Monday, 23 May 2011

Adios amigos

I am off to Spain tomorrow morning with David Hosking where we will visit the Coto Donana and Extramedura.

I will be "silent" for a couple of weeks but I am sure there will be much to talk about on our return.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Wetland Paradise

I spent Thursday on Elmley National Nature Reserve in Kent with owner Philip Merricks and what an amazing experience it was.  This is an enormous 2,000 acre site of which 600acres is leased to the RSPB and the rest managed by Philip with his excellent manager Steve Gardon.

It is an extensive area of saltmarsh and grazing land specifically managed with wet grassland birds in mind.  Lapwings and Redshanks are two of the main target species and this is the peak time for chicks to be emerging.  We were not disappointed and many chicks of both species were obvious.  However Rod Smith a local ornnithologist who is monitoring the non-RSPB area has noticed that with Lapwings broods are small at two and three chicks per pair rather than four.  Also there are chicks of varying stages of development which may be as a result of the very dry weather or adults being in poor condition because of the very cold winter.

Nevertheless the spectacle of so many birds and young gladdens the heart of any conservationist and I was very impressed with what I saw.  It was also noticeable that there were more birds with chicks outside the RSPB area than within it.  Why?  Well Philip and Steve carry out active predator control removing corvids for a limited time in the nesting season and eliminating Foxes and North American Mink.  The RSPB make do with only a perimeter fence.  It is my belief that to assist threatened species we have to do this and I know it is sometimes difficult for charities having to consider discontented members.  Educating members is vital but I believe the RSPB and others will have to follow this route eventually.

We did see plenty of other birds too.  Spoonbill asleep as usual, Marsh Harriers and Hobby overhead and plenty of wildfowl with young including Shelduck, Shoveler and Gadwall.  Avocets too were successful with a few chicks seen.

Also pleasing was the sight of good numbers of Yellow Wagtails and Corn Buntings.  These are two species of Farmland birds which have given much concern at their drastic decline.  On this Farm Reserve they were doing OK.  Brown Hares too were very obvious a wonderful mammal that needs protection as well.

It was a fabulous visit and shows what a land owner can do when you have the enthusiasm of Philip and his manager Steve.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What a Dreadful Gloomy Day

We eventually returned from France late last night having been delayed for 5 hours.  The problem was that the front stairs which stack back into the plane would not budge.  We waited for hours until a portly engineer arrived on a flight from Luton.  Expecting some electronic wizardry we were all amazed when he merely grabbed both sides of the staircase and banged it up and down until it rehoused itself back into the fuselage of the aircraft.  It took less than 5 minutes.  No rocket science then!  Apparently he is the only person authorised to do this. He then scuttled off back on the return flight to Luton. Hmm!

Things not much better this morning with drizzle and rain and low cloud.  Where is the great weather you have all been having?  A lone Red Kite beat its way clumsily over the town at Llandeilo as I left the dentist (more depression) but not much else as far as birds are concerned.

Back in the garden a Willow Warbler was singing its plaintive song and a Blackbird was extracting a worm from the lawn.  That's it!

Let us hope tomorrow is better.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Au Revoir - for now

We are leaving our French place at lunch time to return to the UK.  It has been a marvellous six weeks with fantastic weather and great wildlife.

I took the Land Rover down to Olonzac to leave it for essential repairs caused by my accident whilst looking for Spotless Starlings.  A superb male Woodchat Shrike was sitting on overhead wites resplendant in the bright sunshine.  Closer to Olonzac a wonderful male Montagu's Harrier crossed the road with elegant bouncing flight. 

Two great memories to go home with.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Yesterday with American Birders

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening birding with a group of American birders from Tennessee USA.  Led by ex-Norfolk boy Mike Nelson now resident in the US we enjoyed a most memorable evening.

We started at Bessan where up to 3 male Little Bustards were found including one which on cue did a small flight.  A Montagu's Harrier and a Black Kite were also noted.

At Fleury we stopped to enjoy 6 Lesser Kestrels mobbing a Buzzard and a fabulous Roller hunting insects over a hay meadow.  Moving on we also watched a Turtle Dove and 5 Rock Sparrows.

At Lespignan we listened to a Quail calling and were astonished to see a male Little Bustard here which is a first there for me.  Two Great Spotted Cuckoos flew by and eventually we located our main target at least 3 superb Ortolan Buntings. As we left dozens of Bee-eaters arrived perching on overhead wires and feverishly hunting for flying insects.

The highlight for me though was the pure joy and excitement exuded by the group at the sight of a Red-legged Partridge a lifer for all except Mike.  It really puts birding into perspective and as it should be.  We should be able to appreciate all species even if we are more familiar with some more than others.

Today a Griffon Vulture passed low over my house and a Golden Oriole sang for some time in the woods across the valley.            

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Idyllic Day on the Marsh

Another fabulous warm day.  By 9.30am I was walking the track at the marsh near Capestang.  Local men fishing alerted me to 7 White Storks feeding on a flooded field before I really got going. I quickly located a couple of Squacco Herons flying in the distance where I could also pick out 2 Great White Egrets.  The water levels are really unusually high still and carp and other fish species are visibly trapped.  This makes me wonder if the last mentioned species might nest here this year.

A flooded area contained a few Black-winged Stilts and 6 Whiskered Terns hawking for insects.  As usual good numbers of Grey and Purple Herons are obvious and Marsh Harriers and Black Kites are overhead.  A harsh cackling call draws my attention to a single Great Spotted Cuckoo calling from an isolated bush and Cetti's Warblers and Zitting Cisticolas keep up a cacophany of sound.

Moving on I get to the main reed bed area and the bird song intensifies.  Dozens of Reed Warblers predominate but I calculate that up to 12 Great Reed Warblers are also belting out their frog-like song.  Reed Buntings are also part of the chorus with Water Rails and Little Grebes making their contribution.

Regular readers of this blog will know I am looking and listening for something else.  Finally I pick up the nightingale-like opening notes of a Moustached Warbler and the bird although not close climbs up the reeds and I manage a few distant shots.  This is such a difficult species to find in this area but is definitely here and  it takes practice and familiarity with its song to be lucky.

Well now I can head back with great satisfaction.  Leaving the marsh I stop by wet fields just outside the village of La Viala and after seeing a pair of Lapwings which seem to be nesting I note another Squacco Heron standing by a small ditch.

A great day and finally made perfect tonight as a Scop's Owl sang outside my back door.  Oh me of little faith!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

We do give a Hoot

Most summer residents here have arrived now.  All the local villages have hordes of screaming Swifts and Minerve has Alpine Swifts regularly over the caves now. Bee-eaters are more numerous and Turtle Doves are purring each day in local scrub and woodlands.  Golden Orioles can be heard and all the expected warblers are present.  Hoopoes are already feeding young.  Finally today the first of our local pair of Rollers returned today and posed helpfully in a roadside bush.

What is causing concern amongst our community is the complete absence from our area of Scops Owls.  Every year their sonic calls cause much excitement and discussion amongst residents.  I did hear one briefly earlier in the spring but that was obviously a migrant moving on.  As of today none have arrived and that is the first time since we began coming here 10 years ago.  Hopefully nothing dreadful has happened in Africa or on migration and they will still turn up.  It is not too late but we are all concerned.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Vultures everywhere - but not being fed

I recently learnt of the whereabouts of a Vulture feeding station in the Corbieres south of Limoux.  In excellent weather we drove 2 hours to the site and found the valley pretty quickly.  As promised we found a large rock on the roadside with plenty of Griffon Vultures in place.

As the air warmed up the birds began to leave the ledges and soon c40 were soaring high in the sky.  Sadly they were not heading for the small hill where the feeding place was situated.  Walking up to the site we discovered a fenced off area and the remains of a couple of sheep which had obviously been there for some time.  What we had not realised is that feeding does not take place every day. 

The station has been set up for Egyptian Vultures which are extremely rare in this part of France.  A few have apparently been coming as well as Griffons.  The valley is superb and we heard Quail calling in the meadows and Western Bonelli's Warblers in the trees.

On the way home a small group of Bee-eaters gave stunning views near Olonzac.

My friend Ron Bennett reported seeing 2 Moustached Warblers singing at the Capestang marsh today so I must return there this week.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Coastal trip

The  weather turned out to be wonderfully warm and sunny so we decided to visit a few coastal sites.  Starting at Espignan we came across 4 Whiskered Terns hunting the sewerage pools and a Great Reed Warbler singing in the nearby reed bed.  Checking the wet meadows nearby a Quail was calling incessantly and 8 Bee-eaters hunted from a dead tree.

We moved on to the meadows by the Aude just south of Fleury.  We had our picnic here to the multiple songs of Nightingales accompanied by Cetti's Warblers, Melodious Warblers and Golden Orioles.  A couple of male Montagu's Harriers quartered the heathland to the south and 3 Buzzards and a Black Kite passed by.  Five Lesser Kestrels were busy hunting and a Woodchat Shrike sat on a nearby bush. Checking the overhead wires 6 Rollers in pairs sat adjacent to specially provided nest boxes.

Next stop was at Pissevache where lots of birds were on the sewerage ponds as usual.  Eight Whiskered Terns hawked over the water with a single Black Tern.  Astonishingly the previous week I had seen a White-winged Black Tern here completing the full set of marsh terns.  About 40 Shelducks and a single male Red-crested Pochard were in residence as well.  Walking on the salt marsh we noted that quite a few pairs of Avocets were nesting and a distant island contained c40 Sandwich Terns and a few Little Terns.

We moved some way south to the Gruissan area and went to a small pool at a nature reserve and museum at Mandirac.  At least 30 Little Egrets were feeding here with 2 White Storks but more interesting was a single Squacco Heron.

Another good day and time to get home for supper.

Friday, 6 May 2011

More of the same

I worked all morning and did notice a couple of Honey Buzzards going north and also a resident Short-toed Eagle overhead.

Late afternoon I went out in anticipation of finding some signs of migration.  Only one female Montagu's Harrier where yesterday there was so much activity.  At Bois Bas I listened to Cirl Bunting, Whitethroat and Western Bonelli's Warbler singing and was a bit surprised to see a Black Kite going north.  It is a bit late for a migrant of this species in this area.

Returning to Minerve the Alpine Swifts had increased to 6 and I saw a Blue Rock Thrush and a couple of Crag Martins.

No sign of any Red-backed Shrikes yet which is both surprising and disappointing.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Things are Hotting Up

What a marvellous day!  Temperatures reached 25 degrees and almost no wind.  First thing I discovered a really weird stick insect clinging to our outside wall.

I had to go down to Olonzac early in the morning and was amazed to see 2 Great Spotted Cuckoos fly across the street near the Gendarmarie.  I have never seen this species so far east before.  I had to wait for an insurance assessor to look at my damaged vehicle so I sat in the very pleasant park for a while.  Nightingale song in here was thunderous interspersed with a competing Hoopoe. Overhead hundreds of Swifts were gathered feeding above the town.

Returning home I followed a gorgeous male Golden Oriole flying along the lane for a few metres.  Back in the garden I sat a while watching and listening.  Turtle Doves were now purring all around and a couple of Honey Buzzards passed over with dozens of Swifts.  Shortly after a pair of Short-toed Eagles displayed overhead with much calling.

This was enough to get out after lunch to see what else was happening.  Firstly I came across a young man birding called Olivier Lizot and as we chatted 2 Red-rumped Swallows passed by and a female Montagu's Harrier sparred angrily with a passing Buzzard.  Another Short-toed Eagle also flew by.

I moved on to Minerve where a couple of Alpine Swifts had at last arrived and were already prospecting their nesting caves.  Continuing to the garrigue I then spent at an hour watching at least 6 Montagu's Harriers displaying.  What a marvellous sight as they sky danced together calling frantically.  There seemed to be 3 pairs with one male still in "ring-tail" plumage.

I then went up to the meadows near Bois Bas where a Tawny Pipit fed close by the car.  I found nothing else so moved home.

As we sat eating supper on the terrace the Short-toed Eagles gave us another superb show soaring and diving together above the property.  On the grass Black Redstarts fed as the light faded.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Quiet Day

Awoke with a hangover having celebrated Norwich City's promotion to the Premier League.

A`quick visit to the local market passing a single Bee-eater on the way.  In Olonzac Rock Sparrows were singing from chimney pots and TV aerials.

Spent the rest of the day trying to arrange for the Land Rover to be repaired so no time for real birding.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Goodbye Stephen

We had a last walk together around our local garrigue and enjoyed the local birds.  Nightingales were as noisy as ever, Orphean Warblers nearly as numerous and Subalpine Warblers also showed well. A pair of superb Montagu's Harriers gave us great views and a single Red-rumped Swallow joined in the show.  Just as we were getting into the car eagle-eyed Beryl pointed out a soaring raptor which turned out to be a Griffon Vulture the 123rd species of Stephen's five day stay.

After dropping Stephen off at Beziers airport I went back to the Bessan area to see if I could get pictures of Little Bustards in their display flight.  The birds were not quite as active as the previous visit but I managed something.  Stone Curlews were very noisy at the site and a Great Spotted Cuckoo and 2 Tawny Pipits sang from prominent perches and my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year briefly perched on a roadside tamarisk.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Catching up

We have been so busy out birding that I have found it impossible to post the account of each day.  Anyway here is a quick summary.

Last Friday April 29th we decided to go down to Northern Spain to the Aiguamolls Natural Park close to the town of Roses. Arriving about 10am we had been joined by Ron Bennett and our walk began as usual with the deafoning cacophony of Nightingales, Cetti's Warblers and Great Reed Warblers.  In addition the continous rattling of the resident White Storks added to the background noise.  Checking the first hide we quickly found two male Garganey asleep on a mud bank.  Feeding nearby were good numbers of Black-winged Stilts and a couple of Spotted Redshanks.  We also picked out a splendid male Ruff whose head gear was becoming black and ginger.

Moving on we visited the hide o further up the trail passing a couple of Melodious Warblers and a Golden Oriole.  The water levels were very high and nothing much was added except a flock of 14 Whiskered Terns hawking over the lagoon.  Retracing our steps back to the main path we were pleased to find a family party of Long-tailed Tits a species not often seen here.  The sound of Bee-eaters was constantly in the air and we noted several groups heading north.

Where the path opens out into meadows we first watched a Zitting Cisticola at very close quarters singing from a tree and then discovered a beautiful Wryneck perched in a nearby tamarisk.  Reaching the flooded meadows we could see a good number of Wood Sandpipers and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits but not much else.  We entered the small hide and had excellent views of Purple Heron and Squacco Heron but the most entertaining was a Little Grebe carrying at least one of its two chicks on its back as its mate journeyed backward and forwards bringing food.

Walking back to the car we joined other visitors watching a superb Green Lizard before sitting down to eat our lunch.

After lunch we drove down the campsite road to look at the wet meadows from a different angle.  The herd of Camargue horses were grazing a large wet area where there were many more waders.  Most were Wood Sandpipers and Black-winged Stilts but 3 Little Ringed Plovers were picked out.  Thereafter went drove through Castello D'Empuries to the the 3 Bridges area of the reserve.  We hoped for Little Bittern here but had no luck with this species.  We did find 3 Collared Pratincoles, 2 Night Herons and a good numbers of Purple Herons and White Storks before crossing the border for supper in Collioure.

A most enjoyable day with some stunning birds.

On Saturday April 30th we began by checking out our local Bonelli's Eagles with friend Stuart Gregory.  Both adults were seen briefly overhead but the highlight was the sight of a chick with feathers already forming on the wings standing up in the nest.

On our way back to lunch we found a lovely male Woodchat Shrike by the road side at Agel.  In the afternoon we explored the region north of Minerve.  Birds were thin on the ground but insects more interesting.  Stephen was busy with his net and caught a few species including the spectacular Moroccan Orangetip.  We also encountered a really strange yellow and black insect which resembled both butterfly and dragonfly.  It turned out to be an Ascalaphid closely related to the Antlions.  A few birds were noted including Garden Warbler, Western Bonell's Warbler and Coal Tit.

Coming righ up todate today we first drove down to Port Leucate near the fish market where we quickly found 3 Spotless Starlings.  A great success ornithologically but a disaster otherwise.  We were parked just off the road close to a ramp where lorries drove up and deposited waste.  One was on the ramp behind us and we heard a shout and to our horror the van was heading our way with the driver running after it.  He had forgotten to apply the hand brake.  The van ended up smashing into my Land Rover destroying two rear lights and the door opening mechanism to the rear.  An hour was taken up filling in accident forms before we could move on.

We drove along the Etang for a while finding lots of Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plovers and also a Whimbrel and Sanderling.  A small group of Little Terns were also there on a mud bank.

Next was a walk around the headland at Cap Leucate.  We soon found a male Black-eared Wheatear but struggled to get a good view of Spectacled Warbler although they were singing.  A male Sardinian Warbler did show well and we managed to identify up to 3 Thekla Larks.

We had lunch at La Palme and 2 Slender-billed Gulls flew past.

We called in at Peyriac de Mer and Bages but found little else of interest.

Getting back to Montcelebre we found a Woodchat shrike and a Honey Buzzard flew over just before supper.