Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Island Paradise

North Haven, Skomer

Today I took my annual visit to Skomer and as usual was not disappointed.  This place is getting more popular especially after Iolo Williams live spots on Springwatch.  Good thing too and I was especially pleased to see school children from Oxford getting less bored the more they saw.

The Dale Princess

Starting on the Dale Princess  with the always cheerful greeting from boatmen Kenny and Carl the whole experience begins.  Arriving at the island and after the strenuous climb up the steps and the greeting from warden Chris you can get started.  Up to the middle of July the Puffins are the main attraction both at North Haven and later at the Wick.  They were in top form today posing for the many cameras especially when carrying sand eels.

Puffin with sand eels

There were still plenty of other seabirds about including hordes of Guillemots still on their ledges and Razorbills and Kittiwakes too.  The stiff breeze gave Fulmars the opportunity to demonstrate their amazing flight hanging on the wind.  The main disappointment was not catching a glimpse of the Short-eared Owls which are nesting on the island.

Fulmar hanging on the wind

A visit to this seabird city is generally very predictable but the experience is still stimulating.  To do the place credit you really need to take the trouble to stay overnight.  The experience of standing in the dark with thousands of Manx Shearwaters coming in to their burrows is hard to describe.  With luck you might come across Storm Petrels as well.

The Farm, Skomer

The island is a huge credit to the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales whose staff and volunteers make the whole experience run like clockwork and the greeting is warm and friendly.  If you want to go for the day you need to get up early.  I arrived at 8.20am but the queue for tickets was already long and I did not get on a boat until 10.30am.

If you have not been yet then Go!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Summer arrived today

What a change from yesterday when it rained all day, temperatures hovered around 10 degrees and we lit the woodburner.  Today bright sunshine and a high of 24 degrees.

Tree Pipit singing

We took off to the hills starting around Llyne Brianne dam.  The open grassland produced lots of Meadow pipits feeding young and a few Wheatears too.  Passing through the thick coniferous forest a single Wood Warbler was singing and as we reached the bridge to cross towards Tregaron a Common Sandpiper with 2 fledged young was discovered.  Further on we stopped by some young forestry.  A Tree Pipit was in full song and a male Whinchat appeared with 2 fledged young.  This species is declining everywhere so seeing breeding success is very heartening.  A Grey Heron and a Red Kite flew over before we moved on.

Juvenile Whinchat

Further on we stopped again this time definitely in Ceredigion.  Hoardes of Meadow Pipits here with young and 2 Reed Buntings singing.  And again more Whinchats.  This time a pair with 3 fledged young and I was able to get some photographs.

Tregaron Bog

We eventually ended up at Tregaron Bog and took a walk around the boardwalk.  Plenty of Willow Warblers and Pied Flycatcher and Redstart also seen.  We visited the hide which was new to us.  It is a great disappointment finding out it is merely a large room with glass windows.  No opportunities for using a camera with a Sedge Warbler posing right outside.  Is it a hide or just a room for say school groups? You could tell this building had little input from a naturalist merely an architects whim I suppose.  Seems a lot of money has been spent without much thought as to use. Still I shall not waste energy walking to that again.  The rest of the reserve is superb and the visitor facilities excellent.

We headed home via Lampeter without much more to report.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Hunting for Fledglings

With the final phase of the BTO Atlas upon us there are scores of birders searching tetrads for proof of species breeding.  I have been doing some of this in the past day or so and it is very rewarding.  Everywhere you look for signs of nesting.  From singing birds in suitable territory to birds carrying food for their young.

Female Common Redstart with food

The ultimate of course is to find fledged young which prove beyond all doubt that nesting has taken place in your square.  Even with the current cool and damp weather here it is still possible to achieve the ultimate.  Today in one tetrad I found fledglings of 11 species.  Very gratifying.

Common Redstart fledgling
Now if the weather is OK tomorrow out to another area and more hunting for signs of nesting.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Mediterranean Gull time again

How different the status of Mediterranean Gull is nowadays in the UK compared with 50 years ago.  I can recall back then when a returning bird in winter at Covehithe, Suffolk drew birders from all over just to add it to their Year List.  How different things are today.

Mediterranean Gull - 2nd summer

Here in Wales birds start arriving from mid-June along the south and west coast through the summer sometimes flocking in numbers of over 50.  By August there could be a few hundred birds involved.

Mediterranean Gull - juvenile

I saw my first group of the summer today at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Llanelli.  Amongst the Black-headed Gull colony at least 15 were roosting and most seemd to be adults with two exceptions.  I guess the earliest arrivals if adults are probably birds which failed to breed this year.

Part of the group at Llanelli WWT today

Ringing recoveries suggest most these birds are from colonies in mainland Europe from places such as Belgium and the Netherlands.  Some may of course come from breeding colonies elsewhere including perhaps the south of England.

Mediterranean Gull - adult

My only other sightings of note today at WWT were a Peregrine and a singing Lesser Whitethroat scarce in Wales and my first for the year.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Reprieve for Welsh Badgers

An announcement by the Minster of the Environment in the Welsh Assembly states that the proposed cull issued by the previous administration is to be put on hold whilst there is a review of the science involved.

Well it is a start and at least challenges the nonsense of the previous position.

What does reviewing the science mean? 

We shall find out soon.  They are hoping for results in the autumn.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Woodland Walk

At last a day with almost no rain.  We took a walk in the RSPB Dinas reserve in North Carmarthenshire.  It is one of the finest examples of Welsh woodland which juxtaposes with other habitats such as grassland, open mountain and fast flowing river.

Common Sandpiper

We went there not just to get some fresh air but also to complete the BTO Atlas work on that square.  What was most obvious was the cold and damp within the woodland which made finding birds difficult at first.  In some of the brief sunny spells birds started to get active and it was gratifying to see so many young birds.  Juvenile Marsh and Blue Tits were obvious as were family parties of Nuthatches.  Scanning the river a female and 5 young Goosanders were easy to find as were Grey Wagtails.  A Common Sandpiper called anxiously suggesting young nearby.

Common Redstart

Searching more within the woodland we noted quite a few Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers all accompanied by fledgling young.  Tree Pipits were collecting food which I assume meant young were nearby.  I was glad to see a lot of young birds because the weather had been so poor of late.  Perhaps understandably only one Wood Warbler was heard.

Red Kite

Back at the car park it was raptor time.  A pair of Buzzards and a Red Kite were overhead and a little later a Peregrine.  All received the appropriate attention from a family group of Ravens.

Great Spotted Woodpecker in the garden

Back home the sunshine was more prolonged as well as welcome.  I spent time watching the young birds at the feeders and at last got a half decent shot of the male Great Spotted Woodpecker.

It was nice to be out.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Scarce breeder locally

Spotted Flycatcher

Dodging showers yesterday I was delighted to see a Spotted Flycatcher in the lane by my house.  It is the second year running that a pair seems to be nesting here.  This species is getting very scarce here nowadays and the bird by my house was the first I have seen in Carmarthenshire this year.

Young Buzzard

The weather here is absolutely diabolical for June.  It is wet almost every day and cold too.  We have resorted to lighting the wood burning stove quite a bit lately.  It is a wonder that there any young birds surviving and I have seen young Buzzards in the nest looking very bedraggled and miserable.

Where is summer?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Avian Nursery

Since returning home again and watching the birds in the garden it is now obvious how productive the area is for local species.  Fledglings of all the common birds are everywhere.  A young Robin even joins us on the outside table especially if we are enjoying a snack.

Juvenile Robin
Of the more unusual young Great Spotted Woodpeckers have turned up on the nut feeder during the last couple of days and young Goldfinches are on the niger feeder.  I have not seen the latter here in our 10 years before.  More predictable are young Siskins coming in droves now with their parents.

Juvenile Siskin
Nuthatches are collecting food in a frenzy just now and I would expect their fledglings to appear soon.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

And so to El Rocio

We drove for four hours south and west of the Quadalquivir to the quaint town of El Rocio.  With its sand roads and hitching rails in front of houses it reminds one of a Mexican town in a Hollywood western.  Each spring thousands of pilgrims assemble here for a religious festival which includes a drive on mule drawn wagons and horseback.

The Church and lagoon at El Rocio

The lagoon alongside the town is normally good for birds and we found Greater Flamingos, White Storks, Spoonbills and Whiskered Terns.  We stayed in a small hostal on the edge of town and first explored the marshes at El Rocina and Acebouche.  Birds were hard to find at both places but we did locate singing Savi's Warblers as well as Red-crested Pochards and Purple Swamphen.

Purple Swamphen
We decided to spend our first two full days out by the Valverde Visitor Centre where there are always plenty of birds.  It requires a drive of the best part of 30 kilometres over gravel roads but this is easily achievable and the outcome spectacular.  After passing through acres of agricultural land you soon reach lagoons with reedbeds and large tracts of saltings.  Large numbers of Great Crested Grebes with large young were everywhere and hundreds of heron species were flying backwards and forwards with food to the large heronry behind the Visitor Centre.

Cattle Egret

Night Heron

Little Egret

Squacco Heron
In addition to the species pictured above there are Purple Herons nesting in the reeds rather than the tamarisks and Little Bitterns which are seldom seen for long.  The most impressive of all though are the large numbers of Glossy Ibises.  There were none less than ten years ago but now 5,000 pairs in the whole Park.  They increase year on year and the invasion of the UK by this species in 2010 contained birds from this site.  We also learnt of an unconfirmed report of two birds from here being found in Cuba.  That is extraordinary.

Glossy Ibis
After a snack and coffee we took to the vehicle again and started a drive around the tracks within the reserve.  We stopped by a bridge for great views of Great Reed Warbler and heard another Savi's Warbler.  Moving on a Black Stork flew up from a smal marsh and suddenly on the road we were confronted by wonderful Collared Pratincoles.  They were very active and together with Black-winged Stilts were endlessley mobbing the many Black Kites trying to get their young.

Collared Pratincole
Most of what we were seeing were herons and ibises but large groups of Spoonbills were also feeding here together with good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits.  The terrain is very flat here and as well as the birds is grazed by horses and cattle.

Donana Marshes
Good numbers of Whiskered Terns were hunting the area and one or two Gull-billed Terns put in an occasional appearance.  Raptors were also evident with Black Kites everywhere.  Once a Red Kite turned up and engaged in a bitter dogfight with the Blacks.  Short-toed Eagle, Montagu's Harrier and Kestrel were also found. Returning home in the dusk a Red-necked Nightjar flew across the road.

Red & Black Kite
Our third day was to be a bit special.  David Hosking's father Eric had been part of the expedition in 1956 which came to the Coto Donana as an expedition.  This group included Max Nicholson, Guy Mountford, Julian Huxley, Field Marshall Allanbrooke, James Ferguson-Lees etc.  This party working with Valverde and other local ornithologists were instrumental in persuading the Spanish Government to set up the National Park.  This morning we had been invited to the Palacio now a Research Station for a visit.  We were met by Fernando, Hector and Raphael three key staff members and the subject immediately turned to photographs.  Entering the Palacio itself we were astonished to find many of Eric's original photographs framed on the walls.  They mostly appeared in the book of the expedition "Portrait of a Wilderness" written by Guy Mountford.

Fernando, David & Hector
We also enjoyed a tour of the habitats here and saw large colonies of Bee-eaters, another Spanish Imperial Eagle but the undoubted highlight was being taken to an area of 400 year old oaks where there is a colony of 1,000 pairs of Spoonbills.  An amazing sight but Fernando is so worried about the future of the ancient trees which will surely perish quite soon.

Spoonbill Colony

Eurasian Spoonbill nesting

What a great finale to our trip and an emotional experience for David.  Eric Hosking was one of the true pioneers of wildlife photography and in 1956 David reflected that he would have been in his peak.  The Spaniards still look upon that expedition as being iconic because that effort produced a most wonderful National Park.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Continuing in Spain

Our next move was to drive up to Trujillo in Extremadura to spend a few days with John and Anthea Hawkins who have a house nearby.  They have been coming to this area for many years so know most of the locations of good birds  A mutual friend Alan Heath made up our group.

Taking a few trips around the local steppes we were told that because of higher than usual rainfall the grass was very high and finding bustards and sandgrouse would be difficult.  We did see a few Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Great Bustards but none presented any photo opportunities.  We were taken to watch a single Little Bustard performing his full display with elaborate jumps but he was the only one of that species seen.

On the other hand larks were very obvious with Crested, Short-toed, Calandra and Thekla being found.  Even more numerous were Corn Buntings singing from every available post.  Montagu's Harriers were found at one very good site in particular and Rollers and Bee-eaters were very obvious.  Spanish Sparrows were often encountered but difficult to approach.  Mammals noted included Red Fox, Red Deer and best of all Iberian Hare.

I was slightly embarrassed when John took us round a large area of rice fields so I could get Common Waxbills and Red Avadavats on my European list.

Two trips were made to the famous Monfrague Park and there raptors were very obvious.  Hordes of Griffon Vultures with good numbers of Black Vultures and a few Egyptian as well.  We also found the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle which included a distant view of a chick in the nest from Monfrague Castle.  Watching Black Kites catching insects here we also enjoyed the dashing flights of half a dozen White-rumped Swifts.  Checking other habitats there were plenty of Red-rumped Swallows, Rock Buntings, Blue Rock Thrushes and Hawfinches.  Black Storks too were nesting at the famous Penafalcon rock.

A little spare bread and lots of patience produced wonderful social groups of Azure-winged Magpies.  These attractive birds gave us lots of good photographs and opportunities to observe them at close quarters.

An enjoyable evening was spent photographing Lesser Kestrels at the Trujillo bullring and wandering around the main square being amazed at the numbers of swifts and nesting White Storks.

Further checking of the Belen Steppes revealed Great Spotted Cuckoo, Southern Grey Shrike and Stone Curlew.

Next stop El Rocio.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Back to normal I hope

At last all the Spanish photos processed and filed.

The trip was organised to some extent to introduce my pal David Hosking to the Coto Donana an area where his father Eric had with others influenced the setting up of the National Park in the 1950's.  More of that at a later date.

We began east of the Guadalquivir river and based ourselves in Sanlucar de la Barrameda.  We stayed with my good friend Javier Hidlago and his wife Paula.  Javier makes the best sherry in the whole World but also knows a lot about the local birds and where to see them.  He introduced us to some local ponds adjacent to market gardens which although a bit scruffy and polluted produced our best views of breeding White-headed Ducks and a Crested Coot identified because of its neck collar.  They only have been marked in this way in this area.  Little Bittern was also seen here with some ease.

We spent some time on the saltings and the area close to the river.  Groups of Slender-billed Gulls and Kentish Plovers were most numerous but we also saw other wader including Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Knot, Golden Plover and Turnstone on passage.  Most interesting of the migrants were a group of 21 Caspian Terns. Large numbers of Avocets nested on the saltings with some Black-winged Stilts.

The salt marshes were alive with larks including Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed, Crested and the spectacular Calandra.  Greater Flamingos were here and there and in some reedy pools we found our first small group of Marbled Ducks.

Whilst in this area we took some time in the mountains around Grazalema.  Choughs are numerous here as well as swifts around the towns.  We managed Alpine, Common and Pallid with ease but failed to find White-rumped here.  Rock Buntings drinking at a water tank gave us some good photo opportunities and we found plenty of Griffon Vultures in the air.

Before moving on to the next part of our journey we spent some time at a coastal town to watch and photograph the only nesting Little Swifts in Europe.

Next I will talk about some of the birds we saw in Extremadura.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Back from Spain

Back again after two exciting weeks in Southern Spain.  Now I have over 2,000 photographs to process and that will be a priority over the next day or so.

Predictably the weather here in Wales is damp and cool so a bit of a culture shock.  Not much time to see local birds yet but a Red Kite welcomed me home as I drove up the hill to our house.