Monday 4 November 2019

Algarve Autumn Update

After our trip to Bulgaria we had only a few days in the UK before we returned to the Algarve.  We expected October to be a busy month and it certainly was!

October is always a month that produces rarities in the Algarve.  This year has been no exception although the suspicion must be that several of them are birds that have returned for at least a second visit here.  Surely this must be the case for the Rock Pipit at Porto do Baleeira, the Ring-necked Duck(s) at the ETAR de Vilamoura and probably the Marsh Sandpiper at Marinha do Grelha.  Still, it’s always good to see old friends.

Rock Pipit

Most photographed bird of the month (judged from appearances on Facebook) must be a Snow Bunting that was a surprise find at Alvor that gained many admirers.  As well as being a particularly attractive bird, this is not an easy species to see in the Algarve, one we have seen here only once, back in 2012.

Snow Bunting - this one from 2012

Also much photographed eventually was an American Golden Plover at Quinta de Marim although when we went to follow up on the initial report we were the only ones there – a typical Algarve twitch!  Interest in it did increase in subsequent days and it was present for at least two weeks.

American Golden Plover

Possibly the most surprising rarity has been the single Pink-footed Goose that was first seen mid-month.  This was the first of this species recorded in the Algarve and it has remained in the Sagres area at least until the end of the month but has sometimes been elusive.

A couple of Olive-backed Pipits have been seen and several Yellow-browed Warblers, encouraging us to look carefully at the numerous Meadow Pipits and Phylloscopus warblers that have been arriving even though those two rarities are probably more likely to be identified by their calls.

At this time of year there is a tendency for rarities to be found in the Sagres area in the extreme south-west.  At least in part this is probably the result of an increased number of birders in that area during the migration season.  The annual birdwatching festival brings visitors from far and wide with raptors being the particular attraction.  More than 20 raptor species were reported during the month including Golden, Bonelli’s & Spanish Imperial Eagles and Rüppell's Vultures.  We saw about 400 Griffon Vultures during one of our visits there but only from such a distance that any Rüppell's amongst them were impossible to pick out.

Griffon Vultures

This has been the first autumn for several years when we haven’t managed to take a boat trip to look for seabirds.  Reports suggest that it hasn’t been a vintage year for seabird passage but the Long-tailed Skua photographed on 12th October and the Sabine’s Gull on the 18th would both certainly have been nice to see.  Many of those who have ventured out to sea have been rewarded with some excellent cetaceans including Fin & Humpback Whales.  As it is, we have had to content ourselves with watching distant Cory’s & Balearic Shearwaters from the cliff top at Cabo de São Vicente.

In the past, our friends from Belvide Ringers in the UK have trapped and ringed a few rarities here during their annual autumn visits.  Common Yellowthroat, Aquatic & Paddyfield Warblers and Common Rosefinches spring immediately to mind!  This year they were here for two weeks, one spent as usual in the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura and the other spent ringing waders at Quinta de Marim.  We spent several hours with them at both locations and although there were no rarities it was as always educational to see so many birds at close quarters.


Penduline Tit

When we haven’t been guiding we’ve spent time birding around our local patch, the Tavira/Santa Luzia saltpans.  It’s not unusual to see 20 or more wader species during a visit here as well as six gull species and at least two terns.  There have been hundreds of Audouin’s Gulls, many of them with colour rings and we have reported quite a few.  Most have been birds from the Algarve breeding colony on the Ilha da Barreta but we have also seen ART8, a bird ringed in 2005 on the Isla de Alborán in Spain that we have now seen about a dozen times over the years.   The number of Slender-billed Gulls also increases year after year - it’s amazing to think that only quite recently this species was treated as a rarity in Portugal!  If ever people we meet here suggest they’re not keen on gulls we try to convert them by showing readily identifiable and attractive Slender-billed & Audouin’s Gulls.


 Spotted Redshank


 Ruddy Turnstone

 Slender-billed Gull

Audouin's Gull

Reservoir at Álvares - almost dry!

We’ve also had a couple of trips to see Great Bustards in the Castro Verde area.  Visiting this area has underlined the fact that the southern part of Portugal is suffering from a severe drought.  A favourite site, the reservoir at Álvares that stores water to irrigate a huge olive plantation is currently reduced to just a small ‘puddle’ and passing by the Barragem de Odeleite, on the way north, we saw the water level there lower than we have ever seen it.  And this is the reservoir that supplies mains water to most of the Eastern Algarve.  We really do need to have a seriously wet winter!  Something to look forward to?

Thursday 3 October 2019

Bulgaria & Romania

We recently returned from leading an Avian Adventures tour in Bulgaria and Romania where Dimiter Georgiev of Neophron Tours was our local driver/guide.  We took a British Airways flight from Heathrow Terminal 5 to Sofia and then spent three nights at Kraimorie and three nights at Kavarna before crossing into Romania for some birding around the Danube Delta and then a return flight from Bucharest.

Red-backed Shrike - seen everywhere we went

Kraimorie was a convenient base for two days birding around the Burgas Lakes.  We divided our time in that area mostly between Lakes Vaya, Mandrensko, Atanasovsko & Pomorie and Poroy Reservoir.  From Kavarna, we visited Durankulak Lake and Shabla Tuzla Lake, Cape Kaliakra and areas of nearby steppe grassland.

Not surprisingly, we saw an impressive variety of wetland birds that included Great White & Dalmatian Pelicans, Ferruginous Duck, Pygmy Cormorant, Squacco Heron, White Stork, Gull-billed, Caspian & Whiskered Terns, Slender-billed & Caspian Gulls, Kentish Plover and Broad-billed Sandpiper.  The downside was that water levels were generally low and as a result birds were mostly further away than we would have liked.  Certainly, opportunities for photography were very few.

Broad-billed Sandpiper

We also managed to see a good variety of raptors including Lesser Spotted, Short-toed, Booted & Eastern Imperial Eagles, Hobbys, Common & Long-legged Buzzards, Marsh Harrier, Eurasian & Levant Sparrowhawks and Red-footed Falcon.  Mostly, however, these were in quite small numbers and we missed out on any raptor migration ‘spectacle’ that we might have wished for.

 Levant Sparrowhawk - a 'lifer' for both of us

Lesser Spotted Eagle

September is probably not the best time of year to see woodpeckers but June’s particular interest was satisfied by the Black, Syrian & Middle Spotted varieties that we don’t get to see very often.  Other highlights were Sombre Tit, Yelkouan Shearwater, Corncrake, European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Red-breasted Flycatcher and, a sign of the times – European Turtle Dove.  It was also good to see so many Red-backed Shrikes almost everywhere we went.

Early one morning we visited a ringing camp and got to see several birds in the hand, notably Marsh, European Reed & Great Reed Warblers, Spanish Sparrow and Red-backed Shrike.  However, few birds had been trapped and migration generally was probably affected by the weather, which for most of the week was unseasonably warm with temperatures often exceeding 30°C.

 Spanish Sparrow

Red-backed Shrike

Although the week was mostly spent in Bulgaria, for the last day and a half we crossed into Romania with an overnight stay at Sinoe.  This gave us an opportunity to sample just a very small part of Europe’s largest wetland, the Danube Delta.  Undoubtedly the highlights here were the Red-footed Falcons.  We were pleased enough to see at least 50 or so late in the afternoon of our arrival and then the following morning in a different area there were at least 250.

Red-footed Falcons

As with all tours that are aimed at seeing birds on migration there is a certain amount of luck involved with both the timing and the weather.  Certainly, the cloudless skies and high temperatures during our week didn’t enhance our birding experience.  Low water levels were also far from ideal.  Nevertheless we did manage to see more than 150 bird species and everyone had at least one or two ‘lifers’.  It's a tour we will look forward to repeating.

 Simultaneously looking for crakes and raptors!

 Now looking out over the Black Sea for shearwaters

 Cape Kaliakra - we've never seen so many wind turbines

 Ruddy Turnstone

 European Paper Wasps (Polistes dominula) - we think

 Northern Wheatear

Cardinal butterfly

Tuesday 11 June 2019

Ohio, Michigan, Indiana & Illinois

In recent years northern Ohio has become the most popular destination in North America for birders wishing to witness the arrival of migrant birds in the spring.  For some time we had been promising ourselves a visit there and at last this year we made it!

It did mean having to leave the Algarve much earlier than normal but the timing is crucial; after doing our research we decided that the third and fourth weeks of May should give us the best experience both in terms of the number of birds and the variety of species.  We also wanted to avoid the festival week as it attracts hundreds of birders to the area.  “The Biggest Week in American Birding” hosted by Black Swamp Bird Observatory was this year held from 3rd to 12th May; we were keen to avoid the crowds and arrived in Ohio on the 15th.

The best known site is Magee Marsh Wildlife Area located on the south side of Lake Erie.  It has become popular because the occurrence there of warblers, tanagers, thrushes, vireos and other neotropical migrants is much less dependent on weather conditions than it is at places such as High Island in Texas and Point Pelee in Ontario that were previously the two best-known spring migration hotspots.

Swainson's Thrush

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Warbling Vireo

Scarlet Tanager

American Redstart

We have been fortunate in the past to make multiple visits to the USA, including tours in Texas for the spring migration at High Island and elsewhere. As a result we were already quite familiar with most of the species we were likely to see in Ohio and being on our own for once, we were under no pressure to chase around trying to see absolutely every species on offer. This was to be a relaxing birding trip with time taken for some photography.

However, most of our trips to the USA have been to the west and there were three species that we thought should be possible on this trip, which we hadn’t seen before.  These were American Woodcock and Black-billed Cuckoo, which are very much ‘eastern birds’ and Kirtland’s Warbler, which breeds in nearby Michigan and which we would probably have to travel to find unless we were lucky enough to see a migrant passing through Magee.

Black-and-white Warbler

Also on our radar was Connecticut Warbler, a shy, skulking species which has the reputation of being one of, if not the most difficult of the warblers to see and which had previously eluded us.

We began with a six-night stay at Port Clinton, which gave us five days within easy reach of Magee Marsh and we went there for at least part of each of those days. On every visit the ‘famous’ boardwalk through the marsh was well-populated with birders and photographers but never to an extent that it felt overcrowded. The whole place was also full of birds.  We managed to see 22 warbler species and we were delighted that these included a Connecticut Warbler.  Other migrants included four vireo species, half a dozen or so flycatchers, Baltimore Oriole, Grey-cheeked & Swainson’s Thrushes and another of our targets, Black-billed Cuckoo.  Sadly, there was no sign of American Woodcock and hardly a mention of one.

Baltimore Oriole

Bay-breasted Warbler

Connecticut Warbler

Northern Parula

In the same general area, we visited Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Openings Preserve Metropark, Maumee Bay State Park, Howard Marsh Metropark and Black Swamp Bird Observatory. There were other options available but Magee Marsh was excellent throughout and there were enough birds everywhere to more than satisfy us.  In fact, we even cancelled our planned trip to Cleveland and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because the birding was so good!

Yellow Warbler

Eventually we moved on into neighbouring Michigan, spending a very enjoyable couple of hours first of all at the Motown Museum in Detroit.  Here we saw the famous Studio A where so many hit recordings were made between 1959 and 1972 by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, the Four Tops and others.  We even got to sing a long to the Temptations' 'My Girl'!

The afternoon was spent birding at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge located five miles south of the city of Saginaw where an Orange-crowned Warbler, two Sandhill Cranes and several Wild Turkeys were among several species that we hadn’t seen earlier in Ohio.

Next we went further north to Oscoda for a four-night stay on the shore of Lake Huron.  The main birding locality here is Tawas Point State Park, another well-known site for migrants while nearby is Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area.  Much of our time was spent visiting these two areas but we also enlisted the help of local birder and guide, Matt Hegwood to make sure we saw our remaining target species, American Woodcock and Kirtland’s Warbler.  Matt took us to various places, mostly within the Huron-Manistee National Forest and his local knowledge was invaluable.

Kirtland's Warbler

At Tawas Point we found a very similar selection of migrants to those we had seen at Magee Marsh and again in very good numbers.  Further additions to the growing list of warblers were a Mourning Warbler and a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  As well as warblers and vireos there were Bobolinks, Cedar Waxwings and Brown Thrashers and at the end of the peninsula, shorebirds, notably more than 200 Whimbrel.

Red-eyed Vireo

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Tuttle Marsh also produced a very worthwhile selection of birds including Barred Owl, American Bittern, Golden-winged Warbler, Virginia Rail, Bald Eagle (at one point mobbed by an Osprey), Belted Kingfisher, Wood Ducks (18 in one tree) and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Virginia Rail

Matt very soon found for us a pair of Kirtland’s Warblers that we were able to see at very close range.  Almost extinct 50 years ago, this species has recovered well as large areas of its favoured jack pine forest habitat have been managed to meet its needs and large numbers of Brown-headed Cowbirds have been removed.  It is reported that in the 1960s, 70% of warbler nests were parasitized by cowbirds reducing the number of warbler chicks to fewer than needed to perpetuate the species.

During our time with Matt we also saw Pine & Palm Warblers and Northern Waterthrush, bringing the warbler total to 29 species, seven woodpecker species, White-breasted & Red-breasted Nuthatches, Merlin, Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk, Golden-crowned Kinglet and lots more.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

That left just the American Woodcock to find, which Matt duly did although it did take two attempts.  Eventually, we saw and heard the display flight and heard the strange ‘peent’ call of a bird on the ground just a short distance along the track from where we were standing.  All this was, of course, at dusk in fading light; while we were waiting for the action to start we watched Common Nighthawks overhead and then, just a few yards away, an Eastern Whip-poor-will began singing.  All in all it was a memorable experience.

After ten days birding in Ohio and Michigan we moved on again and enjoyed two visits to Indiana Dunes State Park, situated on the shores of Lake Michigan but, of course, in the state of Indiana.  Just to confuse things further, we stayed overnight in Michigan City, which itself is in Indiana!

Although we enjoyed a few sunny days during the trip, we also had our share of cold days and rain.  The most extreme weather came while we were in Michigan City in the form of a severe thunderstorm and a tornado that eventually passed by about five miles to the south of us leaving all sorts of damage in its wake.

Indiana Dunes State Park was excellent.  As well as more than three miles of beach and towering sand dunes there is visitor centre with bird feeders and a network of forest trails where we found lots of interest.  Highlights among the birds were again the warblers including Mourning, Prothonotary, Magnolia and two additions to our list, Worm-eating & Cerulean.  On our second morning there we ran into Kyle Wiktor who had been carrying out a visible migration count, which had included a remarkable 8,681 Cedar Waxwings!

 Downy Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Cedar Waxwing

Prothonotary Warbler

From Indiana we drove into Illinois to stay with family for a week.  During this time there was a day trip to see the sights of Chicago but the birding continued.  We were staying within easy walking distance of Burnidge Forest Preserve and made four visits there.  The area has a nice mix of habitats that includes oak woodland, marshes and restored prairie.  The birds were mostly species we had seen before on the trip but at last we got good looks at Eastern Towhee and Field Sparrow and it was good to have both Alder and Willow Flycatchers singing.  By now it was early June and there wasn’t much evidence at this inland site of any migration in progress.  Obviously, it was time to come home! 

 The Windy City

Field Sparrow

Red-winged Blackbird

American Robin

Grey Catbird