Sunday, 30 November 2014

Grey Seal Pup

For about two weeks now, a small Grey Seal pup has taken up residence on Solfach. Usually, Grey Seals don't stay long on this beach, because it tends to get quite a lot of disturbance. At this time of year, however, there are almost no people on the island, besides ourselves.
This seal pup has taken a great interest in my hide, and everything associated with it (wooden stakes in the sand, guy cords etc.). It has spent a large proportion of its time 'playing' and hauling out right next to my hide. This has given me a good opportunity to get some very close up images from within my hide. By using a fish eye lens and poking it out of the bottom, I have been able to get extremely close to the pup. In fact, the pup is so curious that on several occasions it has almost forced its way into the hide, and I have had to clean my lens several times after the pup has smudged its nose across the centre of the lens. I have also taken the opportunity of this tame pup to get some other images, particularly back-lit with the setting sun.

A couple of my favourite close-ups (more further down)

Back-lighting with the setting sun works really well with seals, and especially with tame pups such as this one

A selection of extreme close-ups:

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Project Solfach- Choughs and Starlings

Winter on Bardsey can be a very quiet period in terms of birdlife: very few passerines overwinter, save for the resident Wrens, Dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds and Chaffinches; and whilst many coastal areas around the rest of the UK experience large influxes of waders and wildfowl during winter, Bardsey receives a very minimal number of waders overwintering, and virtually no wildfowl.

However, the one increase that Bardsey does receive in terms of overwintering bird species is that of Choughs, Rock Pipits and Starlings. These species, along with a few others, gather en masse onto a very small beach on the western side of the island: Solfach. Winter storms bring in large amounts of kelp and other seaweeds (which are deciduous, 'dropping' their fronds in the autumn), and these piles produce a bounty of food for birds in the form of flies and their larvae.

Over the last week, I have been trying to photograph the Choughs and Starlings which are making use of the food on Solfach. Numbers of Choughs at the moment are averaging at about 22 per day, but some winters this number can be over 50. Starlings have only been present in numbers up to 350. I set up my small hide on the beach a week ago, and this helped immensely in getting up close to the birds, although many of the Choughs are very tame anyway. I have included a range of my images in this post.

Solfach, with the flock of Choughs busy feeding in front of my hide

One thing I tried a few days ago was to get some wide angle landscapes of the Choughs. To do this, I placed my camera near one of their favourite feeding areas, and then set a remote shutter release to take a picture every 30 seconds. I just had to hope that a bird came close enough and posed for long enough to get some pictures. These are the best of the selection

Some portraits of the very dazzling Starlings. The upper two images were taken at 1/80 sec, to try and blurr the motion of the bird shaking

Choughs in flight. Some of my favourite images of these charismatic birds

Starlings spend most of their time fighting amongst each other, over feeding areas on the beach. This is quite a challenge to capture, but a little persistence yielded some pleasing results 

The advantage of the hide on Solfach is that you can get really up close and personal to the Choughs, which provides some great opportunities for close up images as they go about feeding. Observing behavioural traits is also very interesting, such as pairs preening each other (fourth image from the top), brief squabbles between younger and older birds, and even the brief exposing of a Choughs ear! (second from the top)

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Portugal October/November 2014- volunteering at Cruzinha

This autumn I spent about a month volunteering at Cruzinha, which is an A Rocha centre in Portugal. A Rocha is a Christian conservation organisation, with a total of 18 bases worldwide; these various centres are involved in different conservation issues at some strategic points and help with the protection of vulnerable wildlife species or habitats through (for example) community-based projects. You can look into the organisation in more detail here, and also have a look at Cruzinha's own website here.

I was at the centre to help out with their work, and get some birding, photography and ringing done in my spare time. Jobs at the centre included such things as entering data into digital databases (ringing, moth, weather data etc.), helping out with the washing up at every meal, carrying out the twice-monthly wader counts at the estuary, chopping up wood for their winter wood burner, helping out with the weekly moth trapping session (this can be a mammoth task at times), and much more.

During my stay, I was able to regularly visit the nearby estuary and surrounding area to go birding, and I also managed to visit a few of the key sites in the Algarve, such as Sagres (raptor watching), Castro Verde (bustards and sand-grouse), Ria Formosa, and Salgados. The centre itself is situated a few kilometres away from Lagos, on the coast of the Algarve. The Ria de Alvor is now partially protected thanks to the efforts of A Rocha in campaigns and court, and this estuary provides some excellent birding close by. The centre itself has an impressive garden bird list, and we opened up the 10 mist nets here every Thursday. Highlights for me included trapping Yellow-browed Warbler, Firecrest, Sardinian Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Azure-winged Magpie, Kingfisher and Black Redstart.

Cruzinha- the centre itself has excellent facilities and is a great place to be based if you want to spend any time birding in the Algarve. 

Here is a brief introduction to the area:
Map showing locations of Western Marsh, Abicada (near Eastern Marsh) and Cruzinha. These all lie within the Ria de Alvor. To give some idea of scale, Western Marsh is c.1.5km away from Cruzinha
Western Marsh. 
Abicada, a second marsh on the eastern side of the Ria de Alvor
Sagres and Cabo de sao Vincente (with the lighthouse). Just inland of these coastal cliffs is a raptor watch point that 

Without further due, I will get straight to the wildlife, in particular the birds, and give some brief descriptions and notes about the species pictured... 
Blue Rock Thrush. Although this species does breed and winter fairly close by, I only saw two during my stay. This particular individual was very tame, and allowed some pleasing images to be taken

Although generally quite shy at close quarters, the occasional Bluethroat did show rather well. This male was actually singing every now and then, as did quite a few other males around the coast. I saw as many as 25 in a day, and the highest numbers were found along the raised dykes around Abicada 

Hoopoes were surprisingly and quite fustratingly difficult to see (or photograph) very well. Unless you venture into the coastal golf courses, where many are as tame as pets, they do seem to be pretty shy on the whole. However, I managed to get some pleasing images one morning at Abicada, where a pair spent about half an hour feeding and preening.

Zitting Cisticolas are pretty much everywhere you go, and watching their behaviour can be quite amusing at times. They behave somewhere between a Pipit and a Locustella warbler, and so can be tricky to get decent views of

Black-winged Stilts are pretty much resident in both marshes in Ria de Alvor, and they also breed here

There were several Caspian Terns around the marsh during the time that I spent at Cruzinha. They occasionally showed very well, as the juvenile flew around begging to the adult with wheezy calls. I saw the adult catch several fish, which it immediately gave to the begging juvenile (above)

Little Egret

Spoonbills. Flocks of up to 20 were present in both marshes (separate flocks) at times, and gave excellent views. Many were colour-ringed, and about 95% of these were from a Dutch scheme, However, one particular bird was ringed as part of a French scheme, and a bit of research and a couple of emails lead to the discovery that it was ringed in 1996! Furthermore, that bird had not been seen since 2006, and had ranged to countries as far away as Mauritania.

Azure-winged Magpies were all of the place, and I recorded a roosting flock of over 55 birds. One turned up in the mist nets at Cruzinha one morning, whilst most of the rest of the time they remained shy

White Storks winter in the area, and in addition to the usual flocks of high-flying birds on hot days, you can occasionally get big flocks in the marshes. One morning I saw a gathering of over 500 birds at Abicada, before they gradually dispersed as the thermals kicked in

Spanish Sparrows. Mostly found in flocks at the coastal edges of the marshes

Cattle Egrets were plentiful on the coast, although I saw over 300 on a trip to the Castro Verde

Greater Flamingos. Up to 16 were present on Western Marsh for the duration of my stay

Wader numbers on Western Marsh can be quite impressive when the high tides force birds to settle inside the marsh, as opposed to on the estuary. My highest day counts included 170 Dunlins, 45 Kentish Plover, 115 Sanderlins, 250 Ringed Plovers, and a handful of Turnstones, Greenshanks, Redshanks (as many as 40), Golden Plover, Knots and up to 35 Grey Plovers.


Kentish Plover

Crested Larks were pretty numerous all over the coast, and I was somewhat puzzled by the bizarre behaviour of one particular 'flock' beside Western Marsh. I observed several individuals picking up olive stones and running around with them, and yet I never saw them seemingly feeding on them. Perhaps it was some sort of behavioural display?

I finally caught up with Purple Swamphens towards the end of my stay, and it was in a fairly bizarre location. In the middle of a large golf course in Ludo (Ria Formosa), there was a small lake surrounded by reeds. On this lake were hundreds of wildfowl (all wild), including Wigeons, Gadwal, Shovelers and Pochard, whilst up to 15 of these beasts were also present there

Tufted Duck

Marsh Harriers could occasionally be seen hunting over the marsh

Sandwich Terns

Common Waxbill- okay, so they're introduced, but...

A few raptors which I had the pleasure of seeing during some birding trips: top- Booted Eagles were probably the commonest eagle around, with a single flock of about 15 at Ludo. Middle- Bonelli's Eagle: there is a breeding pair pretty much resident around the pine forest inland from Sagres, although one also flew over Cruzinha one day. Bottom- Griffon Vultures were most noticeable inland in the Alentjo, although a flock did fly over Cruzinha, and a few were present at Sagres

Onto the invertabrates...
Bush Cricket

There were plenty of Red-veined Darters around, and provided some great photo opportunities

Fire Beetle (Pyrrhocoris apterus) An intriguing species (aside from its appearance). Reading up about this genus beetles (Melanophila), when they detect a forest fire (through unusual infrared sensors located on their body) they fly in great numbers towards it. They then mate while the forest is still ablaze, and then the females deposit their eggs under the bark, so that when the eggs hatch the larvae can feast on the rotting wood.


Awesome Spider

Some lepidoptera:
Crimson Speckled (Utesthia pulchella)

Purple Marbled (Eublemma ostrina)

The Vestal (Rhodometra sacraria)

Dichomeris lamprostoma

Scopula imitaria

Silver-striped Hawkmoth (Hippotion celerio)

Spodoptera littoralis

Menophra japygiaria