Friday, 26 December 2014

Black Vultures

Aegypius monachus is a species that we see fairly often in Portugal, most frequently in the Baixo Alentejo but also, from time to time, in the Algarve.  We usually refer to it as Black Vulture or sometimes Eurasian Black Vulture, which are the names used in the Collins Bird Guide and which have been in use as far back as one cares to look.

Eurasian Black Vulture
 American Black Vulture

However, just a few years ago came the IOC World Bird List, the list of recommended English names for all the world’s birds.  Now we were urged to refer to Aegypius monachus as Cinereous Vulture.  This change was proposed with the intention of avoiding confusion with Coragyps atratus, the Black Vulture of the Americas.  Just who proposed the name Cinereous, meaning ‘ashy-grey’ isn’t clear.  Presumably it was someone who had never been fortunate enough to see one of these huge birds, which may not be black but which are certainly not ashy-grey.

American Black Vulture

At about the same time, the British Ornithologists’ Union somewhat bizarrely, proposed a change of name, not to Cinereous Vulture, but to Monk Vulture.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t gain widespread acceptance but did add to the confusion for a while.  The suggestion that Coragyps atratus should be called American Black Vulture while Aegypius monachus remained Eurasian Black Vulture was rejected, possibly on the grounds that it was too simple but more likely because the Americans involved in the decision making could not come to terms with ‘their bird’ having to be anything other than simply Black Vulture.

None of this is new, of course, but the subject was recently a topic of conversation while we were in Florida where (American) Black Vulture is a very common bird that we saw every day.  This is a species that has increased in numbers quite significantly during the last 25 years but it’s an increase that has brought a variety of problems and conflicts as the birds have adapted to living in close proximity to the human population.

American Black Vulture feeding on Armadillo

For some years vultures have been reported causing damage to residential and business property. Their droppings can kill trees and are said to create unsanitary and unsafe working conditions at power plants, refineries and communication towers. They can sometimes appear aggressive towards people and they harass and sometimes kill livestock.  In flight, they can be a danger to aircraft.

And they routinely cause damage to parked motor vehicles by pecking at windscreen wipers, sunroof seals, and other rubber or vinyl parts.  Black vultures are primarily scavengers that play an important role in ecosystems, cleaning up dead and decaying animal carcasses - they are regularly seen feeding on roadkill.  Rubber and vinyl certainly isn’t a part of their natural diet and only rarely do they eat any of it. Typically, the material is simply discarded after it’s ripped from the vehicle.  However, that’s not much consolation if it’s your shiny SUV that’s just been trashed!

You have been warned!

On our tour we first became aware of the Black Vulture problem at Myakka River State Park where there were notices on the car park warning of the possibility of birds attacking vehicles.  However, it was at Royal Palm Hammock in Everglades National Park that we saw the birds in action and felt the need to take some preventative measures.  The situation there has become so serious that tarpaulins and bungee cords are provided so that visitors can cover their vehicles and that’s exactly what we did.  Others didn’t heed the warnings and paid the price!

No one seems to know what it is that has brought about this behaviour from the vultures and there is much ongoing research into the problem, which is far from being unique to Florida.   Although the Black Vulture receives legal protection in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 inevitably when the problem can’t be dealt with in any other way, birds are killed - about 5,000 of them annually according to the U.S.  Dept. of Agriculture.  And that’s just the ones they know about that were killed legally.

Of course, the American Black Vulture and the Eurasian Black Vulture are not closely related; similarities between the two are due to convergent evolution.   For some time it was thought that the New World Vultures were more closely related to the storks than to the birds of prey but that idea seems to have fallen from favour and some would now place them in a separate Order, Cathartiformes.  Whatever they are they seem to be quite a problem and one that isn’t going to be dealt with easily.

Friday, 19 December 2014

It's good to be back!

On Wednesday morning, after a month away from Portugal, which included our Avian Adventures tour in Florida, we were ready again for some Algarve birding.  As is usual when we’ve had time away, we began by spending a few hours checking our local area around Tavira and Santa Luzia. The weather was almost perfect - clear blue sky, temperature up to 18ºC.
One of the reasons for being in Tavira is that we particularly enjoy seeing waders and it wasn’t surprising to find 22 species within walking distance from the town centre.  With a bit more effort we might well have added to that total.

 Bar-tailed Godwit


For once we were able to watch all six of the commonly occurring gull species together in one saltpan.  There seem to be fewer Audouin’s now but probably more Mediterranean than we expected and still a few Slender-billed.   Black-necked Grebe numbers had increased to ten and while we were seeking them out a Marsh Harrier flew through; several Bluethroats and a Little Owl were exactly where we had last seen them in mid-November.

 Slender-billed Gull


We stayed out until dusk hoping to see a Short-eared Owl but we were out of luck.  For several winters they hunted regularly around the Tavira saltpans but we haven’t seen one here since February 2013.  The day didn’t produce anything exceptional but with little effort and mostly from the car we recorded more than 70 species.

The only really notable bird that has occurred here while we were away was a Red-breasted Flycatcher that was found at the edge of the golf course at Quinta do Lago on 12th December.  This is a comparatively rare species in the Algarve with only about seven previous records and none quite this late in the year.  Thanks to Simon Wates, we saw one in November 2009 at Figueira but the possibility that this recent bird might still be in the area was all the excuse we (and Ray Tipper) needed for an early start yesterday for a trip to Ludo and Quinta do Lago.

One of the first birds that greeted our arrival there was a Booted Eagle and it proved to be just the first of at least nine of these lovely birds that we counted in our first half hour.  Just as impressive in their own way were 20 or more Grey Herons standing together in the soft morning light, dwarfing the Little Egrets that were sharing the same plentiful food supply.

Little Egret


Nearby several Spoonbills marched purposefully away from us, three sporting an array of colour-rings details of which we have since reported.  Duck numbers had increased since our last visit; Wigeon and Teal were particularly vocal, sounds that we once associated with cold or damp winter mornings at Belvide Reservoir in Staffordshire!  There was the usual good selection of waders with Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin the most numerous; a Kingfisher flashed past and several Cetti’s Warblers called loudly. 

Around the golf course we found a couple of Hoopoes and two Mistle Thrushes and from the pines we could hear the calls of Short-toed Treecreeper.  Most of the birds in the surrounding trees were Chiffchaffs but eventually the Red-breasted Flycatcher appeared, albeit briefly.  It hardly stayed still for more than a few seconds and quickly disappeared.  We had to wait quite a while before we saw it again but then we were able to watch it for more than half an hour as it flitted from pine to eucalyptus to olive finding the tiniest food items.  We wonder how long it will stay!

Red-breasted Flycatcher

There was time on the way home for a quick look at the saltpans near Olhão.  Amongst the Mediterranean Gulls there we managed to read two colour-rings, one from France and one from Hungary.

When we got back to Tavira there was only one way to round off a successful morning - lunch at Restaurante Ana!  It really is good to be back!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Just back from Florida

We really enjoy the Algarve at this time of year.  It’s much less crowded with people than it is during the summer months but it’s still full of birds.  Also, the weather is generally rather better than we can expect in the UK with temperatures forecast to be as high as 18°C in the next few days.

Having said that, we do also very much like birding in other parts of the world that have a warm climate and we never turn down an opportunity for some winter birding in the USA.  In November, December and January of the last few years we have led tours for Avian Adventures in California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Florida, often over Christmas and the New Year.  Just like the Algarve these southern states attract countless wintering birds from the north and there’s always a chance of finding something unusual.

This year’s tour in Florida from which we have just returned was most successful and full of interest.  Not only did we record a good selection of birds but there were also butterflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians to keep us occupied.

 Green Heron


 Reddish Egret

 Loggerhead Shrike


Compared to Arizona, California and New Mexico, Florida isn’t particularly attractive scenically, it’s rather flat and much of it is only a few feet above sea level.  It is the eighth most densely populated of the US states and much of it has been built on.  For all that there is surprising habitat diversity and it still has plenty of wildlife.  The birds include a splendid variety of wetland species, several subtropical specialities some of which occur nowhere else in the USA and many exotics that have either escaped from captivity or been deliberately introduced.  There is just one endemic species, the Florida Scrub-Jay, first officially recognised as a separate species only about 20 years ago and now for many birders one of the main reasons for visiting Florida.

Florida Scrub-Jay (John Cutting)

  White-crowned Pigeon

Apart from the Florida Scrub-Jay, the most notable birds seen during our tour were Snail Kite, White-crowned Pigeon and Limpkin, none of which can be found elsewhere in the USA, Burrowing Owl of the subspecies floridana, which is much darker in appearance than the birds we see in Arizona, the white morph of Great Blue Heron (“Great White Heron“), Vermilion Flycatcher, Worm-eating Warbler and Summer Tanager that are all somewhat scarce in Florida during the winter and Henslow’s Sparrow, a species that neither of us had seen previously.  We also saw two House Finches in the Everglades National Park, a common enough species in the northern part of the state but almost unheard of so far south and the cause of some excitement among the locals.

  Great Blue Heron - white morph

Burrowing Owl

Amongst the mammals the main attraction is West Indian Manatee, which we saw in several different locations.  Nine-banded Armadillo was also popular although most frequently seen as road-kill.  Snakes included the attractive but venomous Pygmy Rattlesnake.  With our emphasis very much on the birds, we paid attention mainly to the larger butterflies such as the potentially confusing Gulf Fritillary, Monarch, Viceroy, Queen and Soldier.  Needless to say, we saw countless Alligators.

 Nine-banded Armadillo

Gulf Fritillary

We were also fortunate to be able to watch the launch from Kennedy Space Centre of the Orion EFT-1.  We joined a small crowd of people at Kennedy Point Park at first light on a rather dull morning to see the rocket lift off and very soon disappear into the clouds.

Lift-off from Kennedy Space Centre

We can thoroughly recommend Florida for a winter birding break.  If it appeals to you, let us know - we are planning another tour there for Avian Adventures in January 2016!