Friday, April 28, 2017

Conservation ecologists know no boundaries

Sorry for the recent slow rate of new posts. I am very busy with fieldwork and have little time to blog. Anyway, in recent days we worked both in Alentejo and in an adjacent section of Extremadura, near Olivenza. It is interesting to witness conservation issues in different colours and flavours. I can't wait to analyse my data, to see if the differences we witness in land-use and infrasturcture affect steppe bird communities too. Generally, in the Olivenza region of Extremadura things are even worse than in northern Alentejo. More on this below.

In most areas we visit Little Bustards are seen, albeit in low densities. They are such stunning birds, I can't get enough of them. Yesterday evening the light was perfect, the weather was lovely, and these two males chased each other in hot pursuit, giving their whizzing wing flaps. Note the unique structure of the primaries that creates this special sound - it is not moult. They were so busy with each other that they did not pay attention to me and made several (relatively) near passes.

Interestingly, the offensive male chasing the other off was less bright:

Looking good on the deck too:

Little Bustard is of serious conservation concern. In a recent study by SEO (BirdLife Spain), a decline of 50% in population size was noted since the last census 10 years ago. A similar trend occurred in Portugal too. These declines will surely affect the global conservation status, that is currently Near Threatened

Work in Olivenza was very difficult, with complicated access to the study sites, too many fences, no field fringes or tracks to walk on, and extremely intensive agriculture, with very little pastoral land. The (almost) only good thing there is the abundance of Melodious Warblers in weedy field edges. We also had several Spectacled Warblers in shitty habitats.

Melodious Warbler 

Typical scenery of NW Badajoz. Powerlines and hay fields. Hay fields were shown to be ecological traps. Hay fields are cut early in the season, when still green (note the mower in the back). Birds breeding in these fields lose their nests. Check this interesting study by Nuno Faria et al. (2016).

Apart for making my photos ugly, fences are a serious cause of bird mortality. More fences, more mortality. This unfortunate Moorhen found its death on a fence in the middle of a pasture:

And to finalize the morbid theme, this morning I found a dead fox cub by its den - don't know the cause. Maybe poison?

But there are some good things happening too, and we see fine birds and mammals. We are working in full power, and hopefully our data will help conservation here. Yesterday I saw a Polecat (too quick to pap), and the other day I had three Choughs near Vila Fernando in Alentejo that were quite unusual. 

Some random bird photos from recent days: 

Woodlarks are present in low densities in Montado / Dehesa habitat 

Red-rumped Swallow

Check the huge and clean white rump of this continental European Stonechat:

And his missus:

Some dramatic sunsets recently

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!