Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Marshes all day

Black Stork photographed on a previous visit to Capestang

Together with Serge Nicholle we met up with John Andrews and Ron Bennett for a good walk at Capestang marshes.  A Kingfisher flew up the canal as we arrived and began our walk.  There was a large area of flooded marsh to our right and there were plenty of Little Egrets and at least 6 Great White Egrets.  Closer inspection also revealed 5 White Storks, a single Black Stork still in juvenile plumage, 8 Black-tailed Godwits, c30 Snipe and a Ruff.  Everything was briefly disturbed as a Peregrine flew over.  Later 8 Golden Plovers flew over.

Four Cranes flying over Capestang

Checking the reedbeds there were Cetti's Warblers singing and plenty of Reed Buntings and Bearded Tits.  Everywhere was so quiet and without summer visitors we could clearly hear 5 Moustached Warblers singing.  Only occasionally could we see them in the thick reed cover.  A Bittern walked across the path and an early Black Kite soared overhead.  Even better was 4 Cranes flying low to the north. The only negative was finding the corpses of 6 Greater Flamingos which had obviously succumbed to the recent freezing weather.

Moustached Warbler
Parting company with Ron and John at Lunch time Serge promised to show me a marsh called La Liviere near Narbonne.  This was a new site for me and proved very interesting.  There are a good number of paths circling the extensive reedbeds and it was not long before we heard yet another Moustached Warbler.  Two male Penduline Tits were located feeding in small bushes by the reedbeds and a pair of Marsh Harriers displayed overhead.  Thereafter a small passage of White Storks and Buzzards also passed over.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Disappointment and Surprises in one day

Alpine Accentor at Minerve

Awoke to cloudless skies and no wind.  After an hour at Olonzac market I made my way to Minerve still determined to see a Wallcreeper on my local patch.  I stopped by the graveyard and setting off along the base of the cliff I almost stepped on 2 Alpine Accentors.  They are extremely tame birds and I enjoyed watching and photographing them for some time.

Alpine Accentor at Minerve

I moved on and noted a couple of Crag Martins before checking out the wooded area by the river in the Brian Gorge.  There were still plenty of Song Thrushes about and close to the river dozens of Chiffchaffs were feeding frenetically.  Heading back the Alpine Accentors had disappeared and I headed up to the top car park to search the higher part of the Gorge.  A single Raven called loudly as he flew up the valley and a lone Griffon Vulture drifted slowly to the north-east.  More Crag Martins appeared overhead but still no Wallcreepers.

Griffon Vulture  photographed in Spain

I moved on trying the highest end of the Gorge near the pumphouse.  A superb male Stonechat caught my attention but checking the massive cliffs still no sign of anything.  I explored a small path by the river and moved on further than ever before.  A Firecrest flitted nervously about and staring at another great buttress of rock I wondered if that is where our Golden Eagles have moved to nest.  Something to check later.

Male Stonechat

This evening with friends Susan & Tim Wallis we went to Villegly to try and repeat the superb Eagle Owl show I had enjoyed earlier.  Firstly it took me an hour to find the place.  Walking down to the correct spot I was amazed to see a Black Woodpecker fly over and ahead of us landing in a large plane tree.  We had superb views of this elusive bird in the top of a leafless tree.  Heading on we sadly saw no Eagle Owl this time but we did hear the male singing for some time before we left for home.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Thrushes very prominent

Mistle Thrush
 I took another look at Minerve but still no sign of Wallcreepers.  I moved up into the garrigue and hills above Minerve and could not help noticing considerable numbers of Song and Mistle Thrushes on every available meadow.  It seems they are gathering prior to heading north.  On my way back I stopped a a Hawfinch flew up from the road edge but quickly disappeared in the holm oaks.  A Firecrest did show itself briefly.


I noticed one or two small groups of Lapwings moving north today.  They will have been pushed well south this year with the hard weather and they too are starting their return migration.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Hawk-Eye Beryl strikes again

I went to Minerve first thing this time to the correct spot but saw no Wallcreepers.  There was a cold northerly wind blowing down the Gorge Brian and the only observation was that the local Crag Martins had increased to three.

Crag Martin

Late morning we were driving to have lunch with friends Stuart & Jacqui Gregory and their family.  My wife Beryl is first class at spotting distant raptors.  Driving through the village of Agel Beryl called a distant raptor.  I stopped the car and just caught sight of a longish winged raptor disappearing over the horizon.  A few seconds later it reappeared and incredibly flew towards us then turning to fly across the roadside field.  I looked through my binoculars and was thrilled to see an adult Bonelli's Eagle.  It carried on over the nearby woodland and away towards a well known nesting area for this species.  I was so pleased because we rarely see these birds away from the breeding site and also Stuart and I had checked the site last week and there was no sign of the birds.

Bonelli's Eagle - photo by Ian Spence

Later during the day after we had left Stuart he went back to the nesting site and sure enough the female was on the nest.  Great news as there are only 30 pairs in France and only 3/4 pairs in this area.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Right Place - Wrong Place?

I spent nearly three hours wandering around Minerve today but absolutely no sign of any Wallcreepers. There were plenty of birds though.  More Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs than recently and 2 Crag Martins which were my first of the year.  A male Blue Rock Thrush was busy going backwards and forwards to a crack in the cliffs suggesting nesting is imminent.

Redwing with ticks on its forehead

I spent some time watching birds coming to drink at the remaining water on the Gorge floor.  A male Cirl Bunting, 2 Black Redstarts, Grey Wagtail and several Song Thrushes were all present.  In addition a Redwing which seemed to be suffering with ticks on its head also spent some time drinking.

Distant Hen Harrier

Later driving through the vineyards a ringtail Hen Harrier was hunting in the distance.  Later at home I received an email from Serge telling me he saw the Wallcreepers last Wednesday in the only place which I failed to visit today.  Sod's law - back again tomorrow.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Sorry for the absence

Wallcreeper photographed in India
 I have been away from home for three nights trying to get my Land Rover repaired.  I was lucky to be offered very generous hospitality by my good friends Ron and Jane Bennett.  This gave me a chance to go birding with Ron which included listening to his local Eagle Owl, checking out the village population of Rock Sparrows but best of all having superb views of a Wallcreeper at Moureze.  We also saw more Firecrests there too.

Firecrest at Moureze

Finally mobile I got back home this afternoon having had a female Hen Harrier pass right in front of the car at Agel.  This evening my French birder friend Serge Nicholle tells me that he saw 2 Wallcreepers at Minerve on Wednesday.  Needless to say that will be my first call in the morning.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Foiled by the Snow

We set off this morning with the intent of reaching the Pic de Nore the highest accessible point by vehicle in the Montagne Noire.  We had heard that Snow Finch had been seen their recently so we thought we would give it a go.  The first problem encountered was a blocked road on our usual route.  We detoured taking an alternative way and reached Pradelles-Cabardes.  The village still had a lot of snow and ice and we were not surprised to find the road up to the Pic closed. No Snow Finch today.


The forest and meadows high up were not exactly full of birds but we did see a couple of Buzzards, Mistle Thrush, Nuthatch, Redwing and plenty of Jays.

White Wagtail

On the way home we checked the river and sewerage lagoons at Homps. There were 6 Shoveler, 2 White Wagtails and a Green Sandpiper.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Great Day!

Another cracking day with cloudless skies and temperatures reaching 15 degrees by lunch time.

Corn Bunting

The garden was very active after breakfast with a flock of 9 Corn Buntings feeding on the grass. A pair of Blackcaps and a Sardinian Warbler were also showing well.  A Black Kite passed over before lunch.


I took another look at Minerve in the middle of the day and picked up the Blue Rock Thrush on the roof tops.  I tried around the back of the town and in the trees found at least 4 Firecrests and a Chiffchaff.

Firecrest at Minerve

The highlight was this evening when I joined members of the Aude LPO to visit an Eagle Owl site near Villegly.  We drove out of town, parked up and walked down through garrigue and woodland.  Eventually we arrived where a small bridge crossed a stream and our guide pointed up to a small wall of stones.  There to everyones' amazement sat a superb Eagle Owl.  Sadly the light was too poor for a decent photograph. It seemed all puffed up in the cool of the evening with eyes partially closed.  It allowed close scrutiny through telescopes for at least 30 minutes.  It then flew off strongly but quietly.  We thought was it but after a while we heard an Eagle Owl calling and there it was silhouetted against the fading light in the top of a pine.  Finally it headed off across the valley no doubt to find its supper.  We had also seen two Hen Harriers and just as we reached our cars a splendid Woodcock put on a fine display.. 

Friday, 17 February 2012

Birds hard to find today

We awoke to a bright sunny day with less wind.  Optimism was rife that we would see more birds.  Our plan was to join Stuart Gregory and check out the local Bonelli's Eagle nesting site.  Well despite the excellent conditions no luck.  The nest was full of Jackdaws stealing sticks.  We will try gain later.  A Black Kite appeared overhead on our way home.

Blue Rock Thrush

In the afternoon a walk around Minerve only produced a male Blue Rock Thrush.  There was a distinct absence of Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs or Firecrests which are usually regular here in winter.  Checking local garrigue I stumbled across 100 Fieldfares and 20 Redwings looking cold and hungry.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Birds at Last

The temperature reached the dizzy heights of 10 degrees today and we ventured out.  We visited the Gruissan area in brilliant sunshine but a fierce northerly wind.  As we expected there were very few Greater Flamingos about.  Less than 20 all day when we would have normally come across a few hundred at this time of the year.  Those we did find were looking weak and were very approachable.

Adult Greater Flamingo fighting to stay upright just a metre from the road

A tame juvenile Greater Flamingo managing to feed
 We began in earnest at Mandirac where there were lots of Little Egrets and 3 Great White Egrets sheltering from the wind.  Twelve Avocets look uneasy huddled out in open water and a lone Spoonbill was fast asleep on a small island.  Three Marsh Harriers quartered the marsh repeatedly flushing large groups of Teal.


We then checked out Le Petit Tournabelle where a ringtail Hen Harrier crossed the road and 3 Water Pipits fed on floating vegetation.  As we made our way towards the Roc 5 White Storks headed north.  We looked at our favourite wet meadow complex but they were completely dried out and in need of rain.  A Sparrowhawk hurtled past and was spectacularly intercepted by a Merlin and they flew off south.  Another Spoonbill was found in a reed filled ditch but this time busily feeding.

One of two Slender-billed Gulls feeding with Black-headed Gulls
 We headed down to the saltpans at Gruissan where a few more very tame Greater Flamingos were trying to feed.  Right on the edge of the open water 2 superb Slender-billed Gulls were busy feeding with some Black-headed Gulls.

Black Kite

Heading home we stopped to watch our first 2 Black Kites of the year battling north against the wind.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Desperate for Birds

Spent the morning staring through the window at sleet showers accompanied by gale force winds.  Even my bird feeders are deserted.  The weather abated after lunch so we went out.  First to Lac de Jouarres which as I expected was largely frozen.  About 20% was free of ice and 3 Pochards, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls, 5 Great Crested Grebes and 3 Cormorants were desperately searching for food.

Fieldfare - there many in Languedoc this winter
 We had a quick look in the hills beyond Minerve but only found flocks of Fieldfares and a wonderful pair of Hen Harriers.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Still Very Cold for France

Awoke to bright sunshine and freezing wind.  My brain must have been disfunctional yesterday because I forgot to mention a White Stork battling north against the wind.

White Stork

Birds hard to find in this cold but I noticed one or two Sardinian Warblers scuttling like mice in the low vegetation.  It is not often we see winter thrushes in this part of France but came across quite a few Fieldfares with smaller numbers of Redwings looking hungry in the vineyards.  A small group of 3 Woodlarks flew up at one point and a single Black Redstart was on a wall in a nearby village.

Black Redstart

One or two Buzzards were obvious on a drive to get shopping and later a Sparrowhawk dashed across the road looking for unsuspecting passerines. 

Greater Flamingos

I am hearing disturbing stories of at least 50 Greater Flamingos being found dead in ice at Gruissan. Many more have been taken into care and removed to the Carmargue.  It is not surprising having seen my neighbour's swimming pool covered in 4 inches of ice.

Monday, 13 February 2012

La France

Arrived in France at 3pm their time.  Bright sunshine but absolutely freezing with a bitter wind from the north. Welsh Rugby International James Hook was on the plane with his family so we were all able to congratulate him on the great result on Sunday.  Hook now plays for Perpignan.

Red Kite

Driving to our place the first bird of note was amazingly a Red Kite moving over the Canal de Midi.  A couple of Buzzards were the only other birds noted on the journey.  At home just 2 Robins and a Song Thrush made an appearance before dark.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Hopefully warming up.

A little milder here in this part of Wales. A watery sun made an appearance and birds were singing.  the number of Siskins have increased with the males looking very smart now.  Several were singing in trees around the garden in between feeding on the niger seed.

Male Siskin

We are off to our French place tomorrow where it has been much colder.  Our neighbours tell us our hot water tank in the garage is completely frozen up and we have the worry of the diesel having frozen in the Land Rover.  They have suffered as low as minus 16 but it is expected to be 0 degrees by Wednesday so we are optimistic. Siskins will soon be replaced by Serins.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Reflecting on Spanish visitors

The recent records of Glossy Ibises in the UK and in particular Wales have reminded me of conversations last summer with scientists at the Palacio, Coto Donana, Spain.  More of that later.

Glossy Ibis on the nest, Spain

It seems that up to 30 Glossy Ibises may have been in Wales at one time recently.  This includes a flock of 23 reported from Carew, Pembrokeshire flying over the road to roost.  This has reduced to 12 or 13 in recent evenings but the residue have not been found elsewhere.  This the second time that a large flock has occurred in Wales as 25 were in the Burry Port, Carmarthenshire area a couple of years ago.

Spanish Glossy Ibis with white plastic ring.

Many of the the birds seen well are ringed with white plastic rings being very prominent.  A bird at Borth, Ceredigion is so approachable that the ring number has been read and it is no surprise to me that its origin is Spain.  A little over 10 years ago no Glossy Ibises bred in Spain but now the Donana population is over 5,000 pairs and still increasing.  Indeed with my friend Javier Hidalgo we discovered a new colony in an existing heronry in a group of tamarisks last May.

Juvenile Glossy Ibis, Spain

Discussing the fact that many more birds than ever before were reaching the UK the Donana scientists were not surprised.  Indeed although not confirmed then they had received news that two of their ringed birds had been located in Cuba.  That really got me thinking.  What are the origins of the Spanish birds?  Rather than colonising from Eastern Europe could they have arrived from the Americas? Why do they head north in autumn?  Why do they not go south to Africa?

Glossy Ibis in autumn in France
 Whatever just like the increasing records and even nesting of many heron species in recent years  the ibises are a welcome sight.  With colonies now nesting in the Carmargue how long before they colonise Britain?

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

My it is cold!

I went out because the sun was shining.  My car registered minus 3 degrees outside when I arrived at Burry Port Harbour.  I walked out to the lighthouse but despite the bright sunlight it was really biting cold with a strong wind off the estuary.  There was a group of 12 Brent Geese feeding on the rocks and very tame perhaps because of their hunger and the weather.  My hands got so cold taking pictures that I retreated fast to the car.  I quickly poured a cup of coffee really just to warm my hands.

Brent Goose on beautifully patterned sand at Burry Port

Brent Geese grazing on the rocks at Burry Port Harbour
I retreated to Kidwelly Quay where it was slightly milder.  Not much about except a Greenshank and 3 Chiffchaffs and a Grey Wagtail at the sewerage works.  the Long-billed Dowitcher was still upstream from the railway bridge.  Stopping at Dryslwyn on my way home I counted 31 Whooper Swans my best so far this winter.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Day of the Ravens

I was stacking firewood this morning on a cold, sunny day and was frequently interrupted by the amazing antics of displaying Ravens.  First a lot of flying around by the pair croaking constantly to each other and then their big aerial display.  I assume it to be the male which flew high up soaring for a while and then descended at high speed in a series of breathtaking steep dives with wings folded.  Then more vocalising and the performance was repeated.  Ravens bred near the house last year and it looks like we will be lucky again.


By noon the sun was warm and both Treecreeper and Marsh Tit were singing in the garden.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Round my usual haunts

An appointment at the dentist delayed my start until 10.30am but Penclacwydd was my first call and I was lucky this time catching up with a Great White Egret.  It looked a bit cold in the icy water but after a brief flight came back to the scrape.

The Burry Port Mediterranean Gull

|I moved on and shared my sandwiches with the splendid adult Mediterranean Gull.  It posed politely very close and I forgave it for defecating on my car.  I pushed on to Kidwelly Quay where I met friends old and new.  A Greenshank gave close views and 3 Chiffchaffs were at the Sewerage Works.

Greenshank at Kidwelly Quay

Popping over to the Local Nature Reserve the Long-billed Dowitcher was very obvious.

At last the Long-billed Dowitcher in sunshine

Two more stops.  A walk on the rocky Salmon Scar produced 36 Dark-bellied Brent Geese along with the hundreds of Oystercatchers and 20 Turnstone and 3 Ringed Plover.

Ringed Plover

At Ferryside I counted 150 Bar-tailed Godwits before giving up and going home to the warmth of the log burner.  A great day with superb light.