Monday, April 24, 2017

Ticks and treats

It's been two weeks now since we arrived in Portugal. We are still working in northern Alentejo, based in Campo Maior. The weather is heating up, the grass is drying fast, and we need to find creative ways to stay focused and motivated to endure the long days in the field. New phenomena are the increasing amount of ticks we peel off, and the violent bee attacks we suffer. Living on the edge.

Work is going fine, but the birds seem to repeat themselves somewhat. So we seek for new playing fields in the little free time we have. Yesterday was our day off. We went to Alqueva dam which was quite a waste of time. We really did not see anything of interest, but we did add some trip ticks (or lifers for Dan and Re'a), such as Rock Sparrow, Short-toed Treecreeper, Egyptian Goose (boom!) and this stunning male Western Subalpine Warbler:

In the evening we tried for Red-necked Nightjar at Caia reservoir.  We heard one singing male in the distance, but couldn't connect with it. I am not satisfied yet with my encounters with this species. YET.

Another way to keep motivated is to try and improve my photos of the regular birds we encounter. Not easy when I'm always on foot, but at least I have lots of opportunities to try.

 Calandra Lark

The ubiquitous Corn Bunting - first one I bother to photo this year

Those eyes... 

An early morning stretch for this sweet Red-rumped Swallow: 

Sometimes when it gets especially slow, I do what European birders often do, and start paying attention to bird food, AKA butterflies. Dan enthuses me to try and ID them - he's really into that stuff.

Brown Argus

Iberian Marbled White

This evening I worked in an especially slow box. However there was a micro-fall of Northern Wheatears - 7 individuals! Bloody hell. This one actually did not perch on a fence! Just by a fence.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Migrants at last

A couple of days ago we left Castro Verde and headed north. Before leaving CV we worked in some peripheral sections of the SPA that were less rich than the central sections we had worked in. It was sort of an introduction to the low densities of steppe birds in the cereal and montado landscapes of northern Alentejo. We still had some bustards, larks and other steppe species but in smaller numbers.

Tawny Pipit

One for Dan - Clouded Yellow

Campo Maior, where we are based, is a lovely and picturesque town from Roman times. It has one of the largest castles in Portugal, and we live in a small apartment right below the castle. 

Every day we head out to survey the remaining patches of agro-steppe habitats in northern Alentejo. The region has transformed quite a bit since I last visited in 2015. More intensive agriculture, more permanent crops. And less birds. Near Campo Maior the small group of Great Bustards somehow holds on, but in Torre de Bolsa they are gone. Little Bustards are found in low densities. Sometimes they are found in sub-optimal habitats, and sometimes in really weird places. This poor male sang his little sad heart out in the middle of a recently-cut wheat field:

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Still it's a pretty landscape

Today we worked near Elvas. I found a small, loose colony of Collared Pratincoles, about 15 pairs, breeding in a potato field. They kept their distance in the middle of the field:

There are quite many Montagu's Harrier in this region (I even had a black-morph flyby today). Every time one passed over the potato field it was aggressively seen off by a horde of angry pratincoles:

Our points and transects today flanked some better vegetated habitats, and in them it was clear that suddenly there were migrants around, probably knocked down by some pre-dawn rain. Among the three of us we had Willow Warblers and Iberian Chiff, Western Bonelli's, Whinchats, Savi's Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, Garden Warbler and a few more. Nice! Today's eBird checklist is here. I had my lifer Red-necked Nightjar today - a day-roosting bird found by Dan; it didn't stay for photos sadly. Another cool bird we had a few of today is Melodious Warbler. One male showed really well as he sang on top of low vegetation, but the light was rubbish.

Short primary projection

A-typical Meldious habitat on the left, pratincole habitat on the right

Not a word about dowitchers...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Steppe up!

We are very lucky to work here in Castro Verde. This is the most beautiful and biodiversity-rich steppe region in this part of Iberia, or maybe in entire Iberia? Or in the world? Anyway it's fantastic here. We walk for many hours every day, and the reward is great birding and lovely landscapes. Here is a selection of some recent photos I took. I don't photograph that much because I have to work... but still I get some decent photo opps. Not like shooting from a hide or even a car, but I can't complain. As you may notice, in this part of the world it is possible to photo birds on a fence or in flight.

I will actually begin with the less spectacular group of birds, but they are ever-present and such good birds: larks. Commonest species is Calandra Lark, a magnificent mimic and one helluva lark. It's display flight is quite spectacular. They are found in good densities here, in pastures. In recent days, numbers of Short-toed Larks increased considerably too, and they are seen singing and displaying in good numbers in legume fields and dry pastures. Thekla Larks are found in the scrub-covered sections of the park. Theklas are birder's birds - notice the stubby, pointed bill, heavy breast streaking, general warm brown tones, and overall stocky structure.

Thekla Lark

This is how I see most Calandra Larks:

On the deck they are quite skittish

Greater Short-toed Larks are pretty mobile too, but sometimes they do settle down

Little Bustard is one of the focal species of my research this season. Contra to Great Bustards that are well-monitored, little is known on the conservation status of Little Bustard in Iberia. In some parts of Castro Verde they are still found in good densities, for instance today we had about  40 singing males in an area outside the park. The males are heard singing mainly early in the morning, but are usually well hidden in the tall grass and hard to see well. Occasionally we get a showy bird - this macho showed off by a main track as we drove in at first light. These photos have been heavily edited to compensate for the bad light, and are not as sharp as I would want them to be. The males give their fart-call while whip-lashing their heads back. This movement is so quick, so with my slow camera and low light I couldn't get a photo of the head all the way back. What a bird!

 I took this short video - sorry about the noisy soundtrack (no external mic):

We see many Great Bustards - Castro Verde is their stronghold in southwest Iberia. However I usually keep my distance from them not to disturb them, though sometimes I get some close encounters and flybys:

Moult score 29

The adult males are some gigantic beasts

Even here is Castro Verde life is not always sweet for steppe birds. Fences are a real hazard, especially for a heavy bird like Great Bustard. I found the remains of a dead bustard that colided with a fence on one of my transects:

Black-bellied Sandgrouse are another symbol of the Iberian steppes. They are most often seen in flight, so we count them mainly in transects and not in point-counts. They are always located by their distinctive bubbling flight call. They do favour dry pastures and legume fields where they may be seen on the ground from a safe distance.

Rocky outcrops hold scattered pairs of Western Black-eared Wheatears. Here are both morphs, the black-throated:

I find the white-throated morph much more attractive:

Yellow Wagtails are seen in small numbers in wetlands and creeks. Most are Iberian Yellow Wagtails. However, I am not sure which subspecies these are - at least the top bird looks more like flava, with a yellow throat and pale ear coverts and lores. Both were breeding, seen carrying food to nests. Quite a good local breeding record apparently.

When the temperatures rise, raptors usually take off and are seen in relatively good numbers and diversity (compared to UK...). We search for rueppell's among the commoner vultures - no success yet.

Black Vulture and Eurasian Griffon

Red Kites have not been found breeding here yet, but they certainly seem to be in the business:

Some more random birds:


Great Spotted Cuckoo

Spanish Sparrows

Just some nice opium-producers 

In contrast to the abundance of breeding birds, I am amazed by how few migrants we see. There are many breeding summer visitors, true (Lesser Kestrels, Bee-eaters, Nightingales etc.) but true migrants are extremely few and far between. Over the last week of walking, we had only one Tree Pipit, two Grasshopper Warblers, and one Northern Wheatear (in the Algarve).

On Thursday we move to work in northern Alentejo. Sadly, I expect to find there agro-steppe habitats in less-pristine state, and fewer associated birds. Stay posted!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Foreign visitors to the Algarve

Yesterday we took our day off and replaced the steppes of Alentejo with the saltmarshes, beaches and lagoons of the Algarve. It was a long and brilliant day, packed with quality stuff. We left very early to arrive at our first site, Salinas do Forte do Rato in Tavira in good time. It was pretty birdy there with lots of common shorebirds, some gulls and terns etc. Highlights for me were Iberian Yellow Wagtail that showed nicely, a flyby Audouin's Gull, and the best find of our day was this Roseate Tern in the bay - a pretty good record for mainland Portugal.

Iberian Yellow Wagtail

Roseate Tern - digiscoped from a long distance

Curlew Sandpiper getting into nice summer plumage

The local photographers learned the trick and placed ugly sticks in the middle of the dry saltpans for Bee-eaters to perch:

It was fun birding with Dan - he get's so excited (SIKKKKK!) by common Mediterranean species like Sardinina Warbler and Serin - his excitement infected me and I papped this Serin too:

In the bushes there were very few migrants, but these Common Waxbills were entertaining - our first sexy Cat C species of the day, such lovely birds aren't they?

We wanted to get to the Atlantic Coast to do some seawtaching and look for gulls on the beach. On Google Marta Rota looked like a good option but in fact there was nothing there, between the millions of people. We then made the right decision and joined local birders Thijs and Bruno. We did a quick circuit of the nature walk at the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa headquarters in Quinta de Marim, Olhão. It was very hot and we didn't see much of interest, but added a few species to our growing day and Portugal list. Non-bird hightlight was this fine butterfly - Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina):

 We then headed over to Quinta do Lago. What a strange place. Within the Beverly Hills of Portugal, the golf course lagoons are packed with birds. The specific lagoon where we visited hosted a Little Crake in the past couple of weeks, a national rarity. We halfheartedly searched for it, but I really enjoyed the huge number of very tame birds. Sadly, our failure with crakes continued later on.

Red-crested Pochard - a fine duck!

Snipe with one of the many tarrapins there

Purple Golf-chicken (AKA Western Swamphen)

Black-headed Weaver - what a stunner!

We had a quick look at Lagoa de Almargem, where we had several Audouin's Gulls. Quality! Terrible light and heat haze...

After a quick lunch we headed over to Silves, and tried our luck with the Sora. It was still reported last week, so we had hopes that it stayed. But we arrived there in high tide which is not right to look for it, and indeed we did not find it. 
Our next stop was Portimão Harbour, where the American Herring Gull is or was. The individual we saw is not going anywhere with its terrible wings. It was hanging around with all the other miserable gulls in the gull-hospice of Portimão. So many missing wings, legs, feet, fingers etc. The broken gulls there reminded me of the broken toys scene in Toy Story.

This is not an easy gull. I need to do some homework on it, but I must say I feel uneasy with the ID of this specific individual as American Herring Gull. This individual has a thin red orbital ring; and the leg colour - I am not sure what it is. Not pink, not yellow, some non-descript colour. Is it the same individual that was identified in winter? I am not sure. It could be a Yellow-legged Gull. On the other hand, the wing pattern is identical (but what terrible accident happened to it since?). Is it possible that with maturity and breeding season hormones it developed some yellow bill and a thin red orbital ring? Need to see - there is an interesting discussion on this bird in the Euro Gull Facebook group.

Compare the wing pattern to the photo here - identical

Most other gulls were standard Yellow-legs, and quite a few intermedius / graellsii Lesser Black-backs:

Anyway, after we had enough of the morbid gull experience, we headed over to Lagoa dos Salgados that was fantastic. Highlight was a fine drake Ring-necked Duck that had been found a few days ago (my second in the WP), but there was lots more to see. The lagoon held several Audouin's Gulls and Collared Pratincoles, and the few minutes of seawatching produced a Balearic Shearwater, two Great Skuas and a late Razorbill.

Ring-necked Duck

Digiscoped attempt

We headed back to Silves for a last try, but the tide was still high and no joy for us. Then the drive back to Castro Verde, and back to the steppes. More on that soon.
Many thanks to Thijs and Bruno for their help and company - a superb day. Two or three WP ticks, if you count Cat C's - not bad?