Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Caspian Tern

The appearance of a Caspian Tern at Rudyard Lake on Friday gave us the possibility of a twitching trip to see a species that neither of us has ever seen in the UK let alone in Staffordshire.  Rudyard Lake is less than 50 miles away and Caspian Tern is a genuinely rare species in the UK; there have been only eight previous records in Staffordshire and this was the first since 1999. 

We didn’t go!

It didn’t take more than a few seconds to realise that there wouldn’t be much sense in spending time and money chasing off to see a species that we can see almost every day in the Algarve.  We do enjoy seeing and watching Caspian Terns but the only reason to have gone would have been to add a tick to a list. 

We realise that we are lucky to be so familiar with Caspian Terns.  In Tavira we sometimes see one come into what is effectively the town centre, fishing in the Gilão River.  Although they don’t breed in the Algarve, there are usually a few to be found throughout the year either in the Ria Formosa or at Castro Marim.  These birds are almost certainly from the breeding population around the Baltic Sea many of which winter in West Africa.  We see them on their way south in the spring and on their way back later in the year but many stay in the Algarve through the winter and a few, presumably sub-adult non-breeders, spend the summer with us.  We know of only one record of a colour-ringed bird in the Algarve: a bird seen by Ray Tipper on 30th September last year at Castro Marim that had been ringed just 91 days earlier as a nestling in Sweden.

Apart from in Portugal, we have also seen Caspian Terns in Finland, Costa Rica, South Africa, various parts of Africa and in several US states - they are widely distributed around the world also breeding in China, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.  It is the world’s largest tern, almost the size of a Lesser Black-backed Gull and its striking large red bill makes it unmistakeable.  

In Britain there have been more records in July than in any other month, which is perhaps a bit surprising.  The assumption is that these birds are also from the Baltic population although there is a record of a bird ringed in North America being found in Yorkshire back in 1939.

Perhaps surprisingly Caspian Tern is regarded as monotypic; as yet there are no recognised sub-species although no doubt someone somewhere will be working on that!  It is reported that birds from North America, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf are somewhat smaller than European ones, while birds from South America and Australia average larger.

The Rudyard Lake bird  stayed throughout the weekend and was apparently last seen flying out to the north early on Monday afternoon.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A Morning at Blithfield

After two weeks or so of what we used to think of as normal summer weather the tabloids now have headlines featuring “rocketing temperatures” and “heatwave warnings”, stories about “climate change” and articles about skin cancer!  Yes, it certainly starts to look as though our plan to escape the heat of the Algarve by coming to the UK is a failure.  But then again, perhaps not - forecast high temperatures today in Tavira and Stafford are 28°C and 25°C respectively, hardly a level to cause panic and alarm in either of those places.  We shudder to think what our friends in Tucson (35°) would think about such a reaction to weather we’re sure they would find to be a relief from the genuinely high temperatures they have been experiencing for the past few weeks and which they expect to have at this time of the year.

Anyway, making sure to use sunscreen, wear a hat and take plenty to drink, we spent yesterday morning at Blithfield Reservoir, another of our old stamping grounds in Staffordshire.  Blithfield, like Belvide, now has several new hides which are a great improvement on the old ones but we had forgotten just how far away from the birds several of them are. 

Although in some ways we enjoy the challenge of trying to identify distant waders, it was a bit unsatisfactory to come away from Blithe Bay not knowing for sure whether we really had seen a summer-plumaged Sanderling.  Even at 60x magnification through a Swarovski telescope it was just a dot!  And, while there was no doubt about the identification of spiffy Black-tailed Godwits, there was still no getting over the fact that they were 500 metres or more away and that as a result it was difficult to fully appreciate their finery.  Clearly we have been spoiled by the very close views of waders that we enjoy around Tavira!

Friday, 12 July 2013

A Morning at Belvide

With the temperature in Tavira heading for 30°C it won't come as a surprise to our regular readers that today we were at.....Belvide Reservoir!  Yes, we've escaped the heat (not to mention the crowds) of the Algarve and we're going to be in the UK for the next few weeks.  Next month we'll be at the Rutland Water Birdfair but in the meantime we're hoping to visit as many as possible of our local birding sites in Staffordshire and Worcestershire and maybe we'll have time for some trips further afield. 

It had been quite a while since our last visit to Belvide, which was once regarded as Peter's 'second home' in the days when he was very involved in managing the reserve for the West Midland Bird Club.  It was interesting to see the many changes that have been made there (new hides, storage facilities for plant and machinery, improved rafts for nesting birds, more feeders, even a portaloo on the car park!) but it didn't take long to see (and hear from several birders we met) that quite a few of the long term problems that we struggled with through the 1980s and 1990s still remain.

The birding was unspectacular but amazingly we did see one fairly common species that neither of us had seen before at Belvide, even though Peter had seen one as long ago as 1976 at nearby Blithfield Reservoir.  It was an Egyptian Goose!  Apparently this individual has been in the area for a while and no longer seemed of much interest to the regular Belvide birders.  We were also pleased with a Common Redstart, Tree Sparrows and juvenile Great Spotted Woodpeckers on the feeders and a nice selection of butterflies and dragonflies.

We were told that the water level in the reservoir has fallen noticeably during the past week and this has resulted in just enough shore line to accommodate a few waders.  Today there were Little Ringed Plovers, Northern Lapwings, Oystercatchers and Common Sandpipers but if these conditions continue during the next few weeks we're sure to see a few more pass through.  A rarity of some kind would be nice but we probably wouldn’t be as excited now to see Black-winged Stilts as Peter was when two were at Belvide in 1987!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


Something we very soon noticed when we started birding in the Algarve was the relatively high number of birds that were colour-ringed.  Whereas in the UK we had been used to seeing a few Mute Swans and Canada Geese sporting Darvic (PVC) rings or perhaps an occasional gull or wader, in the Ria Formosa and at Castro Marim we were seeing colour-ringed birds almost every time we went out.

By colour-rings we mean multiple rings (or flags) with a unique combination of colours or single rings that are big enough so that it is possible with the aid of a telescope to read an inscription on them.  We also sometimes see nasal saddles fitted to ducks and neck collars on Red-knobbed Coots and while these are obviously not rings as such, they do serve the same purpose, which is to identify a bird as an individual.

Greater Flamingo - from Italy

Because of their size, colour-rings are most suitable for use on long-legged birds and the first ones we saw in the Algarve were on Greater Flamingos.  It’s not unusual to see up to 1,000 or even 2,000 Greater Flamingos at Castro Marim so there is plenty of scope for reading rings if we have the time and can get close enough to the birds!  We soon found that, as well as Flamingos, quite a high percentage of Spoonbills were also colour-ringed and that several species of gulls, particularly Audouin’s Gulls, were also ringed.  We have now sent reports relating to 18 different species and these have originated from more than a dozen countries.

Spoonbill - from The Netherlands

Looking for colour-rings, reading them and reporting them have all become part of our birding routine.  In 2012, we reported more than 200 ring details.  Receiving details of the life-histories of individual birds has added greatly to our knowledge of the origins, the movements and the ages/life expectancies of the birds involved and still we get surprises like the Italian-ringed Oystercatcher that we found in Tavira.  We have also been able to recognise birds that return to the Algarve year after year such as Common Redshank H19 that we have blogged about previously here.

  Common Redshank - from The Netherlands

Oystercatcher - from Italy

However, it might all have been very different!  We might easily have been put off the whole idea of reading rings.  Probably our expectations were unrealistic but when we began sending off reports of ring details we thought, rather naively as it turned out, that we might receive a reply within maybe a week or two.  Instead, the reality was that months went by with no word from anybody and we started to think we were wasting our time.  Perhaps there was no longer any interest in the rings we had reported; maybe the ringer had died!  It would have been easy to reach the conclusion that reading and reporting rings wasn’t worth the effort.  And sometimes it can be quite an effort when we have to wait long periods for birds to come closer or to move out of the deep water that is covering their rings.

Slender-billed Gull - from Spain

We now know that response times vary greatly and we try not to be too impatient.  We know, for instance, that if we report a Dutch-ringed Spoonbill or a Mediterranean Gull ringed in Belgium or France, we can be reasonably sure of a reply by return, maybe even the same day!  On the other hand, we also know that it might be six months or longer before we get a response about some other species and from some other countries.  In the past few days we have received details of six birds that we reported last December and we have others outstanding that go back further than that.

Mediterranean Gull - from The Netherlands

Last year we joined the Yahoo! Group, c-r birding, which has about 600 members who communicate with each other on various aspects of colour-ringing.  It was interesting that the very first contribution we read there was from someone complaining about the length of time he was waiting to hear about a Black-headed Gull ring he had reported.  Maybe that person's expectations were also unrealistic, but were they unreasonable?  Prompt replies would not only be courteous but would surely also encourage further reports.

How do we find out where to send details of the rings we read?  Well, in theory, details of all the colour-ringing projects in Europe can be found at www.cr-birding.org or failing that www.cr-birding.be (this website is slowly being phased out).  It is also possible to report ring details by filling out a form on the Euring website but the advice there is to look first at www.cr-birding.org.  Occasionally we do find birds that have rings which we can’t match up with one of the listed projects and so it would seem do quite a few other people as queries about such rings appear very regularly in the Yahoo! Group emails.  Why, we have to wonder, would anyone who is colour-ringing birds in Europe and presumably wanting people to report them, not make sure that details of their project are on the relevant website?  It takes some understanding!

Glossy Ibis - from Spain

All ringing is, of course, licensed and, thankfully, beyond that there is also some regulation of the growing number of colour-ringing projects in Europe with the aim of avoiding the chaos that would result from duplication of colour combinations or codes.

Some of the difficulties arising from ring reports inevitably result from rings being misread.  When looking at a small ring from a distance it is easy to confuse a 2 with a Z or a 5 with an S.  Clearly it would be best when setting up a new project to avoid such possibilities occurring.  Another problem is that the colour of some rings can fade or even change over a period of years, particularly if they are under water for much of the time.
Audouin's Gull - ringed in the Ria Formosa

Replies from some of the ringing projects include not just details of the individual bird that we have reported but also information about the project itself, its aims and objectives and sometimes even links to results achieved so far.  We would welcome much more of that sort of feedback.  We have to assume that birds are being ringed for a particular purpose but it is always nice to have some details.

Reporting colour-rings certainly involves a few difficulties and frustrations but it adds greatly to our enjoyment of birding in the Algarve.  Already we are looking forward to the autumn and winter and the return of all those colour-ringed birds.