Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Changing fortunes

The occasional occurrence in the UK of European Bee-eater, Blue Rock Thrush and Woodchat Shrike seems to do little to diminish the popularity of those species with British visitors to Portugal. In spite of being twitchable in Britain they retain a degree of rarity value, they are bright and colourful and they are still crowd-pleasers.

 European Bee-eater

Blue Rock Thrush

On the other hand, increasing numbers in the UK of species such as Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-winged Stilt and Spoonbill mean that these birds no longer feature as highly as they once did on the ‘wanted lists’ of those many birders who arrive here wanting to see ‘something different’.

Little Bittern

This change in the status of bird species does, however, work both ways.  For instance, we still have Turtle Doves in Portugal, maybe fewer than previously but we still see (and hear) them regularly. And we have Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, a species that by all accounts has become difficult to find in many if not most parts of Britain.

Eurasian Turtle Dove

Today was my first day back in the Algarve after three weeks away, part of which was spent leading an Avian Adventures tour in Arizona, more of which later.  While I was away I was alerted to the presence of a Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers’ nest not far from Tavira which might offer the possibility to photograph the birds once they are feeding young.  It was only when I got back that I received precise details of the location and much to my surprise it turned out to be exactly the same site where June and I watched and photographed Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in 2011.  Have they been nesting there regularly in the intervening years, I wonder?  I have to admit that we haven't checked.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (photo from 2011)

As usual, while I was away I missed a rarity here in the Algarve, this one actually in Tavira. Fortunately, this time it was ‘only’ a Red-necked Phalarope so not too much concern.  However, this species is a genuine rarity here requiring reports to the Portuguese Rarities Committee so it’s as well that June managed to photograph it.  A bird photo by June is probably rarer than the bird itself!

Red-necked Phalarope

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Photos from Tanzania

If I said we had seen vultures, eagles, falcons, shrikes, bustards, sandgrouse, storks, rollers and larks, you might well think I was referring to one of our regular trips to the Castro Verde area in the Baixo Alentejo region of Portugal.  Certainly those are birds we might expect to see there and June and I have had a couple of great trips in that direction during this past week.
However, these birds are also some of those that were seen during the recent Avian Adventures tour in Tanzania.  The itinerary for this tour that included Arusha, Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Serengeti National Parks, Ndutu and Ngorongoro Crater was very similar to previous years and there have been quite a number of blogs about Tanzania in the past, most recently herehere and here.  So this time I’m just going to share some photographs and I’ve chosen to include those of the nine bird families referred to.

This was my sixth time in Tanzania and it really has become my favourite among the Avian Adventures tours that I lead.  There is nothing not to like about it.  It is definitely one of the world’s top wildlife destinations.  We were there mainly for the birds but we still saw 40 mammal species including the so-called ‘big five’.  Huge numbers of Wildebeest and Zebras provide a great spectacle and backdrop to some really good birding and everyone enjoys seeing the big cats and the small ones – this year, as well as Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs, we saw African Wildcat and Caracal.

And the photography is much easier than it is in Portugal...

 Rufous-naped Lark

 Isabelline Shrike

 Lilac-breasted Roller


 Saddle-billed Stork

 Yellow-billed Stork

 White-bellied Bustard

 Grey Kestrel

 Kori Bustard

 Yellow-throated Sandgrouse

 Long-crested Eagle

 Tawny Eagle

 Hooded Vulture

 Brown Snake-Eagle

 Lappet-faced Vulture

 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

Common Fiscal

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Bitterns & Crakes

Peter writes:
I’ve just returned to the Algarve after almost four weeks away which included leading another Avian Adventures tour in Northern Tanzania.  I say ‘another tour’ because this was my sixth time in Tanzania, but this wasn’t just another tour this was to see the wonderful Serengeti, the marvellous Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and Arusha National Parks.  It may be an itinerary that has become familiar to me over the past few years but this is undoubtedly one of the world’s great wildlife destinations and one I always look forward to visiting.

Having said that, it’s almost inevitable that while I’m away, at least one or two interesting birds turn up in the Algarve and this time was no exception.  I was only a couple of days into my trip when a Eurasian Bittern was reported from Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura.  There have been only a handful of records here of this species and it’s one that June and I have never seen in Portugal.  June went with Ray Tipper to look for it and although they didn’t see it they had more than a little consolation when instead they found a female Little Crake.  Then the next day a male Little Crake was found at Quinta do Lago.  I was slightly miffed even before I reached Tanzania!

In recent years there have been several records here of Little Crake, most of them at Quinta do Lago and usually following periods of easterly winds.  We have seen them a number of times, most recently in 2015 when we blogged here.

Yesterday we went to Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura optimistically thinking that the Great Bittern might still be there and to Quinta do Lago hoping to see a Little Crake.  We did at least have partial success.  We failed to see a Eurasian Bittern but I was pleased that the Little Crake remains at Quinta do Lago after three weeks even if it seemed to do everything possible to avoid being photographed.

There has been speculation in the past about Little Crakes possibly breeding here.  They can be such difficult birds to detect and previous records include a juvenile in September 2009.  Although we are not aware of any female being seen this time at Quinta do Lago, the present long-staying bird does put in mind the same thought.  And what about the Eurasian Bittern?  Is that a species that might breed here?  Vilamoura would certainly be the place for them.

I will be away again during the first half of May – that should be a good time for more rarities to show up!          

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Phylloscopus warblers

Among the many birds that we saw during our recent visit to Thailand were ten species of leaf warblers from the genus Phylloscopus.  That’s Phylloscopus from the Ancient Greek phullon, “leaf”, and skopus “seeker” (from skopeo, “to watch”).  They included Dusky (P. fuscatus), Radde’s (P. schwarzi), Two-barred (P. plumbeitarsus) and Yellow-browed (P. inornatus), all of which have long been autumn vagrants to Western Europe and Eastern Crowned (P. coronatus) and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (P. tenellipes), which have reached Britain for the first time only quite recently.

Identifying some of these warblers can be a bit of a challenge and so we were very pleased to have Neil Lawson with us to help sort them out!  Mostly they are very similar looking birds with greenish or brownish upperparts and off-white or yellowish underparts; most of them have eye-stripes and/or crown-stripes.  The fact that they tend to be very active, constantly moving and flicking their wings as they glean the foliage for insects, sometimes high in the trees, often makes it difficult to see them well and distinguish the finer details that are required to differentiate between them.  Although some have fairly distinctive calls, some don’t and anyway it takes time to get tuned into them.

 Yellow-browed Warbler - Algarve 2013

Although it was no longer calling and close inspection was possible, the Pale-legged Leaf Warbler that was found dead last October on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, remained unidentified until analysis of its DNA.  That’s how difficult some of them can be!

Common Chiffchaff - Algarve 2008

Of course, we have seen more than a few Yellow-browed Warblers over the years but the status of this species in Western Europe has changed markedly in recent times.  These are birds that breed in Siberia and normally migrate to spend the winter in the forests of South-east Asia.  However, every year in September and October a small number could be expected to arrive ‘by accident’ on the east coast of Britain.  Gradually over recent years the number of Yellow-broweds arriving in Britain has increased considerably and last autumn was exceptional. Back in the 1970s an annual total of about 70 birds was the norm; in 1988 there were more than 700 and in 2005 at least 1,250 were recorded.  Last year it was believed that there may have been 5,000 or more!

Common Chiffchaff - Algarve 2008

Not surprisingly, the increase in the number of Yellow-browed Warblers occurring in Britain has been reflected in the numbers seen in the Iberian Peninsula.  One theory is that these birds have taken to wintering in West Africa instead of South-east Asia and are passing through Spain and Portugal on their way south.  In Portugal the numbers occurring are still relatively small (about 40 in 2015) but the upward trend is clear and there have now been at least two or three instances of birds actually wintering here, including one that remains this week, reported again by Georg Schreier.

Iberian Chiffchaff - Algarve 2017

It was partly with the intention of tracking down the wintering Yellow-browed Warbler that together with Ray Tipper we set out a few days ago to Fonte Ferrea.  However, we also had another aim, which was to see and to photograph three species of Phylloscopus warblers in one morning.  It seems unlikely that there is currently any site in Europe other than this small park in the Algarve where this might be possible and the window of opportunity is quite a short one.  Presumably, the Yellow-browed can be expected to leave any day now and the same is true of the Common Chiffchaffs (P. collybita) that have been with us, as usual, throughout the winter but will breed further north.  The third species, Iberian Chiffchaff (P. ibericus), is now just returning to breed here after spending the winter away so there is just a small period of overlap.

Iberian Chiffchaff - Algarve 2017

Not surprisingly, our ambitious mission met with only limited success!  We did manage to see all three species but the Yellow-browed showed no inclination at all to be photographed. Common Chiffchaffs are numerous in the Algarve in winter and have been photographed many times so in the end we didn’t bother much with them.  Instead we concentrated our efforts on the Iberian Chiffchaffs, which obligingly sang to confirm identification and sometimes remained still for just long enough for the lens to focus.  Eventually we did manage to get a few reasonable images, which all importantly are better than our efforts in previous years. It's interesting to compare these images with some of our old ones of Common Chiffchaff and to see how difficult it is to separate these species by plumage alone.

We have photographed Yellow-browed Warbler here in the past (at Castro Marim in 2013) and have included one of those images here.  It will be interesting to see what the autumn of 2017 brings but it seems very likely that there will be more opportunities to catch up with this remarkable little bird that seems to be undergoing a serious change in its migratory strategy.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Thailand - 3

When we were preparing for our trip to Thailand we were made aware by Neil Lawton of some photographic hides near Keang Krachan National Park that might be included in our itinerary.

The story was that during the dry season poachers had been attracting wildlife, (mainly birds and mammals) to a series of small water holes that they had created along dry stream beds. Species such as Green-legged Partridge, Chinese Francolin and Lesser Mouse Deer were being shot and taken for eating; White-rumped Shamas, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes and others were being trapped and sold in the markets as song birds.  The poachers also left food such as papaya and bananas by the water and simply returned each day to replenish the water and food as necessary.  They could then sit in a makeshift hide nearby and harvest whatever species they could attract.

 Lesser Mouse Deer (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/250 sec)

White-rumped Shama (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/200 sec)

Thankfully, with the help of the Thai military on whose land this activity was taking place, these poachers were eventually persuaded that there might be more money to be made from their water holes if the killing and trapping stopped and if the hides were instead rented out to photographers. This all happened several years ago and we were told that poaching in the area has been brought to an end as the hides have now become very popular and have to be booked in advance.  Not only that but the water holes were attracting a surprising variety of species including some difficult to see birds, such as Red-legged Crake, which as a result have been found to be more common than previously thought.  All in all it's been quite a success story and one that might be repeated elsewhere.

 Streaked-eared Bulbul (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/400 sec)

 Black-naped Monarch - male (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/250 sec)

 Black-naped Monarch - female (ISO-16000 f/5.6 1/400 sec)

Jungle Fowl (ISO-16000 f/5 1/400 sec)

Our trip to Thailand was supposed to be more about seeing birds than photographing them but a few hours in a hide at the water holes was an attractive prospect.  There was just the one problem: although this was indeed the dry season, we had been greeted on arrival in Thailand by three days of almost continuous rain.  As a result, when we reached the so-called 'dry' stream bed where the water holes were located we found it running with water.  This shouldn't really have been a surprise as wherever we had been at that stage in the trip we had found water lying.  It was obvious that in these conditions the water holes wouldn't really be especially attractive.  Not only that but it didn't seem as though the food supply had been stocked up in recent days.  Undeterred, we settled down in the two small hides to see what might come.

Green-legged Partridge (ISO-16000 f/5 1/400 sec)

Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush (ISO-5000 f/6.3 1/200 sec)

It was immediately obvious that photography was going to be something of a challenge.  Simply, it was an extremely dull, cloudy day and there was very little light reaching the area where any birds might be within range.  However, it wasn't long before birds arrived and in the next hour or so we had a variety of species at least in view if not within camera range. Particularly notable were Jungle Fowl, Black-naped Monarchs, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, Puff-throated Babblers, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, White-rumped Shama, Pied Fantail and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.  And there were mammals, too: Lesser Mouse Deer, Grey-bellied Squirrel and Northern Tree Shrew.

Grey-bellied Squirrel (ISO-6400 f/5.6 1/200 sec)

Pied Fantail (ISO-5000 f/5.6 1/200 sec)

The photographs here were all taken with a recently purchased Canon EOS 7D Mk II.  It was at least an opportunity to try out this new camera's performance in low light conditions!  Camera settings have been included in the captions.

If (when?) we manage another visit to Thailand, it would be nice to have another session in one of these hides but only if it really is the dry season and the sun is shining!

Friday, 10 February 2017

Thailand - 2

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Thailand was the three-hour boat trip we enjoyed at Bueng Boraphet, one of the country’s largest wetlands, located near the city of Nakhon Sawan, about 240km north of Bangkok.

We always like boat trips but especially ones that are on flat calm fresh water lakes like this one and on a stable boat with comfortable seating.  Add hundreds of birds, good light for photography and a boatman who could spot birds and identify them and we had a near-perfect morning.  As well as the birds, a fine array of water lilies and lotus flowers were quite a sight in themselves and made a very nice setting for many bird photos.

Most of the birds we saw were, of course, wetland species and several of them were familiar to us from Europe.  There were many Great & Little Egrets, Grey & Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Glossy Ibises and Little Grebes.  However, lots were new including Bronze-winged & Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Little & Indian Cormorants, Oriental Darters, Grey-headed Swamp-hens, White-browed Crakes and most numerous of all, Asian Openbills.  The Pond Herons we saw here were presumed to be Chinese Pond Herons but separating this species from Javan Pond Heron is nigh impossible unless they are in breeding plumage.

 Pheasant-tailed Jacana

 Grey-headed Swamp-hen

 Indian Cormorant

 Purple Heron

 presumed Chinese Pond Heron

 Oriental Darter

 Cotton Pygmy-goose

Asian Openbill

There were a few passerines such as Bluethroat, Zitting Cisticola and Striated Grassbird and raptors, too with Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Black-winged & Black-eared Kites all seen well.

Black-winged Kite

Bueng Boraphet will forever be associated with the enigmatic White-eyed River Martin, a species that presents one of the most puzzling mysteries of Asian ornithology.  Although quite distinctive in appearance it had been completely overlooked until it was discovered during a ringing expedition there in 1968.  It was recorded again at the lake during several subsequent winters but it hasn’t been seen with certainty anywhere since 1980.  As a result very little known about it but it’s an interesting story that you can find here.

White-eyed River Martin remembered

We returned to Bueng Boraphet at the end of our tour for a walk around the Waterbird Park on the south side of the lake.  This area of wetland with reedbeds and scrub proved to be quite productive and it was here that at last we saw Siberian Rubythroat.  Other highlights of the morning were Burmese Shrike, two Indian Nightjars, Blue-tailed & Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Freckle-breasted Woodpecker, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker and Brown-throated Sunbird.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater