in places that we might not otherwise have been to we’ve had lots to keep us entertained.  Just this morning, we saw a Great Spotted Cuckoo, two Glossy Ibises, a Spoonbill and a Marsh Harrier during just a short visit to a place that we would probably have driven past without stopping if we hadn’t had larks to look for.

We continue to see small numbers of Glossy Ibises in odd places, presumed to be birds that have dispersed following their failure to breed in Doñana and elsewhere.  There was also a report this week of 2,000 Eurasian Coots at Ludo, which one also has to think have failed to find suitable breeding conditions.  Surely there must be a Red-knobbed one amongst that lot if we can find time to go and look!

We’ve also been involved at Castro Marim in the monthly count of wetland birds.  The reserve covers about 845 hectares so it’s quite a task.  Wader numbers are dwindling now and most of the 15 species we saw on Friday were in quite small numbers.  The exceptions were Dunlins, Black-tailed Godwits, Black-winged Stilts and Avocets, the last two of these being breeding birds here.

Nesting among the Avocets and Black-winged Stilts are Kentish Plovers and Little Terns and it is to be hoped that they will manage to avoid the predations of the many Yellow-legged Gulls.  Plenty of Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls are still on the reserve but there’s no sign of any of them breeding there this year.

Counting the Greater Flamingos is the biggest headache!  The total was just short of 1,600 birds, which again are non-breeders.  As usual we read as many colour-rings as we were able to and now await some details of the life histories of the birds concerned.  We had replies this week about several birds that we reported back in March.  Three of them had been ringed at Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, near Malaga in Spain.  One was ringed in 1990 and had previously been seen at Castro Marim in 1997 and 2007 but had since been to Algeria in 2009; another was ringed in 1991, has been seen regularly in the Marismas del Odiel but hadn’t previously been seen in Portugal; the third was ringed in 1999 and had been reported from Tunisia in 2000, Algeria in 2006 and Tavira (seen by us) in 2011.

We’ve seen two more Ospreys this week.  One was at Castro Marim and may have been the same bird we saw on 17th May.  The other was in the Ria Formosa, near Faro.

At the same site, near Faro, we saw a pair of Shelducks with a brood of 11 recently hatched young.  The first breeding of Shelducks in Portugal was as recently as 2000 but they now seem well-established and we expect to see some more young appearing very soon.

Our trip inland took us to an area where the air was filled with the songs of Nightingales, Woodlarks and Blackcaps and where we found several species that we don’t see much if at all in our home area, notably Melodious Warbler, Common Redstart, Iberian Chiffchaff, Rock Bunting and Nuthatch.  It made a nice change from all the wetland birds that we live with along the coast. 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

May...or July?

The calendar says it’s May but for most of the last week it’s seemed more like July or August with temperatures reaching as high as 35ºC.  Early starts have been essential and most days we’ve been out birding by 6.30am or soon after.  Our plan has been to pack up and come home when it gets hot but that hasn’t always happened – there’s always somewhere else to go, something else to see!

Much of our attention has been focused around Castro Marim where we have been making repeat visits to the three areas that we volunteered to cover as part of a survey of the Lesser Short-toed Lark population.  It has to be said that we haven’t found many and it will be interesting to hear how others have fared.  Fortunately, there have been plenty of other birds to see while we’ve been looking for larks, including Little Bustards, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Stone-curlews and Glossy Ibises.

There seem to be quite a number of Glossy Ibises in the Algarve at the moment and several Squacco Herons, too.  When we were last in Doñana conditions there were such that it seemed unlikely many birds would breed at the JAV Centre and so it has turned out, we hear.  Presumably the birds that have found their way to the Algarve are some of the failed breeders.   Might some of these birds have found a place in the Algarve to breed, we wonder.

Again we have spent some time looking for new sites where we can photograph Bee-eaters; we also spent an hour or more one morning trying to photograph an uncooperative Spectacled Warbler.  We’ve been checking for the return of White-rumped Swifts and one morning we even went twitching!

A brood of Crag Martins at a site where we were looking for White-rumped Swifts.
 Migration continues and there are still plenty of waders around the Ria Formosa and at Castro Marim that should soon be heading north.  Mostly they are Dunlins and Sanderlings, now in fine breeding plumage, but we are still seeing a few Grey Plovers, Turnstones, Curlews, Oystercatchers and Ruff and it’s been a good week for Wood Sandpipers.

A late Osprey at Castro Marim on 17th May was one of the week’s highlights, particularly as it perched on top of a pole that was fitted with a nest platform intended for White Storks.  Who knows, maybe one day they will breed there!

Another highlight was adding Golden Oriole to the list of species that we have seen/heard without leaving home.  A bird sang for quite a while yesterday but unfortunately without ever showing itself.  As we are quite close to the coast (Gannet is on that ‘seen from home’ list!), we assume it was a newly arrived migrant.

Our twitch was unsuccessful.  The best bird of the week in the Algarve was a White-winged Tern found near Faro late on Monday by Thijs Valkenberg and others.  Unfortunately, it was gone by the following morning.  Our journey wasn’t wasted, however.  It was an opportunity to enjoy some close up views of Collared Pratincoles and to take some photographs.

Finally, a colour-ringed Spoonbill that we saw on Tuesday turned out, not surprisingly, to have originated in the Netherlands.  It was ringed in 1996 and during its 16 years has made several visits to the Marismas del Odiel just across the border from here in Spain.  However, ours was the first report of it in Portugal.  

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Arizona tour

Peter writes:
I’m just back from leading another excellent Avian Adventures tour in Arizona, my 20th visit to the Grand Canyon State which is this year celebrating its Centennial.  Arizona was the last of the contiguous 'Lower 48' states to join the Union in 1912.

The itinerary for our tour was the tried and trusted one that we have followed for quite a number of years.  Starting in Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains, we concentrated on the south-east of the state, visiting the Chiricahuas, the Huachucas and the Santa Ritas before heading north to Sedona and finally the must-see Grand Canyon itself.

In comparison to some previous tours that have started around the same date as this one (22nd April), the spring migration seemed rather late this year.  Every year is different but several species that I would normally expect to find quite easily proved difficult and one or two annoyingly failed to put in an appearance at all until several days after we left or moved out of their range.  As always we were compensated by seeing one or two species that I hadn’t expected or ones that I wouldn’t have 'guaranteed'.

I will shortly be writing a full report for the tour participants.  Here I will simply share a few photographs…

Owls are always popular, none more so than Burrowing Owl, a member of the same genus, Athene, as the European Little Owl.  They seem to have disappeared from some of the sites where I have regularly seen them in the past but this particular bird is one that June and I located when we were in Arizona in January – it was exactly where we left it!

One of six species of wrens that one can reasonably hope to see in Arizona, Cactus Wren is the largest.  It has a very distinctive, far-carrying song sounding a bit like a car that is reluctant to start!  It is a common bird of the desert, also occurring in Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and California as well as the car parks of our motels in Tucson and Sierra Vista!

An unexpected species was this Common Grackle at John Yerger's feeders at Quailway Cottage, near Portal.  It remained for several days attracting a fair bit of local interest as there have been only about a dozen previous records in Arizona of this species from the Eastern USA.

Broad-billed Hummingbirds are always popular with first-time visitors to Arizona as they are one of the easier hummingbird species to identify.  We saw nine hummingbird species during the tour; perhaps the absence from that list of Lucifer and White-eared Hummingbirds was a consequence of last year’s wildfires in the Huachucas or maybe they were just late arriving.

It’s not just hummingbirds that benefit from feeders!  This is a Ladder-backed Woodpecker but we also saw Acorn, Gila and Arizona Woodpeckers taking advantage.

 Always one of the most popular birds on an Arizona tour is Vermilion Flycatcher.  Usually associated with water, we saw them along the San Pedro River, at Whitewater Draw, at Willcox Twin Lakes and elsewhere.

After all the excitement just before I left Portugal about Porzana species, I was pleased that we had good views at Patagonia Lake of this Sora, a close relative of the Spotted, Little and Baillon’s Crakes that came to the Algarve on April’s easterly winds.

This was one of the most obliging Virginia Rails that I’ve ever seen, feeding well away from any cover at Whitewater Draw.

Turkey Vulture was the only species that we saw every day of the tour.  Although they look rather like Old World vultures and behave in similar fashion, it is thought that they are not closely related.  In fact, some authorities have suggested that they are more closely related to the storks.

Almost everyone I’ve taken to the USA seems to like Red-winged Blackbirds!  They are birds that make an impression with their bright red shoulder patches and gurgling calls in the spring and their huge flocks in winter.  However, they are considered in some quarters to be a pest species and in 2009 (the most recent year for which I can find figures) almost 1 million of them are reported to have been deliberately poisoned by the US Department of Agriculture, mainly in Texas and Louisiana.

This is a Cassin’s Kingbird.  Only Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds made it onto our list this year, although I do think I saw a Tropical at Sweetwater Wetlands.  There hadn’t been any sign of a Thick-billed at the traditional site outside Patagonia when we were there.

Lazuli Buntings are migrants through south-eastern Arizona, frequent visitors to feeders on the way from wintering areas in Mexico to breeding territories further north.  This one is a colourful male.

We had really great views of several California Condors at the Grand Canyon.  In the 1980s the population of these birds in the wild had fallen to 22 individuals, all of them in California.  All of those birds were captured and a breeding programme was started which over a period of 20 years has rescued the species from likely extinction.  Condors were re-introduced to Arizona in December 1996 after an absence of more than 70 years and they are now breeding in the wild again.  There have been setbacks and disappointments along the way and lead poisoning remains a problem, but the future certainly looks much brighter.  There are currently about 70 individuals in northern Arizona and southern Utah.

Thanks are due to my companions on this tour for helping to make it so pleasurable and also to many friends in Arizona for their hospitality and their help and advice with the birds.

Friday, 11 May 2012

European Bee-eaters

Peter's first morning back in the Algarve after his tour in Arizona and we have been out photographing Bee-eaters.

April's wet and rather cool weather won't have helped these birds at all and the ones we watched all seemed to still be excavating nest-holes - hence their muddy bills.  Hopefully, in a few weeks time we can get some images of them while they are feeding young.

Three displaying male Little Bustards, two Montagu's Harriers and an uncounted number of Slender-billed Gulls were other highlights of the morning's birding.