Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Beautiful Castro Verde

Spent most of today working in a couple of sites in Castro Verde in S Alentejo. A beautiful landscape, high-quality steppes, vast pastures, few fences, and lots of bustards. Also high numbers of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. We also had two 2cy Spanish Imperial Eagles, some Booted Eagles, Tawny pipits, Short-toed larks etc. A few mobile groups of babbler-like Azure-winged Magpies added colour to the day:

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Exceptionally yellow-throated Tawny Pipit

Male Great Bustard 

 Very good to see the general interest of the local communities in Great Bustard - figures and images everywhere, like in the small village of San Marcos:

Portugal is an interesting country. This is from Entradas:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A mega-lek and my daily lifer

This morning I worked with the huge lek near La Albuera in W Badajoz. It was really impressive with over 83 males and 117 females in one area. Very active display today, due to the warm sunny wether. Breeding is speeding up and I saw first copulations today.

The landscape is very aesthetic but very intensively cultivated, and there is a risk for the future of this sub-population with increasing intensification.

More Little Bustards this morning, including some nice display flights. Still don't have a good photo on the deck, but my flight shots are improving...

These two males chased each other for about an hour, often flying very high up. Both whizzed and whistled with their unique wingtip structure (see P7), very interesting behaviour (for me).

This is how it sounds like:

A good number of monties were around - a loose colony is breeding there:

FF - we were both surprised by each other:

Then I drove to Portugal via Villanueva del Fresno. Found this road-killed Beech Marten (Martes foina) close to the border:

Arrived in Castro Verde in the afternoon and had time for a first look around. Driving in I saw a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles but again they were too distant. More Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu's Harriers, Lesser Kestrels... I must admit that non-diverse steppe community is almost starting to bore...  Especially as there are virtually no migrants present on the steppes.
I walked a round in a nice patch of wet Montado (Dehesa) with good riparian habitat, and it actually held a few migrants. Highlights were a Western Bonelli's Warbler (lifer...), Nightingale, Redstart, a few Blackcaps and a Kingfisher.

Crag Martin
Great Spotted Cuckoo 

Eagle food (Red-legged Partridge)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Campiña Sur

Another full day out in the field doing bustard work. Today we wroked in Campiña Sur, in SE Badajoz. We worked in some leks in this extensive cereal bowl. Intensively cultivated landscape, but still holds a good amount of bustards. We had about 100 males today - not bad. Unfortunately, in normal fieldwork conditions, there are no photo opps of bustards. Either they are too distant, or they fly over from site to site:

Had too few Little Bustards, but this displaying male was nice:

In the afternoon we spent some time near La Encinilla, west of Campillo. We enjoyed great views of a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles (lifer!). At first the male caught a partridge, and perched on a dead tree to eat it. Then the female joined, he passed the partridge to her, and she continued munching on the partridge. Very cool scope views but way too distant and into the sun so no photos.
Then we checked Embalse de Azuaga and the bridge where Rio Satillo crosses the road towards Andalucia. It's a good site for White-rumped Swift but they probably hadn't returned yet so we didn't see any. It was pretty good there though, with a couple of Choughs, and a Western Subalpine Warbler - never seen this subspecies before:

In the evening we checked the wetland at Esparagalejos, NW of Merida, where a Crested Coot had been present for the last week or so. We couldn't find it but there were quite many birds around - about 10 nice and rosy Water Pipits, a couple of Yellow Wagtails (one was Iberian), and quite many shorebirds.
After dusk we looked for Red-necked Nightjars near Don Alvaro but none were present - they probably hadn't returned yet either.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Pocas avutardas y en Lesser Yellowlegs!

This morning saw me surveying Great Bustards again. We worked at Cuatro Lugares, further north. This is a diminishing site, with numbers very low there now. We had just three males there and a few more females. The future looks pretty grim there. A few more Little Bustards today, both sandgrouse, Golden Eagle etc.
In the afternoon headed down towards Merida where I am staying with a friend outside of Merida. In the evening we went to have a quick look at the Lesser Yellowlegs now present for a couple of weeks at Embalse de Alange. We got onto the bird quickly - great bird! And another species I was not expecting to see in Extremadura. Unfortunately we arrived there after sunset so light was shit - this is a terrible phonescoped shot:

Only my second-ever in the WP. I saw the 2nd for Israel back in 2008. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Muchas avutardas y dowitcher!

Quick update from Spain - limited internet access here. 
I want to begin with warm congratulations to the winning teams of the Champions of the Flyway race that took place yesterday in Eilat: Cape May Dippers and the JBO Orioles. Well done! I enjoy Spain very much but during the last few days my heart was in Eilat. Next year.

Yesterday I joined the census team working in the northern part of La Serena, near Orellana and Talarrubia. 
We met at Puebla de Alcocer. The old monastery there is an amazing bird hotel, or maybe better described these days as bird brothel. Everyone was having a good time there - huge rooftop orgy of Lesser Kestrels, White Storks and Spotless Starlings.

A spotless kind of love 

The census itself was rather slow with few Great Bustards (about 50) and no Little Bustards at all. I was impressed though by good density of Montagu's Harriers - up to 30 pairs were seen.

Montagu's Harrier - female

After we were done I headed north to Caceres, towards Sierra de Fuentes. Thanks to info from Rare Birds in Spain, I went to look for the Long-billed Dowitcher that had been present at Embalse de Guadiloba, near Caceres for some days. Took me some time to relocate it, but eventually had good scope views of it. Unfortunately, while I was trying to reposition myself all the flock it was in was spooked by a Marsh Harrier. They all came back (Dunlins, Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Redshanks, Greenshanks and a Blackwit) but the dowitcher. I searched for it for some more time but with no success. Anyway, what a cool bird! Certainly not a WP tick I was expecting to encounter here in Extremadura - I was hopimg to see it in Cley or Eilat.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Embalse de Guadiloba

Today I censused in the beautiful plains of Sierra de Fuentes. This is probably the densest site in Extremadura - we had over 550 Great Bustards today, including some impressive flocks. Still very cold and windy today so display is minimal. Little Bustards are doing pretty bad apparently - only about 50 today.

Quite a few vultures feeding on dead cows and sheep scattered on the plains:

Black Vulture

Sierra de Fuentes

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Steady day

Steadier day today after yesterday's extreme. In the first half of the day I worked the fine, rough plateaus N of Castuera, along the EX-103. Until about 10:00 the sun was out, and the weather was lovely. The bustards I saw responded accordingly and were more amorous than yesterday. I had a few leks (all very distant, but thanks to Swarovski Optik for the fab scope) and they had a few females around them, showing interest in the more ambitious display of the males. I also saw some small groups of Little Bustards that were getting into business as well.
 But at 10:00 the sun disappeared, and it became another grey, cold, wet and windy day. Still I had some more birds during the morning. Quite large numbers of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were N of Castuera. Booted and Short-toed Eagles were in some numbers today. A few Montagu's Harriers, Lesser Kestrels, Little Owls, Cuckoos and some other stuff - not bad. Still no sign of migrants on the ground.
Booted Eagle

Montagu's Harrier

In this part of Badajoz there are fences everywhere, so all birds are either on a fence, behind a fence or in front of a fence.
Impressive densities of Calandra Larks on the rough steppes:

Thanks Swarovski Optik! 

Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius m. meridionalis)

On the way back to Castuera almost hit an Egyptian Vulture feeding on a dead rabbit on the road. It sat there and waited for me to disappear.

In the afternoon checked the ridge above Benquerencia de La Serena, about 5km SE of Castuera (thanks Manuel for the tip!). Finally managed to get first views of Black Wheatears (tick). There's a territorial pair on the rocks above the village. They were very mobile and shy. Maybe for them it's easy to fly 500 meters back and forth along the ragged ridge, but I worked hard! And in the end only got this record shot from a mile away. Very cool birds, but I have an unfinished business with them. I will get a proper image of you, I promise!
Black Wheatear

Other typical mountain species there were Rock Buntings, several Blue Rock thrushes, many Crag Martins, and another Egyptian Vulture.

Benquerencia de La Serena

The Giant Transformers

So yesterday was spent in a hide in La Serena, Badajoz, organized by Manuel Calderon / Anser. Manuel brought me to the rough rocky hide before dawn, where I stayed for the next 14 hours. The weather was very bad almost all day. It started off very grey and dark, which was a shame, but at least windless. Later in the morning a fierce, relentless wind built up which didn't aid my situation in the hide, nor did the rain and hail storms that soaked me inside the hide... What happened to spring here?
Anyway, my main reason for getting into this hide is that this was my first opportunity to study my research species, Great Bustard, without time pressure and without having to do anything else: just watch and study. Unfortunately, because of the cold spell in the last couple of weeks, lekking hasn't really picked up and the males I saw were only half-dancing, and as a result no females were attracted to the male groups. I do hope that the weather improves during my stay here, and the birds get the show going.
The morning began with an impressive dawn chorus, mainly of Calandra Larks. When there was light enough, I spotted some small groups of semi-dancing male Great Bustards scattered on some hills around the hide. But still early in the morning, when the light was really shit, a group of 20 males walked past my hide, foraging and occasionally stopping for a quick dance. I assume that these dances are intended more towards cohortees than towards females. One of the males, a really large bull, came really close, perhaps 20 m away from my hide, and stopped. All the following images of him are full-frame.

It amazed me how within seconds, he transformed from a 'normal-looking' bird to an alien-thing. This sequence of four images was taken within about 5 seconds:

I am pretty sure he saw me in the hide - he was looking at the hide constantly.

Mr. Moustache

What a magnificent bird

For some unknown reason, in full frontal view he reminded me of a Russian M35 helicopter:

From Google

Another display of transformation:


Few seconds after

Then the group walked on and stayed the rest of the day on a distant hill, not doing much: foraging, resting, preening and occasionally dancing for fun. During the day I had some other birds in the area, including several flyover groups of both Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Lesser Kestrels, one Montagu's Harrier, and a few other bits and bobs.

In the afternoon another smaller group of males walked past the hide, this time slightly further away:

Some stopping for a quick dance:

I just love this rich rufous colour of the lower breast:

In the late afternoon the sun came out briefly, but sadly no birds were near the hide, so I had to settle for some more atmospheric shots: 

Some of my neighbours for the day:

Calandra Lark

Corn Bunting

I left temporary home after dark, in the rain, total of 14 hours. Not an easy day, all my body was aching and I felt like shit as I am still recovering from a nasty flu I caught before flying over. And also it has been some years since I last had to piss into a bottle... But in conclusion, especially after seeing my images and resting a bit, I can say that it was a great and interesting day.

Castelo Estremoz - from my drive across Portugal on the way here on Sunday: