Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Eastern Dippers

Eastern Crowned Warbler eh? Well, I ummed and aahed on Friday night about combining a twitch with a weekend at my sister's on Teesside. It won't be around on the Saturday I thought, the bad weather that's forecast will move it on.

Saturday 24th October, Drayton Bassett, 10:30 - 12:45.

And in any case, let's give this Glossy Ibis at Drayton Bassett a try (whilst continuing to ignore pager messages about South Shields, what!).

At Fisher's Mill pit, in deepest Warwickshire (well, most of it), were the Garganey and two Little Egrets. A scan around Drayton Bassett north pit, in deepest Staffordshire, there were a flock of 35 Golden Plover, and another 40 Goldies that flew south. After a while I noticed two Swans fly in with intent. They turned out to be Whooper Swans.

Well that's not a bad consolation, as there was no sign of the Ibis. Not late morning anyway. The wind was getting up a bit now, although the rain was nowhere near as bad as was forecast. A short drive along the A5 leads to Stubber's Green, so I thought I would give it a try.

At last, finally managed to catch up with Caspian Gull here, a British tick for me. This is the third-winter bird. Some black markings in the tail, along with long legs and a mean looking bill. In fact, a monster of a gull. Well, it was until a couple of Great Black-Backeds flew in.

Right then, one or two arrangements to make, an early night (missed Jon and Edward on X Factor again!), then give South Shields a try in the morning.

Sunday 25th October. Trow Quarry, South Shields, 08:00 - 10:00.

Well, in amongst a car-full with Andy, Mad Malc, Nobby and Vaughan. No mention either way by the time we arrived. And was it there?

Well, err, no. I would usually say never mind at this point, but to be honest it was a real blow. But it had to be done, and we weren't the only ones that dipped.

The Red-Flanked Bluetail at Bempton Cliffs was still around, which was also on the agenda for the day. A short stop-off at Saltholme Pools was done on the way, to look at the drake Blue-Winged Teal. The drive along the Yorkshire coast, Heartbeat country of course (it was never as good after the great Bill Maynard left), eventually led us to Bempton.

I must admit I'm not the best company at twitches that involve a long wait. It's not so much being impatient, I just get bored with standing around looking at nothing. But after at least two hours of waiting, the Red-Flanked Bluetail was eventually found in a small wood opposite the feeding station, and showed fantastically well. Close enough just for binoculars was the order of the day, this was why:

After the disappointment of the morning, to end the day with crippling views of the Red-Flanked Bluetail, a lifer for me. Well, I for one was delighted. Actually, we were all delighted.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Back in the Cold

Saturday 17th October, Chasewater, 14:45 - 16:30.

Just as Chris Evans zoomed off out of Birmingham airport (no baggage carousel for him!), time for us get out of the airport and catch up on some local birding. So I dropped Martyn off, and straight over to Chasewater to have a look at a Black-Throated Diver.

It took a bit of finding actually, as most Divers usually do from my experience, but I eventually found the bird along the west shore, just to the north of the powerboat club.

As the hourdes of visitors gradually left Chasewater and things started to quieten down, the Diver swam over to the dam. There were also two Rock Pipits along the south shore and just before heading home to unpack, three Common Scoters (either female or immatures) flew around the reservoir.

Sunday 18th October.

I suppose I should've headed to Drayton Bassett after leaving Chasewater, as a Glossy Ibis was found. So I thought I would wait and see what came on the pager. A report of an Ibis flying over Willington made me decide to have a search around the Trent valley.

As Whitemoor Haye and Croxall were rather quiet, I then headed over to Branston Gravel Pits. And I didn't think there was much here either, until I was walking back to the car and a pager message came on, "Black-Throated Diver at Branston, southern pit"! Eh, I've just walked past there. Well, I did say they're not always easy to see. Thankfully Dave Scattergood was also around and found it, must've have been the same bird that departed Chasewater earlier in the day.

I watched the Diver until dusk. During that time there was also 2 Little Egrets, 1 Goldeneye, 1 Green Sandpiper, 2 Snipe, 1 Peregrine, 4 Redwings and most pleasing of Barn Owl in the fading light.

Monday, 26 October 2009

World Tour of The Algarve, Part IV

At last, the final part.

Friday 16th October.

Our final day's birding. As the week turned out, the westerly winds we were hoping for (full of American vagrants) never materialised. So what we decided to do was to build up as large a list of birds as we could. The nature reserve at Castro Marim, on the Spanish border, is a reliable place for Lesser Short-Toed Lark. And as we've noticed, who knows what different birds we'll find at another wetland location.

Plenty of lagoons here, although a lot of them rather distant. But in addition to the Flamingoes and Spoonbills were Osprey, Marsh Harrier, 12 Caspian Terns, 3 Little Terns, a couple of small skeins of Greylag Geese and a single Little Bustard, which was found by a pair of birders from Germany.

With Castro Marim castle in the background, a walk along a track through the saltmarsh produced some "drrrd" calls of 6 Lesser Short-Toed Larks. A short time later we found another three that landed on the ground (lifer).

A drive down to some lagoons on the edge of Vila Real de Santo Antonio produced 7 Curlew Sandpipers in amongst a mixed flock of waders, two Great Crested Grebes, four more Little Terns. We also had a crippling view of a Crag Martin as it was flying under the road bridge. But not this bridge, that would be a bit scary! By the way, that's Spain on the far side of the river.

The German birders we met earlier had told us about the salt pans at Santa Luzia. Seeing as we had pretty much cleaned up at Castro Marim and with an afternoon to kill. Instead of nipping into Spain and starting a new list, we headed over to Santa Luzia, west of Tavira, to find these salt pans.

As you can see reader, we found them. This was also the only site where we saw Spanish Sparrow during the week, and large numbers of waders. Especially of Curlew Sandpipers and Kentish Plovers.

We also found 10 Slender-billed Gulls amongst Black Headed Gulls, but looking through a fence and looking into the sun. However, we found another flock of about 150 large gulls which we could see included some Audouin's Gulls. An attempt at a closer inspection was started:

We found the flock and counted 71 Audouin's Gulls. We also found it intruiging how a lot of them were trying to keep in the shade.

One more check of Pera Marsh before we finished birding for the week. Which proved rather successful, with the addition of Little Owl and Subalpine Warbler (lifer). And that was it for birding in the Algarve, with a excellent total of 162 different species. Not including the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker we heard, and the three introduced species of Common Waxbill, Sacred Ibis and Masked Weaver. The reader of Blurred Birding will notice that Martyn just doesn't do em!

I would just like to take the opportunity to thank Martyn for his company, which for me was a wonderful week's birding. Cheers my friend!

But as far as blogging is concerned, that's not quite the end of it. On the flight home back to Birmingham, to our surprise we had a celebrity sat four rows in front of us. It was none other than the new Terry Wogan, "Christophe Lammie Pie" himself, Chris Evans:

Friday, 23 October 2009

World Tour of the Algarve, Part III

Wednesday 14th October.

Another day, another habitat. A shorter trip out this time, back towards Faro, to Ludo Farm and Quinta Da Lago. Ludo Farm is where, of course, they make the board game!

No of course not, I'm being silly. Although I am a black belt at Ludo. I have wondered what kind of livestock or crop is produced at Ludo Farm. Well, the crop is salt. Imagine what this lot would do to your blood pressure!

Fortunately for us birders, the salt pans make fantastic lagoons for a variety of species, when the water level (and thus the salinity) is right. Around and about were about 200 Greater Flamingoes, more Spoonbills and White Storks, Marsh Harrier, Avocets, Spotted Redshanks, Kentish Plovers, 9 Med Gulls, 3 Booted Eagles, 50 Azure-Winged Magpies, even a view of a Cetti's Warbler (how come they're easier to see than back home?). I have been told that Ludo Farm is like a giant Titchwell, and that's very good analogy.

Somewhere between Almancil and Quinta Da Lago, I don't know exactly where, we managed to drive past some watercress beds. A scan around produced at least 10 Water Pipits, a Yellow Wagtail and 4 Snipe, plus the ubiquitous Cattle Egrets.

We then arrived at the very plush and posh resort of Quinta Da Lago. A walk from the car park to the west produced a flock of birds on a lawn. Including Goldfinches, Crested Larks, Common Waxbills and some Serin (lifer).

A walk to the east leads to a hide overlooking a lake next to the golf course. Which allows for some great photographic opportunities, particularly for Purple Gallinule.

As good views as you get at Quinta Da Lago, it was the one place during the whole week that I didn't enjoy. Don't get me wrong, you can get some great views there, but perhaps it was the number of British tourists around that put me off the place. Perhaps I've become a wilderness snob, I don't know.

Thursday 15th October.

Heading inland a little way inland this morning, past the town of Monchique and up to the top of the Foia mountain.

A radar station is situated at the top of the mountain, and is a particularly good spot to find Rock Bunting.

This was also the only site where we saw Wren and Dartford Warbler, and where Black Redstarts were commonplace. Plus we found Blue Rock Thrush, Fan-Tailed Warbler and more Woodlarks. At this point I was also struggling a bit with a loose tripod leg (thanks Manfrotto!), so a careful balancing act had to be done for the rest of the trip.

We also saw a Green Woodpecker of the Iberian race, with a much greyer head compared to ours. Cheers Martyn for the picture.

Whilst driving back down the mountain road towards Monchique, we tried to find some decent areas of native woodland, which didn't involve plantations of Eucalyptus (yuck). Eventually we found an excellent stretch of pines and cork oak, along the road signposted to "Restaurante Jardin das Oliveiras". And if you ever wondered where wine corks came from (not the plastic corks), they strip the bark of cork oaks. The bark does naturally recover, and can then be re-harvested.

A really productive time was had here, as we managed to find Song Thrush, Nuthatch, Great, Blue and Crested Tits, Short-Toed Treecreeper (lifer) and Firecrest. We also managed
to hear a call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but we couldn't see it.

We then decided to have a look around the nearby Alvor estuary. We did wonder whether there would be any point in visiting here. Would we really see anything different to what we saw at Ludo Farm the day before? Well, how wrong could we be! And not just for the first Oystercatchers of the trip, we did a bit better than that.

At the western side of the estuary are some disused salt pans, as above. A mixed flock of waders included Knot, Golden Plover and Whimbrel. A mixed flock of gulls and terns produced a Common Tern, a Common Gull and 16 Med Gulls. Martyn also clocked onto another gull, just popping it's head up a bit from behind the bund of one of the salt pans. We gradually got nearer:

And when the bird took it's head out of it's wing and stood up:

It was a Slender-Billed Gull (lifer), magnificent! At one point the flock of gulls and terns were spooked and all took off. We thought it was due to a pesky Peregrine, but after a closer look we both realised at the same time it was due to an Arctic Skua! We really couldn't believe what we were seeing here. It's not really the kind of bird we were expecting to see in southern Portugal, during the middle of October. But as we saw, it must happen, but in a way it was our largest surprise bird we found during the whole trip. We also found another Bluethroat here.

As the winds were kind of heading in from the sea for the first time during the trip, we decided to head back to the cliffs at Carvoeiro for a seawatch.

Seawatching isn't my particular favourite form of birding, probably because I hardly ever do it. But eventually you do get your eye in, but I find it difficult following a bird that you haven't found yourself.

In an about an hour's seawatch we managed to find 1 Great Skua, 20 Cory's Shearwaters, 18 Balearic Shearwaters (which got easier to pick out when the sun got lower in the sky), 1 Med Gull and a pod of 20 Bottlenose Dolphins. A pretty good end to an excellent day's birding.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

World Tour of The Algarve, Part II

Monday 12th October.

A day spent around Cape St. Vincent today, at the south-western tip of Europe. Starting off around the Beliche car park. If you look through Collins field guide, the differences between Crested Lark and Thekla Lark were causing me a few headaches. But it's not quite so bad in the field, definitely bolder markings on the back and breast of a Thekla. We were happy with this one (lifer).

A short walk around this area, and the track on the opposite side of the road produced a Black Redstart, the first of many Choughs for the day, real Rock Doves, Corn Buntings, Spotless Starling, a flyover Blue Rock Thrush and three Black Kites. Martyn also had a male Hen Harrier, which I missed, never mind.

If you drive along this track, with a belt of pine trees to your left, the track will eventually turn to the right and up a small hillock. This is the Cape St. Vincent raptor watchpoint.

We spent the rest of the morning here, waiting for the sky to warm up to see what would pass over. The first hour, from 9am to 10am produced 10 Woodlarks, 1 Grey Wagtail, 1 Tree Pipit, 2 Chaffinch, 7 Linnet, 8 Azure-Winged Magpies and a Peregrine. It was around this point that the Algarve birding guide, Simon Wates, appeared with a couple he was guiding for the day. Not us by the way!

After 10 it all starts kicking off. First the Sparrowhawks and Black Kites appear, then a low Booted Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, Red Kite, Hobby, then a real bonus of an adult Bonelli's Eagle starting to soar low over the tree line! It was later joined by a second bird. The largest numbers of raptors all seemed to congregate in the sky at around noon, which was when 6 Black Storks appeared. It looked like they were half way to the moon, but still unmistakable to pick out when you get your eye in.

The sheer number of dragonflies in the air were now getting to be a distraction, so time to move on. Crested Tit in the pine wood, then over to the cape itself.

Ah, perhaps we should've come here first thing, full of tourists by the middle of the day, which temperature wise was starting to get a little stifling. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring fields and heathland. There is a small population of Little Bustard on the cape, but we couldn't find them. We did find a Stone Curlew however, and a large flock of Choughs which contained a few migrant Jackdaws.

We also found a small grove of Fig trees near to the Campismo, from the road between the cape and Sagres. Although nothing rare, plenty of birds around including a Common Redstart, 2 Garden Warblers and a Reed Warbler. The day ended back at the cape for a short seawatch, which included 15 Cory's Shearwaters, 4 Great Skuas, stacks of Gannets and three small Shearwaters. Probably Balearic but we couldn't really tell in the awkward light.

Tuesday 13th October.

Heading north this time, into the plains around Castro Verde, Bustard and Sandgrouse country!

We followed the old "Finding Birds in Southern Portugal" guide, by Dave Gosney, today. Which is still very accurate and well worth buying to follow the birding sites around here. Although the main road between Castro Verde and Mertola has been resurfaced, leading to very few places to stop and scan.

By the way, en route along the toll motorway is a service station. I really, really wished I'd taken a photo of it but I didn't. Thinking loads of tourists would do the same thing and post it on the internet. Damn you Google image search, I can't find it! This is the nearest thing I can find, which was the name of the motorway service station.

Our first stop was at a place known as "Chimney Pot Hill", north-east of Castro Verde and west of Estradas. A walk up the track quickly produced a male Little Bustard (lifer) and Calandra Lark (lifer). We stopped by the chimney pot to scan. More Black and Red Kites were found, then a monster of a Great Bustard (lifer) flew in.

Two more Great Bustards were found in the area, plus a total of 37 Little Bustards. We also had cracking views of a Calandra Lark while walking back to the car. Well they were all easy, just Black-Bellied Sandgrouse to go now!

Again following Gosney, on the road back to Castro Verde is a farm with a small reservoir. It looked likely spot to find Black-Bellied Sandgrouse coming in to drink, so we decided to check it out. Well, no Sandgrouse here but there were a Black-Shouldered Kite, 2 Snipe, 2 Little Ringed Plovers, 2 Greenshank, 1 Green Sandpiper and I had an almighty shock when I nearly put my foot on a Quail, which took off out of the long grass. That's the first Quail I've ever seen, only ever heard them before.

Incidentally, Castro Verde is a lovely little town. It felt like I had seen a slice of proper Portugal, unlike most places on the coast that are geared up for tourists. We decided to try another area in Gosney. From the road between Castro Verde and Mertola is a road heading south towards Santa Barbara De Padroes, then a left turn towards Guerreiro. Around here in the heat of the day we found a flock of about 30 Griffon Vultures, 2 Ravens, plus 6 Great Bustards and 4 Little Bustards which showed fairly close.

We still hadn't seen Black-Bellied Sandgrouse by now, and weren't really sure where to go. The plains between Castro Verde and Mertola are such a huge area, to cover the whole area properly would take days to do. At one likely looking spot we found a flock of at least 30 Stone Curlews.

As time was getting on, we decided to head back to the Guerreiro road, where we had some success earlier. 17 Little Bustards right next to the road this time, plus 5 Great Bustards that flew over.

Also a covey of 22 Red-Legged Partridge, 10 Azure-Winged Magpies. Then, at 5:30pm, after looking all day, in the distance flew a party of 7 Black-Bellied Sandgrouse (lifer), phew! I had resigned myself to dipping them by now. But it just goes to show, persevere! It was a shame they didn't come nearer to us, but we had worked damn hard all day in order to find them.

Monday, 19 October 2009

World Tour of The Algarve, Part I

Saturday 10th October.

I don't mind admitting that through a combination of boyish excitement, and not wanting to miss the early morning flight from Birmingham, I didn't get any sleep. But when we landed at Faro airport, it's amazing how quickly you can perk yourself up! While Martyn was arranging the hire car, time to get my bins out for a scan around Faro airport. A single Swallow flew past.

I've never birded in continental europe before, so a stop at the brackish lagoons on the edge of Ludo farm, just a stone's throw from the airport, soon produced my first lifers. Namely Azure-Winged Magpie, Sardinian Warbler and Greater Flamingo. Also a good selection of waders, including Kentish Plovers, Whimbrel, Little Stints (clearly outnumbering the Dunlins and Ringed Plovers), a Booted Eagle overhead, lots of Fan-Tailed Warblers. And a few White Storks.

We felt that we ought to get one of the logistical operations of the trip out of the way fairly quickly, and find our apartment in Carvoeiro. Which thanks to the wonder of Satnav, we did rather successfully.

We decided to stay in Carvoeiro for two reasons. One, it's fairly central along the Algarve coast. Two, it's close to what we thought, after doing some research, could be a couple of good areas for birding. One of which is Carvoeiro itself, which has a headland with cliffs, scrub and a lighthouse.

Given the right weather conditions, we felt it could be a likely spot for migrants in the scrub and for seawatching. So after a spot of lunch, we did some exploring in the afternoon. Given the unseasonally hot conditions (hitting 30 degrees in October is unusual for here), birding was rather quiet. But some common migrants such as Wheatear, Stonechat, Chiffchaff and Blackcap gave us hope for tomorrow morning. Also around were a Crag Martin, more Sardinian Warblers and a flock of about 40 Azure-Winged Magpies.

Eventually we decided to get the second logistical operation done and out of the way, shopping for food and drink. Time for a shameless plug of Bimbo bread! Finding things like this is why I love travelling.

Sunday 11th October.

Back at the lighthouse in the morning. Cooler conditions and much more bird activity. Again a selection of common migrants around, a small number of visible migrants including Kestrels, Goldfinches, Linnets, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and a Yellow Wagtail (don't ask me what type though). Also five Spotless Starlings (lifer).

The other nearby site is Pera Marsh (aka Lagoa Dos Salgados), which consists of a coastal lagoon, sand dunes, open ground and scattered bushes. We spent the late morning and most of the afternoon here exploring, and managed a haul of 51 different species.

A first look around the lagoon were a Black-Necked Grebe, seven Greater Flamingoes, six Purple Gallinules, a first-winter Med Gull and numerous common duck and Cattle Egrets. The water level was rather high so not too many waders, apart from Black-Winged Stilts.

Algarve birder Colin Key arrived at this point, and informed us of a long-staying female White-Headed Duck on the lagoon, that's one to find a bit later. An exploration of the open ground and bushes produced many Wheatears, Stonechats, Chiffchaffs and Sardinian Warblers; Willow Warbler, Whinchat, Crested Larks, Southern Grey Shrike (lifer) and a Red-Legged Partridge (they're wild birds over here!)

After some sandwiches (with Bimbo bread of course!), a scan of the northern edge of the lagoon produced largest numbers of loafing gulls and herons. We picked out a Caspian Tern in amongst the gulls, plenty of Spoonbill and Glossy Ibis, and a Great White Egret, quite scarce on the Algarve apparently.

There was also a escaped/introduced/plastic (use as necessary) Sacred Ibis around which appeared to flush most of the birds, we couldn't find the Caspian Tern when everything settled down. A walk along the boardwalk next to the sand dunes produced a Bluethroat, Sedge Warbler, Great Crested Grebe, stacks of Fan-Tailed Warblers and indeed the White-Headed Duck! There is also a hide along here, but not as we know it. Unfortunately it was inaccessible due to a flooded path.

When Martyn visited the Algarve in September, he found another lagoon at nearby Armacao De Pera. More of a tidal pool which had a large flock of gulls on, and a Caspian Tern, presumably the same bird from Pera Marsh.

Also around were seven White Storks, two Spoonbills and a cracking Black-Shouldered Kite. This picture really doesn't do the bird justice. But a good introduction to birding on the Algarve, without having to travel too far.