Friday 8 April 2022

Rocket Run

 A rocket run in field herping parlance, is a short, action-packed trip to somewhere unusual, to catch up with some different species. In the USA its to a different state and in Europe its to a different county. This seems appropriate for my primarily work-focused 36 hours in County Cork, Ireland. As a large part of yesterday was working, I can neither tell you where I was, or what I was doing but suffice to say it was very pleasant. I will instead cover what I can say!

Black Guillemot

I haven't been to Ireland before. This is technically a lie but my only previous trips were about 12 metres into Irish waters when surveying off Islay back in 2010, so that doesn't count in my eyes. Due to this and my impending 40th birthday, my wife booked me a trip to Dublin, to go for the very first time. I was very much looking forward to this, and still am. Work however needed me to head to Ireland at short notice, so head I did and my trip to Dublin will no longer be my first time, much to my wife's chagrin. After reading about Manchester airport on the news a lot, I experienced this hellscape for what it is. I queued for two and a half hours to get through into departures, due to a lack of security staff, only to be delayed for a further two hours once I was through due to a lack of ground crew. Awesome. Eventually I got to Cork airport and the hotel there.

Yesterday morning was glorious and my first Irish bird species was Hooded Crow, as several went past in the early morning light, as I sipped my coffee. A Pied Wagtail danced on the car park and a Song Thrush dug at the hotel lawn. I ventured west and saw my first Buzzard and most of the generic countryside species. A day of mooching revealed plenty of finches including Siskin and Bullfinch and lots of Chiffchaffs. I rather fancied something else might be in but the hinterland seemed to be later than here in Yorkshire with no leaf on the trees and no Willow Warblers although my colleague thought he saw a Swallow.

Room with a view. Of a car park.

I checked a few lakes but came away with just a Sparrowhawk and the usual suspects sitting tight. After work, I thought I'd amble to the coast to see if I could turn up a decent duck (I couldn't) or go and see the Lesser Scaup and friends at Lough Clubir. Mute Swans are nesting all over it turns out but I didnt see anything of interest on the still water bodies but upon crossing a bridge south of Leap, saw a Black Guillemot paddling about. The bridge felt like it was over a freshwater body although on reviewing maps it is apparent it is an estuary. It was narrow and enclosed by leafy trees so seeing an auk when you expect a Goldeneye or Goosander was a shock. A large passage of gulls was also very much in evidence with Lesser Black-backed Gulls everywhere.

I got to Lough Clubir where there were a dozen Aythyas in evidence and sure enough, one was a female Lesser Scaup which was very definitely paired with a male Tufted Duck. There was no sign of the female Ring-necked Duck, although a couple of Shelduck were hunting for rabbit holes in which to raise the next generation. And that was it! I meandered back to airport and had my first proper pint of Guinness before falling asleep, exhausted and then catching the early bird back to Manchester, which proved relatively painless, aside from the hordes heading to Aintree for the weekend. 

Sunday 9 January 2022

Baikal Teal at Hornsea Mere

 As I was eating my coco pops Baikal Teal came on the Birdguides app. Again. I went to dismiss it, assuming it was the bird at Greylake but no, it was at Hornsea Mere. I have history with Baikal Teal there, as the last one disgraced itself by summering in Northumberland and the Lothians which is suboptimal for an actual vagrant and it duly got binned. I had even seen it on the Ouse Washes. Despite limping significantly after a serious DVT prior to Christmas, I fired up the Quattro (Skoda Octavia) and was at Hornsea just after midday. I have heard horror stories of people spending days at Greylake looking for the drake there but nothing like this for me, as it sat 100 yards off Kirkholme Point amongst a group of Wigeon, dozing away. It woke on occasion and was easy to watch for 25 minutes until the local maggot drowners ploughed through the group, displacing them to the other end of the mere. 

It was subsequently relocated but almost as far as it could be from optics and I was already in the warm by that time. I didn't hang around too long but not before seeing both Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes. A poke through the Aythya flock failed to reveal anything of significant interest and I ran away to get warm.

So what of this birds origins? It has turned up at the same time as another drake, which is a plus, in mid-winter during an influx of other 'eastern' wildfowl (Smew and Bewick's Swan) so provided it isn't still here in May, at Cresswell Pond then I am hopeful it will pass the test. It could certainly fly and stuck with its Wigeon mates as they flushed.

Black-necked Grebe

Monday 3 January 2022

Scorching in the Sierras - Part 1

My Raptor Watchpoint with Tajo Lagarin which held the local Vulture colony, in the background

Last summer my family and I decamped to the Sierra de Grazalema for a fortnight. I was recuperating from my last DVT (We will get onto the latest one shortly I'm sure) and I hadn't been birding all spring. I have since learned that I was also suffering from undiagnosed gout in my knees. I'd had a tricky few months so a couple of weeks resting in an Andalusian villa with the potential for a trip of two to Tarifa sounded like my idea of bliss. Little did I know how good it was going to be. We had a straight forward flight into Malaga and picked up the hire car before pointing North-west to El Gastor, just over the border into Cadiz from Ronda. We arrived in good time to a spectacular setting, nestled in the mountains. It was overcast but superhot. European record temperatures were falling in Italy with 49c recorded there. We made do with a measly 47c. It was 42-47 degrees for the first four days before settling back into the mid-30s. This is generally the hottest part of Europe but those first few days were crackers and sleeping was very hard. Birds would come and drink from the pool whilst we were in it, they were so desperate. In addition there was a levante wind which stifled migration. We arrived in El Gastor, one of the 'Pueblos Blancos' of Andalucia, mid-afternoon and there was a flotilla of Griffon Vultures soaring overhead. I had heard that 'hawks and eagles' were seen every day from the deck of the villa so I assumed there was a vulture colony nearby, and this was proved correct with a cliff holding seventy odd birds and additional colonies across the valley, the other side of El Gastor and at Zahara de la Sierra.

One of several zillion Griffon Vultures that went over the villa. This was from Day 1.

Abby enjoying the pool

Bee-eater having a bath on one of the 42c+ days

The first afternoon revealed about 50 Griffons and a pair of Booted Eagles, one dark and one pale morph. These guys were nesting about a mile from where we were staying and were seen on a daily basis. The male was a pale morph and regularly hunted the slope the villa was on whereas the female, a dark morph, was more seldom seen and tended to stay the other side of the mountain. Both were often seen early moring when they joined the kettling Griffons. There was no sign of any young birds and they would have been dependent when we were there so I assume they failed. Late in the afternoon, a pair of Red-billed Chough floated over the vulture cliff, and were a familiar if irregular sight with a high count of 25 birds seen from the villa. The only passage recorded in the afternoon was over a hundred Bee-eaters, a single Red-rumped Swallow and a handful of Pallid Swifts. Other typically Mediterranean species recorded in the villas garden included Hoopoe which was seen occasionally but they were far from regular and Serin which bred in trees just outside the garden. 

El Gastor Square. Scene of cold beers and umbrellas

The gorgeous streets of El Gastor, one of the Pueblos Blancos

I was tired but excited the following morning, expecting epic migration but the weather soon cooled my ardour. There was no raptor migration and aside from the previous days Booted Eagles and Griffon Vultures, a single Common Kestrel  was the only additional raptor recorded. NocMig was a bust as I had cocked up the settings on my recorder unnoticed to myself, in an attempt to record myself playing guitar. I didn't notice until long after the trip. There was a bit more success with Common Swifts as a flock of 200 went through in the evening which were joined by a handful of Pallid Swifts. A flock of 10 Alpine Swifts were seen over the mountain mid-morning. The Bee-eater count was a paltry 22 birds and there were braces of Swallow and House Martin which are likely to have been local birds rather than migrants. Singles of Western Bonelli's Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher moved through the garden in the morning, both avoiding photographs, but a family party of Sardinian Warblers were a bit more forthcoming. A single Spotless Starling was a harbinger for quite a large flock which roamed the wider area. 

The male of the local Sardinian Warbler family

Booted Eagle from the Veranda

Short-toed Eagle from the Veranda

Things started to get a bit samey by day 3 which was Friday 13th August so I went to Llanos de Libar, a beautiful valley between the villa and Ronda, located high in the mountains and which acts as a pass for raptors through the High Sierras. It was still scorchio but I arrived early morning, to see a Bonelli's Eagle flop across the valley. I had poor, non-optics views from the moving car but enjoyed reacquainting with this spectacular species. Raptor-wise, again the heat stifled movement but a large flock of 80 Griffons were entertaining and a single pale-morph Booted Eagle hunted the valley. There was a bit more variety on the passerine front with Black Wheatear and Thekla Lark singing from amongst the boulders. I also recorded my first Crag Martins, Black Redstarts and a single Rock Bunting. By 10am I was parched and the heat was unbearable. Moving back to my beer addled sunbed, I added my first Goldfinches of the trip. Migration was steady with just the aerial insectivores moving at all but a single Alpine Swift was in with a group of 14 Common Swifts. There were also singles of Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow and House Martin and a mighty 81 Bee-eaters. A single falcon species was seen. It was in all likelihood a Hobby but I didn't seen it well enough to be sure. 

The Llanos de Libar, a fabulous valley!

Griffon from Llanos de Libar

Saturday was more of the same with a high flock of 200 swallow species along with 16 Swallows and 25 Red-rumped Swallows recorded along with a brace of Bee-eaters. My first hint of raptor migration was a singular Black Kite which was new for the trip. I was enjoying the location but just starting to go a little stir crazy with the lack of movement. Migration started properly on day 5, Sunday 15th August, with five Short-toed Eagles moving over the deck, in addition to 1 migrant Booted Eagle (and the resident two birds) and my first Sparrowhawk of the trip. A selection of aerial insectivores passed overhead consisting of 66 Common Swifts, 1 Pallid Swift, 7 Alpine Swifts, 41 Bee-eaters, 17 Red-rumped Swallows, 7 Swallows, 6 House Martins and my first Sand Martin of the trip. It was the hottest day and the local Collared Doves, parties of Bee-eaters and Red-rumped Swallows all came and joined me in the pool for a drink, obviously desperate in the heat of the day. Hopefully they were sustained. My first Stonechat of the trip moved through the garden early in the morning.

Garden Stonechat

I had been studying the weather and I knew that Monday heralded a change from levante to poniente and a hunch suggested this might be good for movement at Tarifa. I had been keeping an eye on passage totals for the past few days and they were paltry but numbers of Black Kite were building up in the Strait. I was unsure on the best approach, so got in touch with the Inglorious Bustards who offered to guide me for the day. Knowing I didnt want to waste time, being in the wrong place, I gladly accepted and after an early morning drive down to Lidl met Simon and Niki whilst the kites were amassing overhead in the gloaming. After a brief caffeine stop, where we added Western Bonelli's and Cetti's Warbler, we moved to a private watchpoint. Hundreds of grounded Black kites were visible in every field with dozens on each pylon. Simon picked a Marsh Harrier sat amongst the kites. A Bottlenose Dolphin was spotted by Niki out in the straight as it moved east. The spectacle began slowly, with a single male Montagu's Harrier followed by a female not long after, and then a Honey Buzzard, low over the water and off towards Jebel Musa. The view was incredible and as the light came up, Morocco felt within touching distance. A flock of 39 Flamingos flew west with purpose from Gibraltar towards Tarifa before crossing over to Africa in the haze of the early morning.

Montagu's Harrier
Booted Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Juvenile Montagu's Harrier

The kites on the ground started to move about with a handful, followed by a dozen and then a couple of hundred. Numbers kept increasing until the sky was dark with raptors. Several hundred White Storks woke from their slumber, in fields inland and joined the throng. It was getting pretty busy. A dark morph Eleanora's Falcon scythed through the air towards Tarifa Island, presumably to cross at a lower altitude. It was brief but unmistakeable and pleasingly, I had picked it out. At the same time Tawny Pipits were calling round us and handfuls of Pallid Swifts and Bee-eaters zipped over our vantage point and out into the straight. The dam was about to burst. A Nightingale and an Iberian Chiffchaff distracted us briefly as they moved between bushes round us. By the time a third Honey Buzzard was headed out over the Strait, the pattern was full. Kites drifted backwards and forwards, thousands swirling in the breeze. The wind changed and there was a push and the door opened. A constant stream of raptors moving from all directions, towards us and then on to Tarifa Island and out over the sea, aided by the winds. The White Storks were less convinced, trying and failing to cross on several occasions, getting halfway out and coming back. They too eventually plucked up the courage to move and crossed in big numbers. As the stream hit full tilt, the first Short-toed and Booted Eagles started to move through. Montagu's Harriers and Lesser Kestrels would pass over the fields on occasion to alter the flow. 

Immature Black Kite

White Storks overhead

A crescendo was reached when a kettle of Storks went overhead and feathers were seen falling from the flock. Simon mentioned that local young Bonelli's Eagles often creep into the flocks of kites and attack storks and bang, there was a tawny coloured young bird which had a swipe at one of the storks. It was lost in the morass and I turned my attention to a kettle of Black Kites moments later. I had a falcon. I had a FALCON AND IT WAS PALE! I started to explete and implore the others to get on it, aware they had a juvenile Lanner Falcon the day before. Remarkably, this was a Lanner Falcon but a much less vibrant bird, missing the chestnut crown of the previous bird. Lanner Falcon is a Spanish rarity and almost all the accepted records come from the Strait where they are pretty much annual. A cull of records has seen the official total tumble from 80 odd to 27 or so. I had managed to find a bona fide Spanish rarity at Tarifa. It was seen well by all who were present, including a couple of Spanish Operacion Migres volunteers, who were mighty chuffed. No sooner had I lost the falcon than a Black-winged Kite whooshed through at ankle height and off south-east towards Africa. This truly was a day of days. By midday numbers started to slow and diversity lowered but still we had seen 18,425 Black Kites, 4556 White Storks, 24 Booted Eagles, 17 Short-toed Eagles, 9 Montagu's Harriers, 8 Griffon Vultures, 5 Lesser Kestrels, 3 Honey Buzzards, 1 Marsh Harrier, 1 Bonelli's Eagle, 1 Eleanora's Falcon, 1 Common Kestrel, 1 Lanner Falcon and 1 Black-winged Kite heading to Africa. It was incredible. 

Lanner Falcon pursued by a Black Kite

Note the unmarked pale trousers which are diagnostic

Part two with the afternoon from Tarifa, Whale watching in the Straits, climbing Tajo Lagarin and raptor migration from the pool to follow.

Thursday 12 August 2021

A Spanish Escape

 As I type, we are over the English Channel, having waved goodbye to Exeter, thirty-seven thousand feet below. A quick zip over the channel,  and then passing over Brittany, and on to Bilbao, Madrid and finally Malaga. After touchdown it will be pointing the rental car in the direction of Sierra de Grazalema. We are spending a fortnight on the margins of the Parc Nacional, staying in a villa, perched on the side of the mountain, placed to receive the golden combo of raptor passage, sunshine and cerveza.

I have been researching eBird for a couple of weeks and armed with John Cantelo’s guide and the Natural History guide to Western Andalucia, I hope to explore, despite the heat and limitations of Covid-19. I will be keeping a record of the passage and hoping to update the blog every day or two. Allied with this, my daughter Isabelle is keen that I endeavour to find some of the local herpetofauna and doubtless there will be butterflies aplenty.

Our adventure began this morning with a 2am wakeup call. Extracting an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old from their beds was tricky but within 30 minutes we were upright and suitably caffeinated. The trip over to Leeds Bradford from East Yorkshire was interrupted by no fewer than four Tawny Owls, one of which was feasting on a rabbit carcass in the road on Garreby Hill. Five Red Foxes were seen in Leeds, including a couple playing on a verge. We stopped, showing the kids these two, seemingly oblivious to our attentions. Before long we were parked at the airport and ready for our travels. After a challenging year thus far with my health, it is fantastic to feel much better and I am hopeful that my various ailments are resolving. Feeling better than I have in nearly 6 months I cant wait for the first raptor from the veranda. Now, first bird, what do you think? Feral pigeon or house sparrow?

Saturday 3 July 2021

Albert Ross

 On Monday night, news that the Black-browed Albatross had not only returned from the dead but it had returned to Bempton. A frame-filling photo of it cruising along the cliff top was plenty enough to enthuse me. Sadly a busy day at work, my commitments as a parent and Englands Euro 2020 last 16 tie against Germany conspired to make a trip to Bempton extremely difficult. I sat at my desk with pin sharp pictures arriving via social media at regular intervals. I packed it all away, put on my World Cup 2006 top, dropped my cynicism and sat back for one of the most enjoyable games I have watched as an England fan. In the elation after the game, as reports of the albatross continued to roll in I asked me wife if a 'quick trip' to Bempton could be facilitated. She was also giddy from the result and acquiesced. I shot off and was nodding at Andrew Kinghorn as I limped to the cliff edge not 20 minutes later.

The bird itself was giving people the run around as I arrived and marching half a mile up and down the cliff top wasn't ideal, especially given I have torn the meniscus in my left knee. The bird helpfully relocated from the sea on to Staple Newk and soon I was watching it sat amongst the flowers and gannets on the upper cliff. Whilst fantastic to see, one of my overriding takeaways from seeing albatrosses in the southern oceans (well 20 miles off Sydney) is that birds in flight are far more impressive than those sat on the deck. Thankfully the bird didn't seem entirely happy in any of its resting spots and would sally round in tight loops before landing every few minutes. This allowed the full majesty of this species, which whilst only 20% bigger than the gannets is wholly more impressive in flight with its whippy wingtips and contrasting mantle and tail colour which allied with the eye shadow and mascara makes it very dashing.

Pretty soon the gloom descended and the bird moved out of sight but not before I was satiated and one of the most enjoyable days in recent memory came to a close. After missing the previous visit by mere seconds I was very relieved to get this back, especially after the stories of the bird being downed by nine White-tailed Eagles between Denmark and Sweden earlier in the spring.

Saturday 8 May 2021

April Nocmig (notmig?)

 April was a tricky month. It is normally excellent but after a crazy March it certainly calmed down with fewer records of fewer species thanks to the spell of settled, cold and clear northerlies that we have been experiencing. This has delayed birds arriving but the lack of cloud has meant those that have passed have been able to fly at great height, beyond the reach of my microphone. In total I recorded on just 15 nights which indicates my frustration. Mallards were a constant and I suspect a pair are nesting in a ditch not far away as I hear them most of the night. Oystercatcher have settled in the village with display heard regularly and there are Curlew in the village but the territory over the house seems to have disappeared since they built the estate next door. The odd snatch of display has been recorded but nothing like last year.

Common Scoter  has again been the biggest feature of April. Despite a 50% reduction in effort in April compared to March, I recorded 28 flocks and 702 calls which represent a drop of 50% in flocks but only 20% interms of calls. Birds also tended to pass much later in the evening, generally starting just before midnight. My guess is that these are Irish sea birds from the Irish coast which take a couple of hours to cross from Louth and adjacent areas to hit the English and Welsh coasts of Liverpool Bay before making the same crossing over the Pennines the Welsh ones do. The peak night was 7-8th April with 10 flocks and 286 calls and only a single flock (or bird perhaps) after 14th April, which gave just 4 calls. Given I only recorded one night in the first week, it is likely I missed some stuff too.

Water Rail were recorded on four occasions with singles on 4th, 12th, 13th and 14th. It is unclear whether these were migrants or resident birds roding, The situation was similar for Moorhen with 11 passes from 4th and 158 calls. Gull passage was noted with Black-headed Gull noted on two nights, 3rd and 7th April and Herring Gull with a single on 8th giving a couple of calls and then a minimum of three birds giving 115 calls on 22nd and three flocks on 25th giving 777 calls. Thrushes were scarce with singles of Redwing, Blackbird and Robin across the month. Aside from the displaying Curlew, there were two flocks of presumed migrants recorded, on 13th and 14th April, with 96 calls recorded in total. Aside from the Scoter there was very little in terms of duck movement with a couple of flocks of Teal on 8th and 16th and a single flock of Wigeon on 19th April. A single record of Little Grebe gave a pretty decent Whimbrel impression and a Nocmig lifer was recorded on 25th when a single Greenfinch call was picked up as it flew over in the late evening.

Monday 26 April 2021

An Odd Week

Over the past 6 weeks I have had a bad back. Bad enough to merit full dose painkillers for a fortnight. This led to immobility and ultimately a blood clot in my left leg. After spending the Saturday before last getting checked out and then a scan on my leg on my birthday, the Monday, a DVT was confirmed and I was put on blood thinners. We have a family history of DVT so it wasnt a great shock but it was a much needed wakeup call. I am as fat and unfit as I have ever been. My change of jobs has led to a drop in my activity by a third. I need to look after myself better. I have 3 weeks of recovery from the clot and 3 months of blood thinners. In the first 3 weeks I am allowed gentle exercise (which I have taken to mean swimming and walking). I have upped my walking markedly and the swimming is being phased in with my first trip yesterday and another before work tomorrow. I am getting out early each morning for a walk before work if I'm not swimming. This is a long road but I am determined to make some strides. The end point? Not being as fat and being much, much fitter.

I combined my morning walk yesterday with a trip to Bempton to pay my annual respects to the Gannets and Puffins. All the usual suspects were present with Gannets and Kittiwakes on the updrafts and the three auk species darting about. A Whitethroat rattled as I left the reception and it didn't take long to spy the two Ring Ouzels messing about on the ploughed field. Views were distant and there was some heat haze so I moved on and concentrated on the seabirds. I felt a little uneasy by the number of people congregating at the watchpoints (it wasn't that bad tbh but I'm a bit soft) and upon heading back a Barn Owl was hunting the ploughed field giving some nice views as it tried to provide for the next generation. 

I tried to get better views of the Ouzels but the usual crowd were giving them no space and they spooked, flying east, behind the visitor centre. I managed to relocate them and watched over a cappuccino before they moved close to the car park. I again slipped round and watched from the gate, alone (I did tell the warden but he wasn't keen on getting folk crowded there). The birds started 50 metres away and moved closer and closer until they were within 20 metres. My hazy, blurry photos from across a field forgotten as I got my best ever views of this species. They continued to feed unabashed and I ran out of time. I'm pretty happy with the photos I got and am very grateful the camera was fixed!

Closer, closer, closer...

Ornithological Idiocy

How birds and brains become mutually exclusive

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