Friday, 10 August 2018

Estonia in early May - 1

This was an Avian Adventures tour from 4th to 11th May 2018.

A morning flight from Gatwick took us to Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport where we were met by Tarvo Valker who was to be our guide for the week.  Our first aim then was to reach Rohuküla Harbour in time to catch the 7.00 p.m. ferry to the island of Hiiumaa.  On the way, there was time for a short stop at a lake in the town of Haapsalu where two or three pairs of Slavonian Grebes were present and we were able to get reasonably close views.

Common Scoters

The ferry crossing of the Väinamere Sea from Rohuküla to Heltermaa is scheduled to take one hour and forty minutes and it presented a good opportunity for us to see some sea ducks and other birds.  Unfortunately, it was much too cold and windy for us to stay out on deck for very long but watching through a window proved to be just fine and we saw hundreds of Greater Scaup and smaller numbers of Common Eiders, Common Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks.  Perhaps most memorable were 37 Bewick’s Swans flying strung out in a long line.  Least memorable was probably a distant Ringed Seal, which would have gone unnoticed had Tarvo not pointed it out as it was virtually indistinguishable from the rocks on an offshore island.

The following morning we set off to Ristna Cape.  Ristna is the most western point of Hiiumaa Island and well known as somewhere from which to observe wildfowl migration through the Baltic Sea.  In our first hour there, we saw thousands of Common Scoters, hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks and numerous but smaller numbers of Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers.  As these birds passed by, from left to right as we looked out to sea, it was necessary to maintain concentration in order to pick out the less common species: a flock of 12 Steller’s Eiders, just two Velvet Scoters, a Razorbill, a Red-throated Diver and two Black-throated Divers, a pair of Shelducks, a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the less familiar fuscus race known as ‘Baltic Gull’ and a single Arctic Skua.  A Rough-legged Buzzard was also identified and a few common passerines noted including Lesser Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Chaffinch.

By 8.00 a.m. the number of birds passing by had reduced quite substantially and so we next turned our attention to the nearby trees and bushes to look for passerine migrants.  A Sparrowhawk here presumably had the same object in mind.  We saw Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and ‘Northern’ Bullfinches but the highlights were undoubtedly two Red-backed Shrikes, a male and a female. 

Red-backed Shrike

At the nearby harbour at Kalana we found Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers, Common & Black-headed Gulls, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail and Woodlark, Siskins and Redpolls and a Common Buzzard.

We had an early lunch at the Kõpu Lighthouse Café.  The lighthouse is one of the oldest in the world, having been in continuous use since its completion in 1531 and is apparently a popular tourist attraction.

Kõpu Lighthouse

An hour or so birding around coastal meadows and reed beds produced Lapwing, Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Ringed Plover, Mute Swan, Gadwall, Shelduck and Shoveler, Greylag & Barnacle Geese, Little Tern, Marsh Harrier, Whinchat, Reed Bunting, Skylark and Common Whitethroat.  There was also our first White-tailed Eagle but just a distant view of a bird flying away. 

White-tailed Eagle

Later, at Käina Bay, we visited a tower hide from where we could see maybe as many as 15,000 geese, mostly Barnacles and Greylags but also some Tundra Beans.  Also from the tower there were distant views of about ten Smew, a few Common Pochards and 50 Avocets.

Käina Bay

Soon there were further opportunities to look at geese with thousands of Greater White-fronts, Barnacles & Tundra Beans.  The search was now on for a rare Red-breasted Goose or Lesser White-front, a search that was to go on without success throughout the week whenever we encountered these large flocks.  The improvement in the conservation status of many European goose populations since the 1940s is one of the major success stories of European bird conservation but these large numbers of geese are clearly not universally popular and can cause severe problems for farmers.  On one occasion the geese that we were watching were deliberately flushed by a presumed farmer, something that must go on routinely in an attempt to protect crops and grazing land.

Greater White-fronted Geese

On the morning of Day 3 we went first to Tahkuna Cape at the northern tip of Hiiumaa.  A sea watch from the lighthouse here produced Common Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks but nowhere near the numbers seen yesterday at Ristna.  Passerines in the same area included Red Crossbills, a Common Redstart, Yellow Wagtails, Chiffchaffs and Lesser Whitethroats.  This time there were two Sparrowhawks in attendance.  We saw just a small number of Yellow Wagtails during the week, some flava but mostly thunbergi.

Next we went to Suuresadama and a somewhat derelict industrial harbour notable mainly for a distinctive old barn but also for the occurrence here in April 2014 of an Alpine Accentor that was only the second record for Estonia.  Here there were seven Great Crested Grebes on the sea, a singing Woodlark, Black & Common Redstarts, Common Sandpiper and Greenshank.

We were heading for Heltermaa and the ferry to take us back to the mainland but there were further stops on the way.  At one of these Tarvo found two Pink-footed Geese in amongst a flock of Bean Geese, the only time during the week that we saw this species.  At another, we had a short walk in an attractive woodland area where Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipit, Bullfinches and Fieldfares were seen and Hawfinch heard.

Pied Flycatcher

The weather, which at the start of the tour had been better than most of us expected, improved further today and the ferry crossing was a much more pleasant experience.  Again it featured a flock of Bewick’s Swans.

We enjoyed a very nice lunch at Tuulingu Farm at the edge of the village of Haeska and Matsalu National Park.  The coastal meadows surrounding the farm are grazed by Highland cattle and birds here included both Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit in very smart breeding dress.  There were thousands of Barnacle Geese to search through and we saw Caspian Tern and Yellow Wagtail.

Barnacle Geese

Next Tarvo headed to a site where in previous years he had seen Ortolan Buntings.  On this occasion we were unlucky and maybe we were too early to see them but we did find there a pair of Red-backed Shrikes and we had our first sighting of a Lesser Spotted Eagle.  The surrounding farmland had Yellowhammers and Skylarks.  Further on when we stopped to photograph a pair of Common Cranes we also saw the only Honey-buzzard of the week.

Common Crane

We continued our journey to Pärnu, the fourth-largest city in Estonia and a popular summer holiday resort.  Here, the Rannahotell proved to be a good choice for our two-night stay. 


The next morning, we left the hotel at 5.30 a.m. to spend several hours at two forest sites near Soometsa, a village to the south of Pärnu.  Here we were looking for woodpeckers but had only limited success.  There were brief views of Three-toed & Black Woodpeckers but only Great Spotted really co-operated and stayed in place for proper scrutiny.  Robin, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Cuckoo and Green Sandpiper were amongst the other species seen.  The Green Sandpiper, a species that typically uses an old Fieldfares’ nest in which to lay its eggs, was displaying above the forest.  It was here that we saw a Green Hairstreak but it wasn’t a particularly good week for butterflies with Brimstone the most frequently seen of just a handful of species.

On the way back to the hotel for breakfast we stopped at a wooded park where Nuthatch, Fieldfare, Spotted Flycatcher and Marsh Tit were seen.

Eurasian Nuthatch

Later we went to the Nätsi-Võlla Nature Reserve, a wetland area near Audru, comprising extensive reed beds, some open water and grazing meadows.  The star birds here were Citrine Wagtails and we watched them for quite a while.  It was difficult to be sure how many there were but probably at least three pairs.  Also seen were three Garganeys, seven Spotted Redshanks, two Hobbys, a ‘ringtail’ Montagu’s Harrier, a Common Buzzard, Greenshank, Great Crested Grebes and lots of Greater White-fronts & Barnacle Geese.

Nearby, we had a walk in Audru Park where a Middle Spotted Woodpecker was seen very well and there was a nice selection of other woodland species including Eurasian Treecreeper and Hawfinch.  After dinner there was an excursion to the local forest in search of night birds but, a little disappointingly, it produced only Woodcock, Nightjar and Tawny Owl. 

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

To be continued...


Saturday, 21 July 2018

Avian Adventures in Tanzania

This year’s Avian Adventures tour in Tanzania was Peter’s seventh visit to that country.  Although minor changes to the tour itinerary have been made from year to year each one, including this latest, has included Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Serengeti National Parks and Ngorongoro Crater. 

Ngorongoro Crater

In some years, depending on the length of the tour, Arusha National Park has also been included and in recent times there has been a two-night stay in the Ndutu area, in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Ndutu is adjacent to the Serengeti and forms part of the annual migratory route of hundreds of thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra as well as being good for birds. 

Wildebeest

Opportunities have also arisen over the years for short excursions to Eluanata Dam, a recognised Important Bird Area near Arusha and to Olduvai Gorge, an important site for the study of human evolution, located in the Great Rift Valley.

For this year’s tour, we changed things around a little so as to make time for a visit to the Asogati Plain situated to the north of Arusha, the only known location in the world where Beesley's Lark occurs.  Previously regarded as a race of Spike-heeled Lark, a species mostly confined to southern Africa, Beesley’s Lark is now widely recognised to be a separate species.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, although larks have in the past inspired poets including Wordsworth and Shelley they are regarded by many birders as simply exasperating LBJs and their identification treated as something of a chore.  In the case of Beesley’s Lark, its status as well as identification has also been the subject of debate.

To help us find these birds and several other lark species that occur in the same area we engaged with the Beesley’s Lark Conservation Program of Engikaret.  Engikaret is the nearby village that is using income from ecotourism to generate a community development fund and to provide motivation for villagers to help conserve the Beesley's Lark.  On a very limited scale, these birds are tourist attractions!  It’s fair to say, however, that the quest for Beesley’s Lark wasn’t met with universal enthusiasm from tour participants, probably because it came early in the tour when we hadn’t yet seen Lion or Leopard or many of the other ‘must see’ species that people were impatient for.  Never mind that Beesley’s Lark was quite likely to be the rarest bird some of us would see…ever!

Over two weeks we did eventually get to see most of the bird and mammal species that were expected and, as always, one or two that came as a surprise.  Inevitably, there were also one or two minor disappointments – how did we manage NOT to see a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl?

Cheetah

In spite of all the wonderful bird sightings, the one memory that we will all retain involved watching a Cheetah make a kill.  When we first saw it, the Cheetah was lying down but we could see that it clearly wasn’t asleep.  With just its head visible above the vegetation it was keeping a lookout for a meal.  As we watched, we soon realised that it actually had one in view.  It seemed to have a particular interest in a young Thomson’s Gazelle that was gradually coming closer, oblivious to any danger.  The gazelle, which was probably no more than a month old, had strayed away from its mother.  We knew that if we could be patient it wouldn’t be long before the Cheetah would make its move and it took only a few minutes before the gazelle was within chasing distance. At this point the Cheetah stood up and went off like a rocket in pursuit of the hapless creature, which was no match for the cat.  The young gazelle’s short life was over in a matter of a few seconds and a cloud of dust!

Cheetah with gazelle carcass

It was the sort of action that we always hope to see on African tours but which certainly can’t be guaranteed.  As a spectacle it left Beesley’s Lark in the shade!

Although we take every opportunity to look at the mammals, expecting to see around 40 different species, these are always very much birdwatching tours with more than 300 species recorded.  Brief details and some photographs from previous tours can also be found hereherehereherehere and here.  Below are some photographs from this year; next year's tour is scheduled for 4th to 18th April 2019. 

 Superb Starling

 Grey-breasted Francolin

Black-winged Kite

Black Rhinoceros

Lion 

Red-and-yellow Barbet

Rosy-breasted Longclaw

Long-crested Eagle

Another Lion

Eland

Chestnut-banded Plover

Gabar Goshawk

Saddle-billed Stork

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Rüppell’s Griffon

Yellow-billed Stork

Black-headed Heron

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Silverbird

European Roller

Tawny Eagle

Hildebrandt's Starling

Grey Crowned Crane

Lesser Masked Weaver

Friday, 9 March 2018

Algarve winter birding

Following our return from Thailand at the end of January we enjoyed almost a month of really good birding in the Algarve before the weather intervened.  However, for more than a week now heavy rain, gale-force winds and even several mini tornados have rather disrupted things!

Winter birding in the Algarve is never lacking in interest.  Without too much effort our daily bird list, even in short daylight hours, usually extends to 90 or more species and often exceeds 100.  No two winters are exactly the same and although huge numbers of birds migrate from Northern Europe to escape the cold, it is only extremely adverse conditions that drive some species this far south.  Only rarely, for instance have we seen Snow Buntings or Long-tailed Ducks in the Algarve and when Redwings and Fieldfares arrive they are only ever in quite small numbers.  Likewise, Short-eared Owls are irregular and unpredictable.  This winter there have been more Siskins than usual, there’s been no shortage of Ring Ouzels in their usual haunts around Sagres and even a few Bramblings have been reported.

Snow Bunting

Redwings

 Short-eared Owl

 Ring Ouzel

Eurasian Siskin

Perhaps not surprisingly the number of birdwatchers visiting the Algarve in winter is relatively small but those who do come are seldom disappointed.  Species such as Alpine Accentor, Penduline Tit, Richard’s Pipit, Caspian Tern, Little Bittern, Bluethroat, Booted Eagle and Black-winged Kite are usually not difficult to find and most years there has been something unusual, like last winter’s Sora, the Bufflehead in early 2016 or the Red-breasted Flycatcher of 2014/15.

Alpine Accentor

 Caspian Tern

Black-winged Kite

 Sora

 Bufflehead

Red-breasted Flycatcher

On 27th December a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler found at Fonte Benémola was just the third record for Portugal.  It was seen for just a few days and then only with difficulty!  It’s remarkable that the two previous records of this species, both in the Algarve, were on 27th December (1999) and 31st December (2002). 

This winter has been exceptional for long-staying rarities and near-rarities.  The star bird has been a Sociable Lapwing that was found at Lagoa dos Salgados in November and remained in that general area at least until last week.  For several weeks a Marsh Sandpiper has been frequenting a site near Olhão and recently a Red-knobbed Coot has been faithful to the same corner of the San Lorenzo golf course. 

 Red-knobbed Coot

Marsh Sandpiper

For a while a Lesser Yellowlegs was also at Lagoa dos Salgados but perhaps influenced by rising water levels there it has since been seen at the ETAR Faro Nascente, Lagoa do Trafal and Foz do Almargem.  Not officially rarities but still scarce in the Algarve, two Temminck’s Stints have been viewable in the Ria Formosa at Quinta do Lago and in that same general area, a possible Pallid Harrier has been seen several times and photographed but it remains the subject of debate.  There have also been occasional sightings near Estômbar of one or two Little Buntings.

 Lesser Yellowlegs

Temminck's Stint

And there have been a few birds that will have only been seen by those who were there at the time.  We were lucky to get a very good but brief look at what could only have been a Little Swift at Lagoa dos Salgados on 2nd February and a Rustic Bunting was photographed near Sagres on the 7th.  Neither of these birds was seen again.  The same is true of a Red-throated Diver seen at the end of December flying out to sea from the mouth of the Guadiana River. 

A few Greylag Geese often occur, most regularly at Castro Marim but otherwise geese are scarce here.  Brent Geese sometimes turn up in the Ria Formosa or at Ria de Alvor and there have been records of Barnacle Geese but their origin is open to question.  Ducks on the other hand are here in their thousands and have sometimes included American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck and other rarities.

 Greylag Geese

Brent Goose

Finally we have to mention that thousands of gulls descend on the Algarve in winter.  As well as the six regular species (Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged, Black-headed, Mediterranean, Audouin’s & Slender-billed) those among us who are prepared to put the time in scrutinising the flocks may be rewarded by finding a Great Black-backed, a Common, a Glaucous or even a Caspian or Ring-billed Gull.  The recent storms brought a number of Kittiwakes into view and this week has seen the arrival of two or possibly three Iceland Gulls.  Remarkably, one of the Iceland Gulls has been seen on the so-called Roman bridge over the Gilão River in the centre of Tavira.

 Slender-billed Gull

Iceland Gull

As we see now the return from Africa of Pallid Swifts, Yellow Wagtails, Red-rumped Swallows and other migrants it would be nice to think that winter is over but in the wake of the destructive 'Storm Emma', the coming days see the Algarve once again on high alert as 'Storm Felix' approaches bringing who knows what new rarities.