Sunday, 26 April 2015

Spring Migrants: Wheatear

Wheatears are very cool birds. First of all, they are one of the first 'proper' spring migrants to arrive back in the UK and on Bardsey, usually reaching the island by mid-March. They are one of the harbingers of spring, and the males are always a delight to see. This species gets its English name from an altered version of 'White Arse', referring to the bird's white rump. There are two races that pass through the UK: the Northern Wheatear is the nominate race, which arrives in March and begins breeding by mid-April; the Greenland Wheatear is a larger, more orangey-toned bird which begins passing through in mid-April.

Although the species is handsome enough as it is, they undergo a pretty phenomenal migration, being said to be the largest of any passerine. For now I shall outline the migration of the Greenland-race Wheatear, as it is far more impressive than our British birds...Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa, as the Greenland Wheatear is Scientifically named, breeds in the Arctic tundra from Greenland across to western Alaska. After spending the summer months in the Arctic circle, the birds begin their southward migration in August. A recent study has shown that the Wheatears take one of two different routes to their wintering grounds in Africa, depending on where they breed in the tundra:

  • Birds from the eastern tundra take a route that goes via the UK, southern Europe and the Mediterranean to Western/Central Africa. Birds crossing the Atlantic to Britain average 850km per day for four whole days. Some will stop off in Greenland, and some birds may even bypass the UK entirely, using their fat reserves and tail winds to make a phenomenal 30-hour, non-stop flight of 2,500km straight from Greenland to Southern Europe!! 
  • The majority of bird breeding in the western tundra and Alaska taker an entirely different migration route: they fly across the Bering Sea, and track south-west across Asia, arriving in Western and Central Africa in about November to spend the winter here. Typical travel times have been described as being 91 days on their Southward migration, travelling on average 160km per day. On their northward migration they take just 55 days to arrive briskly on their breeding grounds, which equates to 250km per day.
Either way, that migration is pretty impressive for a bird that weighs about 20 grams...


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Spring Migrants: White Wagtail

Introducing...spring migrant blogs. Over the next few weeks I pan to do several blog posts here, which are centred on a single species each time. These will mostly be featuring spring migrant birds, which are now in abundance on the island. For my first post, I will focus on the White Wagtail. Not an entirely amazing species perhaps, but nevertheless a subtly beautiful one.

White Wagtails are a migrant subspecies of the Pied Wagtail, that breed throughout Europe but mainly just move through the UK. Thy arrive on Bardsey in mid- to late- March, and can gather in numbers approaching 40 birds on Solfach. On this sandy beach, the wagtails spend most of their time feeding on sand flies and insects amongst the seaweed and along the tide line. I spent a little while on the beach a few days ago photographing the birds as they went about their business. Here are some of the results:

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

SPAIN 2015- PART 2: Raptors

It time for the second instalment of my three-part blog on the recent trip to Spain which I took part in. This particular post is focussed on raptors- a family of species which featured quite widely in our travels within the country. Several of our raptor sightings and experienced were actually the highlights of the trip for many. Here

Lesser Kestrel
This species was relatively common over a variety of different locations. For a start, there was a large breeding population in the village that we were staying in- every morning there would be a flock of as many as 60 birds flying around, and many would do low fly-bys over the top of our villa roofs. We could see several nesting holes, and witnessed some cool behaviour such as copulations. Aside the village, we saw many in open farmland areas, and old abandoned buildings. We also saw a few passage birds, such as our day at Tarifa on the coast, when over 10 birds came in off the sea with a few Common Kestrels.

Griffon Vulture
This was another fairly common species on our trip, with birds appearing virtually all over the place. Our first morning in the country was particularly memorable, when we discovered that there was a carcass about 3 kilmoetres from our village, and during the space of an hour or so, we saw tens of birds flocking from all over to gather at a carcass not far from the motorway. There were about 200 birds in this gathering, with over 70 alone squabbling over the meal. Elsewhere, we had plenty of birds up in mountainous area such as Alcorocales (a scattering of flocks amounting toc. 210 birds), Sorcio and Llanos de Libar (movement of birds overhead of about 45 birds). We also visited a rocky outcrop of cliffs called Cierra de la Plata, where there were several birds on nests. On our last day in Spain, our visit to Tarifa produced a few migrant birds coming in off the straits. In the space of about 30 minutes, we saw a flock of 65 birds head north east along the cliffs, followed by a further 18.

Montagu's Harrier
When we travelled inland towards the rolling fields of barley, we discovered quite a few of these handsome circuses. The best place for this species during our trip was at Osuna, where we had perhaps 5 males and 5 females all flying around together in a small area, where it seemed likely that they were nesting. On our day at Tarfia, we also had two birds come in off the straits and head inland.

Booted Eagle
By far the commonest eagle around, we had birds all over the place during our travels. Partcilarly good places for this species included Tarifa, where it was a numerous migrant coming in off the sea (a total of around 150 were noted during our day at this site); Llanos de Libar in the mountains was a great place, where a passage of birds took place high over the peaks, amounting to some 50 birds; many birds were also seen over the coastal areas of pine trees, such as Cerro del Aguila.

Black Kite
This was arguably the most common raptor we saw- which fits into its global status as being one of the most numerous species of birds of prey worldwide, occurring on all but the Antarctic continent. We saw these birds at virtually every one of our sites, but the top locations are as follows: 
Tarifa: somewhere in the region of 150 birds came in off the straits during our time at this place, which roughly translates to about three hours of raptor-watching
Llanos del Libar: this mountainous area was good for the species, which was seen passing quite high overhead with the following South-easterly wind. We counted about 53 birds in 30 minutes.
Bonanza dry marsh and lagoons: over 30 individuals passed over this area, which were particularly numerous over the pine woodland

Short-toed Eagle
We saw this species in a whole different variety of locations, although usually records were of single birds. La Canada (1), Alcaidessa Alto (2), Alcorocales (3), Llanos del Libar (2) and TARIFA (about 72 passed through in the space of a couple of hours). A very smart bird which was great to see at point blank range at Tarifa, where there large size was particularly noticeable.

Bonelli's Eagle
We had this large raptor at a select few sites, one of which will have to be kept quiet for now due to a breeding attempt. It was good to see a pair from the balcony of our villa in Alcala de los Gazules, and we had further sightings of two birds at Sorcio.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

SPAIN 2015 - PART 1: Birds

As some of you may already know, I recently joined a birding trip to the south of Spain with a bunch of Next Generation Birders from around the UK (and one from Austria). The trip was organised and coordinated by Oliver Reville, who has visited the country many times, and thus knew all the sites worth visiting, the local gen, contacts within the country etc. A total of 16 people between 18 and 26 (age) headed out to Malaga on the 5th of April, and spent a week visiting as many sites as was possible from the characterful little village of Alcala de los Gazules.

It was a fantastic trip, despite quite breezy conditions to start with, and we managed to record a grand total of 178 species. Some particular avian highlights from the week include Lesser Short-toed Lark, Black-eared and Black Wheatears, Little Swifts, male Little Bustards 'farting', plenty of stunning male Montagu's Harriers, lots of raptor passage with Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Slender-billed and Auduoin's Gulls, and Red-necked Phalarope (to name but a few). I'll try and write a bit of a trip report focussed on species in the coming weeks, but since others are getting down to that task, I though I would do a couple of photographic blog posts. This first one is focussed on most bird species excluding raptors. Part 2 and 3 will follow, and will feature raptors and then invertabrate wildlife respectively.

For some more pictures from the Spanish trip, check out my Flickr album here, and also keep an eye on my 500px page here.

These Collared Pratincoles were photographed at Barbate Salt Marshes, where we had at least 60 along the side of the road and on the gravelly partitions between salinhas. Our first visit to this location was in very windy conditions with a heavy passing shower, thus the contrast in lighting in the above images!!

Kentish Plovers were relatively common at the coastal sites we visited, including Barbate and Bonanza Salt Pans. This pair allowed a close approach in a car, which gave a nice opportunity to photograph a wader that has always been a bit distant for decent images

Avocets! A rarity for me, considering I live on Barsdey for most of the year, where there has only been one record in the last ten years. It was very nice to see these smart birds, particularly at the Bonanza Salt Pans

Black-winged Stilts were a common species all over the place

We came across several large colonies of Cattle Egrets, including one near a Bald Ibis breeding site where over 200 birds were gathered in a few small trees

We had a fantastic Slender-billed Gull gathering on our visit to Bonanza Salt Pans, where perhaps 800 birds were gathered in large flocks, including many with Darvic rings

We had several sightings of singing male Little Bustards during our travelling around the northern area of Cadiz, and this bird was one of a pair that were flushed by a Montagu's Harrier, and flew directly over the main road!

A selection of passerine images:

Corn Buntings



Little Swifts

Western Sybalpine Warbler

Crested Lark

Red-rumped Swallow

Iberian Yellow Wagtail