Monday, 27 August 2018

Sunday Seawatching

I watched with envy as news of a Great Shearwater north past Flamborough Head on Saturday morning came out. I last saw one at Flamborough 10 years ago and then I was floating on the Yorkshire Belle just offshore. I have seen only one since - a fairly distant bird at Pendeen last year. News later came out of a Fea's-type Petrel north from Whitburn and tracked along the Northumbrian coast. This is a species group I have yet to encounter and as each outpost flashed up with positive news I smiled at my wife and commented how much I was enjoying our afternoon out without the kids.

In fairness to my infinitely better half we had just enjoyed the surprisingly weepy Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again after visiting her father who was just home after making his own threats to visit St Peter. Mike is on the mend now and it has been a pretty worrying time which has contributed to my lack of birding in the late spring (allied with an incredibly busy work schedule). One thing to aid my chances this autumn is I am moving my office base from Newcastle to Leeds in order to see my wife and kids a bit more and actually live at home during the week. When not on fieldwork...

So onto yesterday and the day after a blow always produces something, or so I'm told. For me it was creeping desperation to get in the mix as a colleague would phrase it. I set 5 alarms between 5 and 6am and it only took two to get me out of bed. Rain was forecast for midday and I was hoping for a leaden sky to help with viewing. I found myself driving east into the sun at 05:45 and cursed. Fortunately when I got down to the seawatching ledge below the foghorn a bank of cloud covered the horizon and more or less remained in situ throughout. It was 8 degrees C and pretty chilly but out of the wind on the ledge it was ok. I was beaten to the punch by Lee Johnson who had been going since 6am. He was still counting the shearwaters on his fingers and thumbs when I got there but had run out quickly. I cracked open the notebook and Manx Shearwaters were passing in numbers with Sooty Shearwaters liberally spread amongst them. We were joined a few minutes later by Craig Thomas and got down to an extremely productive morning.

Common Terns were moving en masse (although not in Spurn roost numbers). Soon after we started a lone Whimbrel whinnied overhead as it sallied north. A hulking skua lumbered north at mid-distance showing itself to be an intermediate morph Pomarine Skua at 06:40. It was an adult bird that had dropped its spoons. The odd Puffin was still to be seen moving offshore. Almost everything was moving north in reaction to the previous days blow displacing them into the North Sea. A group of Manxies seemed to hold a darker individual but it evaporated before the ID was clinched. At 06:55 a waif of a skua floated north, initially well off but coming in to mid-distance. It was partnered by an obvious Arctic Skua and as that powered away, the difference in build and flight-style revealed a smashing Long-tailed Skua. This was my first for Flamborough after having a couple in Northumberland, 4 off Spurn whilst working and a couple at Barmston. Lee had a Bonxie flying each way prior to my arrival and this made it that rare occurrence of a 4 skua day, all before 7am. Small numbers of Bonxies continued to run throughout with a southerly passage dominating in the first couple of hours before this reversed in the latter couple.

A small, dumpy wader flew south and was watched by Lee and Craig before seemingly ditching midway out. Neither was completely happy with what had been seen and what was probably a phalarope was let go. Me? I was busy scratching down the numbers and never saw a thing... A second Pom went north at 07:30, this time a light-morph adult with full-spoons one of the more majestic seabirds in my humble opinion. By this time Sandwich Terns had started to move and the Manxie/Sooty passage had quietened down a little. Two Black Terns fed off the head for 5 minutes at 07:47 before drifting north-east and out of view. Craig briefly had a Minke Whale surface and perhaps an hour or so later I had presumably the same animal briefly. A beautiful juvenile Common Gull initially passed south before returning to loiter with the gull flock beneath the cliffs.As the watch progressed a trio of Balearic Shearwaters headed north amongst a pulse of Manxies with individuals at 08:51, 09:17 and 09:56. All were at mid to close range and gave great viewing opportunities.

As the watch progressed a few Common Scoter and Teal passed with the majority heading north but the wildfowl highlight was a single female Goosander south. Also later in the watch were a scattering of waders with 3 further Whimbrel north, 3 Curlew north and 1 south, 10 Redshank south, 8 Dunlin south and 5 Turnstones south (coming from offshore - the usual backward and forward of Turnstones and Oystercatchers around the cliff base was ignored with bigger fish to fry). 10 Black-headed Gulls north were par for the course and hopes of a biggie faded as time went on. We abandoned the watch at 10:45 prior to the rain arriving half an hour later and I had my seawatching urge sated. For now. Full counts from yesterday are below:

Teal N: 25 S: 15
Common Scoter N: 23
Goosander S: 1 (female)
Cormorant S: 29
Shag S: +
Gannet N: +++ S: +
Manx Shearwater N: 335 S: 10
Balearic Shearwater N: 3 (08:51, 09:17 & 09:56)
Sooty Shearwater N: 40
Fulmar N: +
Curlew: N: 4
Redshank S: 10
Dunlin S: 8
Turnstone S: 5
Sandwich Tern N: 112 S: 10
Common Tern N: 305 S: 3
Black Tern N: 2 (07:47)
Great Skua N: 26 S: 15
Pomarine Skua N: 2 (06:40 ad intermediate morph without spoons & 07:30 adult pale morph with spoons)
Arctic Skua N: 14 S: 5
Long-tailed Skua N: 1 (06:55)
Puffin N: 12 S: 2
Guillemot N: +
Kittiwake N: +++ S: +
Black-headed Gull N: 10
Common Gull N: 1
Herring Gull N: + S: +
Lesser Black-backed Gull S: 1
Great Black-backed Gull S: +

Present: Shag, Fulmar, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull 3, Common Gull 2, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Linnet, House Martin & Swallow.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Crete - Stuffed with Raptors

A family holiday took us to Crete, Rethymno to be precise. The birding around the hotel was pants and there weren't any herps or butterflies either! Despite this I managed to slip away into the mountains for a couple of days and saw some things.

Griffon Vulture
The headline is that I managed to connect with Lammergeier. Not only that but I had excellent views of an adult meandering along a spine to the south-west of Mount Psiloritis within 15 minutes of getting into the right sort of habitat. So so jammy. I was showing my brother-in-law Ady what I do when I go birding and gave him a tour of the closest mountains keeping my powder dry for the following day. As it was we had phenomenal success and he seemed to enjoy my passion and insanity...

Gorge for breakfast
I picked up a distant Honey Buzzard circling on the flank of the spine just above some olive groves. Honey Buzzard doesn't breed on Crete so presumably a non-breeder or failed breeder ambling south. It had just come up out of the olive grove where it must have roosted and I handed the bins to Ady. He couldn't pick it but got on something else higher up and handed the bins to me. I expected it to be a Griffon Vulture as these were extremely common in all upland areas of Crete I had seen. What I got was a massive long, thin winged raptor which had a passing resemblance to a large eagle but with a much more active flight style and bringing its wings in a downward V to turn. A Griffon floated about above and this was 10-15% smaller than the Lammergeier. The orange head and breast glinted briefly in the sun showing that it was an adult Ossifrage. I handed the bins to Ady who enjoyed the bird for another minute or so before it dropped over the back of the spine not to re-emerge. I was frankly ecstatic, my hope of seeing one tempered by the knowledge of the difficulty in connecting and the short duration I had to go birding. Amazing amazing birds.Sadly no photograph or film as just a little too distant.

The mountains in the background were the scene of the Lammergeier
The birding in total was restricted to two mornings in the car and two walks around the local area (which was dire). Aside from the resident Feral Pigeons, Collared Doves, Swallows and Italian Sparrows (lifer - woo) there were a couple of Woodchats, a sprinkle of Sardinian Warblers and a handful of Crested Larks. No gulls or shearwaters on the sea and no geckos. My sister and daughter saw a Balkan Green Lizard swim across the pool before diving to cover and there was a pretty cracking Swallow roost of perhaps 1,000 birds that came in at night.



The coach across to the hotel from the airport revealed the first Griffons, Buzzards and Hooded Crows whilst incidentally I bumped into Great Tit, Pallid Swift, Blackbird and a Grey Heron. A further heron on the move along the coast appeared to be a Night Heron but was seen badly from a moving vehicle. A trip to Chania to swim with the Sirens of myth and legend gave up Yellow-legged Gull whilst seen from the coach was a single Eleonora's Falcon over coastal woodland (my only one of the trip) and a distant Bonelli's Eagle over a coastal gorge. Best of all a very big Loggerhead Turtle in Chania's Venetian harbour.


The first mornings birding was to the west of Mount Psiloritis and a breakfast of Ravens and Red-rumped Swallows with a side order of Pain au chocolat and Lattes. Moving from a gorge just above the resort into the hills of Arkadi. Here we had Black Kites and Kestrels tussling with Buzzards and Ravens later joined by a female Honey Buzzard in the heaviest of natural moults. Greenfinches and Goldfinches were in the trees and a White Stork circled Arkadi Tip. A handful of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears roamed and these proved very common in the mountains.

White Stork
Into the raised farmland Griffon's were on the hunt and a giant sylvia with a white eye proved to be Eastern Orphean Warbler, my first of this species. Bee-eaters farted overhead and I attempted to explain how gloriously coloured they were to my brother-in-law whilst they appeared to be monochrome pinpricks in the sky. Crag Martins were seen briefly at this point too. The Lammergeier happened soon after and then we moved onto a sad looking reservoir and the results were predictable with a handful of Coots, Mallard and Little Grebe the sum total. A couple of Turtle Doves darted across the road and further stops yielded more raptors and a Grey Heron at Amari Dam Reservoir. From here looking south two super distant large raptors gave the distinctive jizz of further Lammergeiers over a high peak and a Black Kite was escorted across the lake by 2 Buzzards. It was getting very hot at this stage and coffee and ice cream were essential. We knocked it on the head soon after.

Nida Plateau with the Western Peak of Mount Psiloritis in the background
The following day saw me head to the Nida Plateau nestled between the peaks of Mount Psiloritis at 1400m after dropping down from 1700m. These were some serious roads and I wound myself up through village after village until finally I left Anogeia. I had already seen a brace of Hobbys bombing one of the almost infinite number of Griffons. Moving onward there were further Black-eared Wheatears and then the drop onto the plateau. My only Hoopoe of the trip was present on the cropped turf used for grazing goats. A strong breeze blew and the distinctive 'chow chow' of Red-billed Chough filled the air as two flew high overhead. This was not the Chough I was hoping for alas. There were a few butterflies in evidence with Cretan Small Heath and Clouded Yellow amongst the large numbers of Small Whites. Also in evidence in the bushes around the plateau were Blue Tit, Wren and Stonechat. On trying to leave the plateau I went the wrong way and found myself on a gravelled road with no barrier and several hundred metres of sheer drop. I did a very ginger 7 point turn in my tiny Suzuki. An aquiline dot at that point remained unidentified.

Cretan Small Heath
That was pretty much it for birding. We did see a few Feral Goats as our one mammal of the trip. A Cretan Water Frog was seen hiding by a water feature at the cafe by the dam and bothered by the kids on a trip out. Other butterflies included Cretan Grayling whilst frog bothering, Painted Lady, Speckled Wood and quite a few Swallowtails. An additional lepidoptera in the form of Hummingbird Hawkmoth was great whilst a larger hawkmoth species visited us at dinner one night to try and sample our wine. We didn't let it. And that was our trip to Crete.


How brains and birds become mutually exclusive