Friday, 28 March 2014

A Day in the West

Glaucous Gulls are rare birds in Portugal and particularly so in the Algarve.  Only a handful of these Arctic gulls have ever been reported as far south as the country’s south coast.  However, this winter has been exceptional with records of single birds at Quarteira and Ferragudo, three at Sagres and four just a short way up the west coast at Aljezur.  Although it’s hard to say how many different birds there have been, it has certainly been remarkable.
First-winter Glaucous Gull

We went to Sagres today and were surprised to find one Glaucous Gull still remaining there.  It appears that only once before (2008) has a bird remained in the Algarve until March and it will be interesting to see how much longer this one stays.

As well as the Glaucous Gull, in the area around Sagres and Cabo de São Vicente we found a number of species the we don’t see in the Eastern Algarve, notably Red-billed Chough, Rock Dove and Shag.  On the way back we diverted to Monchique and at Fóia, the highest point in the Algarve, we found at least three Ring Ouzels, plus Rock Bunting, Dartford Warbler, Woodlark and Blue Rock Thrush, species that aren’t difficult to find elsewhere but which it was nice to see all together.

Blue Rock Thrush has been particularly easy to see recently as for the past week one has been singing locally, including from our roof, a young male trying hard to attract a mate.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Déja vu!

Once again there are Little Crakes (Porzana parva) at Quinta do Lago.  One was first seen on 14th March and subsequently two birds have been seen, a male and a female.

We blogged here about the occurrence of Little Crakes at Quinta do Lago in March / April 2012.  Those birds were extremely difficult to see and, in fact, we don't know whether it was ever established for sure whether there were two of them or whether one might have been a Baillon’s Crake (P. pusilla).

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the current birds are so far proving even more elusive with one observer yesterday claiming that he had seen one or other of them for a total of only about a minute during the ten hours that he was there watching for them!

Before the 2012 bird(s), there were only two previous records of Little Crake in Portugal, both of them juveniles.  Can you guess where they were?  The first was a long-staying bird from 9th August to 11th September 2008 and the other was seen on 20th September 2009; both were at Quinta do Lago!

So now we have records from this one site of juveniles in 2008 and 2009 and adults in 2012 and 2014.  Do we see a pattern emerging?  Of course, there is no suggestion that Little Crake has bred at Quinta do Lago, although there is thought to be a small population of these secretive birds not so far from here, in Doñana.  No, presumably, like so many other birds in the Algarve, these are simply migrants that are passing through on their way to and from West Africa; the pattern is just that they have all been seen from what is the most regularly used birdwatching hide in the country.  How many other Little Crakes there might be passing through here undetected in less popular localities, one can only imagine!

If you have the patience, there should still be time to go to Quinta do Lago to try and see the birds.  As far as we know, at least one of the 2012 birds remained there until at least 8th April.  However, be prepared to spend a few hours!  Of course, as always, there are plenty of other birds to see; Little Bitterns and Purple Swamp-hens are very active and Black-headed Weavers are building nests but don’t let yourself be distracted by them - you will need to concentrate hard if you want to see a Little Crake!

 Purple Swamp-hen - part of the distracting sideshow!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Annual Bird Reports

Recently published is The Birds of Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands - West Midland Bird Club Annual Report No. 78.  It covers the year 2011 and so has taken more than two years to complete, a timescale that has become the norm in recent times, which is perhaps hardly surprising given the scale of the task.

The recording area of the West Midland Bird Club (WMBC), covering four counties, comprises a total area of 7,331 square-kilometres, much of which is quite densely populated with both birds and birdwatchers.  Almost 1,000 individuals, plus 21 groups, societies and web-based sources contributed a total of around 300,000 records, which have been distilled into a report of 276 pages.  Fortunately, a high proportion of those records came in a relatively user-friendly format via the BTO’s BirdTrack but they still had to be dealt with.

A team of 14 volunteers wrote the species accounts that make up the bulk of the report; a further nine individuals were involved in adjudicating on records of rarities.  The whole thing was brought together and produced by the WMBC’s Report Editor, Dave Emley making it the 13th of these publications that Dave has produced having started in this volunteer post in time to edit his first for 1999. 

Whilst Dave may have breathed a sigh of relief to see this latest one completed, we can be sure that he will already be working on the 2012 Report and probably that for 2013 as well!  Such is the lot of the Report Editor!  He and all his helpers are certainly to be congratulated on this latest publication and can be assured that all those hours of toil were worthwhile.  Of his predecessors, only John Lord, who was Editor from 1952 to 1971, produced more Annual Reports than Dave has.

The Club’s first Annual Report covered the year 1934, ran to just 32 pages and covered only Warwickshire and Worcestershire (which in those days before boundary changes, included parts of what is now the West Midland County).  It listed 25 members and ‘correspondents’ and these were presumably the total of the contributors.  The Editor then was H G Alexander, one of the founders of the WMBC, who could surely not have imagined how the scale of bird recording would take off to where we are today.

From time to time, questions have been asked about the need to publish an annual bird report with particular reference being made, of course, to the cost of printing it and mailing it to hundreds to members.  Here in Portugal, the Anuário Ornitológico is the equivalent publication, which is produced by Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA) and covers the whole of the country.  Already the decision has been made on the grounds of cost not to produce a printed version and it is only available via the SPEA website. 

Although the recording area (Portugal) is obviously much bigger than that of the WMBC, the number of bird records to be dealt with here must be far fewer and one might think that as a result the overall task would be rather less onerous.  However, fewer people seem to be involved and the production schedule is currently even further behind than that of the WMBC.  The latest Anuário Ornitológico was published towards the end of 2012 but covers the years 2009 and 2010. 

The emphasis in Portugal is very much on rarities.  Anuário Ornitológico Volume 8 contains 155 pages but 50 of those are devoted to the report of the Portuguese Rarities Committee (PRC) and more than half of that relates to the Azores and Madeira.  The section that deals with records of non-rarities runs to only 41 pages and of those, 9 are devoted to the islands.  Records relating to non-rarities in Mainland Portugal for two years are condensed into 31 pages - just 20% of the total.

The section on non-rarities is kept short by including in it only the following: a) species that are scarce but not actually rare enough to be dealt with by the PRC; b) species about which there is little published information; c) records of unusual numbers, dates and locations; d) reports of individuals with atypical plumage.  There are no counts of common species and virtually no reference anywhere to any ringing activity or data.

It is interesting to note the contrast between the approaches of WMBC and SPEA to their respective bird reports.  Although they have differing issues to contend with, in spite of all the hard work, in each case the result is a report that is published much later than anyone would really want.    

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Great Spotted Cuckoos

Almost everywhere we have been this week we seem to have seen (and heard) Great Spotted Cuckoos.  At Castro Marim, around Tavira and all over the Mértola / Castro Verde area we have watched them engage in their annual battle of wits with the local Common Magpies.  In other parts of the world Great Spotted Cuckoos lay eggs in the nests of various species of corvids but in Europe, including Portugal, the Common Magpie is definitely their preferred victim.

During a season, a female Cuckoo is said to lay as many as 30 eggs, often laying more than one egg in each nest.  Frequently at least one Magpie’s egg may be damaged by the Cuckoo and that must reduce the competition for food when the chicks hatch.  However, as the young Cuckoos generally hatch several days before the Magpies, it is an uneven contest; the Cuckoos are always favourites to out-compete the young of the host species.

Common Magpie isn’t a widely distributed or particularly numerous species in the Algarve.  However, where there are Magpies we expect to find Great Spotted Cuckoos and we wonder what effect they have on the Magpie population.  In the absence of Cuckoos would there be more Magpies?  Maybe the introduction of Great Spotted Cuckoos into the UK would be a way of controlling the seemingly ever-increasing Magpie population there!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Black-necked Grebes

Black-necked Grebes are regular winter visitors here in the Algarve.  They are normally seen between September and March but we have sometimes seen them in April and in 2007 we were surprised to see one stay at Castro Marim until as late as 20th May.

Castro Marim is where we have always expected to find them, either on the salinas at Cerro do Bufo or sometimes on the adjacent Esteiro da Carrasqueira.  The peak number during any winter is usually around 100.

Less regularly we have seen a few at Santa Luzia and birds have been present there throughout the past three months.  Our highest count has been 21 on 22nd January but numbers have varied, suggesting that they perhaps move between the salinas and the nearby Canal de Tavira in much the same way that at Castro Marim they use the Carrasqueira.

Yesterday there were just 10 birds present, some of them already well advanced in their moult into breeding plumage.  Soon they will depart for breeding areas in Northern Europe but exactly where we couldn’t say.

Black-necked Grebe is said to be the world’s most abundant grebe and they have a very wide distribution.  We have seen them in huge numbers at Mono Lake in California (where they are referred to as Eared Grebes and where during autumn migration as many as 1.6 million are estimated to have occurred) but we still enjoy seeing our few local birds and the occasional opportunity to photograph them.