Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mothosaurus

Got back home to the UK, adapting back to life in the real (?) world. This morning I had to return some gear to James, and before heading over made sure he kept for me any interesting moths from last night's trap, to continue my journey towards interest in organisms other than birds. This morning selection included two photogenic moths. First is the peculiar Mullein (Cuclia verbasci). It really reminded me of a triceratops or stegosaurus with these curious structures on the back. Lovely, subtle moth, and apparently uncommon in this part of the UK.



The second moth that was on show is the pretty Peppered Moth (Biston betularia). It is a species that features in evolution and ecology textbooks; studies of its evolution were one of the first to demonstrate natural selection processes in real time.


As always, thanks to James for the moths, gear, coffee and company.

Nice surprise - Arrocampo

On our last full day in Iberia (19 May) we spent the morning birding in a few sites around Arrocampo reservoir, north of Trujillo. It's a large reservoir with some birding infrastructure in the northern arms. I haven't heard about this site until a few days before, and it was surprisingly good there. There is a small visitor center, and a few hides. We found the hides completely non-useful but bird activity was good and it was good fun just to stand around by the waters edge and enjoy the birds. The reedbeds were bustling with warbler song. Several Savi's Warblers were singing but we glimpsed only one. Great Reeds showed better. Good birding altogether. Most impressive was the high density of Little Bitterns - males were constantly chasing each other and chasing females in display and territorial dispute. So beautiful in the golden light.



By the redness of the bill it is evident they are very horny


Also lots of Purple Herons around - always smart:


Oh, I have to go...
  
That's better... (sorry about the powerlines)

Great Reed Warbler

Gull-billed Tern

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Monfragüe spectacles

Before heading back home to the UK, we made time for a cheeky visit to the spectacular Monfragüe National Park. I must admit that after spending 6 weeks in grassy plains, I was ready for a change of scenery. We had little time there but made the best of it. We had a few target species to catch up with, but also just enjoyed good birding and breathtaking scenery. Our first target was White-rumped Swift. After seeing them in Alangefrom a mile away a couple of weeks ago,  I was hoping for a more intimate encounter with them. So to the top of the castle we climbed, and indeed the sifts played ball. This pair of White-rumped Swifts breed inside the castle, and we enjoyed brilliant views of them zooming around. They are so quick and sadly my camera is almost dead, so I failed to photo them properly. Dan nailed them alright. But they are super quality birds and I couldn’t have asked for better views. 









The scenery off the top of the castle is mui espectacular. Vultures and other raptors pass at eye-level, three other swift species joined the party, Rock Buntings, Blue Rock Thrushes – the full experience.


Our second target was Spanish Imperial Eagle. Again, I saw them twice before this season but from a huge distance and no photos. And Dan needed them. The stakeout for them is the stunning viewpoint of Portilla de Tietar, overlooking a huge cliff wall. A pair of eagles bred nearby but sadly their chick died a few weeks ago, and since then they are more mobile. However we did enjoy a great performance by an adult, circling above us for a long period, interacting with griffons and other raptors passing by. Incredible bird and the views were brilliant. Not the best conditions for photography as it was very high most of the time, and my camera kept under-performing, but I cannot complain.



  
The best I could get of its upperparts when it banked


Here with a diminutive Short-toed Eagle

Target number three: Cirl Bunting. I saw one briefly a few weeks ago in the Hornachos, but that observation was completely unsatisfactory. And Dan needed them too… In Monfragüe they are common enough, and we encountered our first individuals pretty quickly. We got our photo opps just east of Tietar, along the road. Cracking bird.



Nearby Re'a found a breeding pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, sweet.


Target number four – especially for Dan. Crested Tit. I have seen many around Europe, but actually had never photographed them before. In Monfragüe they are found in conifer groves. Following the advice of Martin, we searched for them at the pass aboveCasas de Miravete. We found them rather quickly. They were extremely mobile and didn’t exactly play ball, but they are sure sweet little gems. This image does not show the red eye properly:


This one does:


Other birds there included quite a few Western Subalpine Warblers and surprising a trip bimbo – Common Redstart. Boom.

Western Subalpine Warbler

 Common Redstart

A change in vegetation and soil produced a couple of new butterflies too, including this Black-veined White:


Our last morning was spent outside of the park – more on that in the next post.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Last days of fieldwork in Spain

I am almost back home, and have a lot of catching-up to do. In the last few days we worked in several sites in Badajoz and Caceres. We visited the SPA of La Albuera in western Badajoz, and were quite depressed to find there a huge vineyard planted right in the middle of the former lekking area. Back in 2015 this was a fantastic site - not anymore unfortunately. This is where the lekking area used to be:


Still quite many Montagu's Harriers there. This stunning male enjoyed the new perches in the early morning light:


We also worked in Campo Lugar which was actually quite beautiful. Large expanses of pastures and traditional cereal fields, and many steppe birds. However, I met a person monitoring grasshoppers there. The joy there is short-lived. In a few days the Extremadura government will send in an army of insect-busters to spray the entire SPA with insecticides, to combat 'grasshopper plagues'. Sad. Re'a did see a Pallid harrier there, most probably the same individual we had had in Sierra de Fuentes a few days earlier.


From there we moved on to a few days of work in Llanos de Trujillo. We were based in Casa Rural El Recuerdo. The plains are vast and beautiful, but densities of steppe birds were relatively low. I had some extra birding experiences there. First, I found this Long-legged Buzzard south of Trujillo on May 16th, a good-looking massive bird. A good national rarity. These are record shots from a huge distance. Here it's on the right, with a Common Buzzard on the left:


It was very shy and kept its distance, but in this long-shot the frontal pattern looks good:


Again, we encountered low densities of steppe birds in Llanos de Trujillo. Only a handful of Little Bustards. Few Great Bustards.


It was very hot

Llanos de Trujillo has phenomenal livestock density, which may be the reason for the few steppe birds. The vultures certainly enjoy all the animals - plenty of dead sheep to feed on. Among the many griffons on a dead sheep, this rogue individual kept me on my toes. Striking bird!




A more standard looking Black Vulture, very low above my head:


Before heading back home to the UK we made time for a cheeky visit to Monfrague - more on that in the next post.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Global Big Day in southern Extremadura

Yesterday was Global Big Day, organised by eBird. As we are working in southern Extremadura, we opted for a local big day. Our team included my two assistants Dan and Re'a, and our good friend and ace local birder Fergus. We had planned a route that will give us enough time to look for the typical birds of each main ecosystem / biome in southern Extremadura - steppe, woodland and wetland.
I was the driver and eBird checklister. I eBirded all birds we saw, which also helped us to keep track of species and know our daily total. Despite staying local in Badajoz, we still drove over 600 km and it was a loooooong day. I had very few photo opps - that's how it goes on big days.

We started at dawn right outside Merida, at Esparragalejo and Montijo dam. Picked up most herons and resident waterbirds pretty quick, and first quality of the day came in the form of three singing Western Olivaceous Warblers at Montijo.
We then drove south and checked the vineyards and olive groves south of Almendralejo. Our main target there was Rufous Bush Robin. Was really good to see - our first of the trip. They are so nice and rufous here, much brighter than the syriacus we get in Israel. A fine bird and a bimbo for Dan.

Rufous Bush Robin / Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin

Then we moved on to the Hornachos - a mountainous Dehesa region. We did spend several hours there, and racked up most important species. Highlights included Western Orphean Warbler (as well as Dartford and Subalpine), Spanish Imperial Eagles, Black Wheatears, 4 Chough and couldn't find Cirl Bunting, again! Hornachos were hard work, and we did work hard for almost every species we needed. But eventually our day list increased there considerably. I missed a viral photo opp - this chicken swallow was waiting to be fed by its dad, who chose to feed its sibling to the right.


We then headed over to the steppes of La Serena. It was already early afternoon, but luckily yesterday was a rather cold and overcast day, so bird activity was alright. We knew the area well after working there in recent weeks, and we got our targets fairly quickly - both bustards and both sandgrouse. It took us depressingly long to get our first Roller - so few of them around.
This Calandra Lark sat still for just long enough for me to pap it.


With a sheep in the background

After La Serena we headed north to Santa Amalia ricefields, via some embalses (dams). We were very disappointed with waterbirds - no new shorebirds or ducks. No migration at all. Along the way we did pick up some more random species.
Azure-winged Magpie is very common everywhere but I hadn't had a chance to get a photo till yesterday. Here it's true nature is exposed - a trash bird. But I still really like them.



We then headed down to the Guadiana river valley where we checked a couple of spots and added missing species such as Savi's Warbler and Little Bittern.
After dusk we searched for owls and nightjars south of Don Alvaro. Owls didn't play ball but Red-necked Nightjars put on quite a show. We had four singing males. One male flew up to a large Eucalyptus above us and started singing its somewhat manic 'tok-tok-tok...' song.


Then I got a more standard photo of another on the track - too distant so light was very weak.


We ended the day drinking beer on Fergus's balcony, listening out for owls. No owls came, but the beer was cold and the night was very pleasant. A lovely way to end a terrific, yet extreme and intensive day. It was hard work all day, nothing came easy. There was a complete absence of migrants - landbirds, shorebirds and ducks. Still, our daily total was 127 species - not too shabby I think. 
Huge thanks and appreciation to my team mates Fergus, Dan and Re'a. They all worked hard, found top birds and maintained high spirits all day long. Till next year!