Saturday, April 29, 2017

A day with a lifer can't be that bad, can it?

Today was our day off, and we ventured to western Extremadura in search of some quality birds. It was a long, exhausting day with generally unfriendly weather. We started off near Lobón, where the road to Montijo crosses over the Guadiana. My good friend Fergus discovered some singing Western Olivaceous Warblers there a few days ago. When we got there it was pissing down with rain. Dan and myself felt quite at home, but it was not great fun. We got our first western olly very quickly, and then another 4-5, but the birds were hiding deep in trees, understandably. It was pretty nasty. Tough to photograph. Later on it rain even harder, then it was just an annoying drizzle, then it hammered down with rain and then we buggered off. I was happy to see these birds - one of the few lifers waiting for me here in Iberia is now 'in the bag'. I expected a much larger-billed bird, which in the field wasn't very obvious. However, in the photos, the bill certainly looks big. Note also the brownish tones and long primary projection. They are pretty big! And their song doesn't sound anything like eastern olly; in fact it is very similar to the song of Reed Warbler.

Western Olivaceous Warbler

Broad bill

It was actually pretty birdy there, especially when the rain had slowed down. Tons of nightingales, many acros, some sylvias, singing Orioles, Penduline Pits, and a mega trip tick - Wren!

Before meeting Fergus in Merida to pick up keys for our next apartment, we had time for a quick look in Alange. It was a magical few minutes with Black Wheatear, Rock Buntings, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts all in the same spot. But the weather was still awful. The wheatear was perched high on top of the cliff. We had a quick look around the village for more wheatears but no success. The weather did improve though, and the view was fine.

We met up with Fergus in Merida, where we have already added Little Ringed Plover and Grey Wagtail to the apartment list. Then we headed south to the Hornachos Mts., in search of Cirl Bunting and Western Orphean Warbler. 

Beware of Lynce

Now it became very hot and very windy; the sun was harsh and the conditions were not great. We worked hard for little reward - I glimpsed a Cirl Bunting, and Dan a Western Orphean, but views were far from satisfactory. We added a few more trip ticks but it was pretty slow and disappointing overall. Nothing too special but I really enjoyed the local Long-tailed Tits of the Iberian race irbii - very richly toned below:

Huge awww factor on this baby tit

We returned to Alange for seconds, hoping to improve our views of Black Wheatear. With such strong wind we had little chance to connect with White-rumped Swift.  Next time. The wheatear was slightly more cooperative but I still have not nailed it.

Black Wheatear

Then it was the long way back to Campo Maior, with a weird sense of frustration and fatigue. In a couple of days we are done here in Alentejo and we move to work in Extremadura. Looking forward.

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...