Thursday, 31 March 2011

Wildlife Highlights of Coto Donana - 31 March 2009

One of my real highlights of wildlife watching occurred two years ago to the day in Coto Donana, Andalusia, wildlife watching with Mum. I had confidently predicted that we would see the Iberian Lynx, even though chances were close to zero. 

We had booked a day's birding tour with Jose Sanchez of Discovering Donana (highly recommended). Jose had quite rightly let us know in advance that the lynx was not only very unlikely but that as a professional guide in Donana he was not allowed to search for it during the cubbing season and if we saw one we would not be allowed to stop. This seemed pretty reasonable since it is by all accounts it was the rarest of cat species at the time. 

As it turned out, we had to drive through a known lynx area to get into the birding sites and since we wanted to be in the field for as long as possible we were passing through this area at first light. Unbelievably, as we stopped to watch a little owl in the gloom an Iberian Lynx appeared close by on one side of the track. The photo may be blurred, but given the fact that there was very little light at the time, I am delighted that it turned out at all. As you can see it is wearing quite a large radio collar for tracking by conservation scientists at Donana.


The cat then sauntered slowly across in front of us which led to a fairly ridiculous situation where the 'no stopping for lynx' rule seemed to break down a little. Presumably when the Donana authorities had decided this rule they hadn't considered that the lynx may be crossing in front of the vehicle concerned! Needless to say at this point our velocity was just about as low as possible... Just to add to the show the lynx then decided to indulge in some hefty territorial scratching on a nearby pine tree before melting away into the vegetation.
Of course, that was just the beginning of the day. I had a couple of target bird species that I wanted to see - the Red-knobbed Coots that I had seen from a highway in South Africa had never made it onto my list so I was pleased that Jose knew just where to go for one of these. Bird of the day was a pair of fantastic Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a species that I had missed seeing repeatedly in the past. Being familiar with the flight call, Jose picked them up as they flew in to an area of short sandy pasture where the male paraded his exquisite plumage long enough for us savour through the scope.

Another lifer that I was particularly pleased to see later in the day was the Spanish Festoon, a butterfly that definitely appears to be making a point about toxicity. Any insect that has birthwort (Aristolochia) as a larval food plant is probably not a good choice for dinner...

Not to be outdone, the plants saved their ace 'til last with our first sightings of the ever so inappropriately yet appropriately named Naked-man Orchid
Just a few highlights of a great trip - where next, Mum?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Skywatching for Big Birds

There have been a spate of records of big birds in the area recently. It all started with an escaped White Stork which was reported on 18th March in fields to the south of Edinburgh. News then filtered through that it reportedly flew over the house (although I wasn't at home at the time...). Two days later a Golden Eagle was also reported heading over Liberton. This news was a bit of a blow, especially since I worked out that I was out in the garden at the time... Not to be outdone, a White-tailed Eagle (presumably from the reintroduction programme) and a Common Crane have also been reported along the East Lothian coast.

So with all these big birds around what have I managed to see skywatching in the garden? Err, not much, although the first Common Linnets and Meadow Pipits of the year have started passing over the garden in the last week or so, and I have managed a garden tick in the shape of a squadron of Goosanders overhead (71st species for/from the garden). Most interesting, perhaps, was a Common Buzzard overhead on the 23rd March - a dark 3rd calendar year bird moulting into adult plumage with a wing shape and flight action reminiscent of a Golden Eagle. I would not be surprised if a poor view of this bird was the origin of of the eagle report a couple of days earlier (though I have no information on that report, so this is pure speculation, of course).

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Patch tick: Iceland Gull at Alnwickhill!

At last my thick-skinned efforts peering through the back gate of the Alnwickhill Water Treatment Works in Edinburgh have been rewarded. The only viewing point is distinctly unpleasant as it means standing at the edge of the road using a gap barely wide enough for a scope. To passers-by it appears unclear why anybody would stand with their face pressed up against an apparently solid metal gate and anybody who has enquired has had their prejudices confirmed when I reveal that I am looking at 'gulls'...

Today I was delighted to find Edinburgh's first-winter Iceland Gull loafing with the Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls on the causeway. While this site is only 4.5 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from this bird's usual haunts I was 'genuinely surprised' to see it here given how faithful it appears to have been to the lochans in the royal park (so is it reasonable to count this as a self-find?...).

The photos won't win any awards, but instead record the initial view as the bird was preening on the causeway followed by it repositioning itself in formation with a line of traffic cones.

Then it decided to move into a variety of positions that showed its nice short legs to best advantage...

What a great bird on the local patch!

Other birds at Alnwickhill included a male Goldeneye and 2 Oystercatchers. Later on, in the garden, three Waxwings and a smart-looking male Brambling added to the winter theme.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Winter buntings

Bird of the day on Sunday was a male Snow Bunting that was bombing around Musselburgh first thing in the morning. As soon as I heard the repeated 'teu' flight call I knew it was one of the winter buntings. As soon as I clapped eyes on its pied wings there was little doubt over which species this was.

On its second flypast the Snow Bunting added its second flight call - a 'trilidididid'. This call is quite different from the dry buzzy version of the call given by the Lapland Bunting. I was disappointed not to be able to nail the identification on the first call alone, especially given the ample opportunities for committing both to memory last autumn. Next time I'll be ready though as both of the calls of the Snow Bunting are more musical and pleasing to the ear.

Nov '11: Looking carefully at the above flight pic, it looks as if this individual is of the nivalis subspecies, given the extent of white in the wing.

I have now photographed both species in flight at Musselburgh this winter. Most shots end up looking like these two - as both species have a bounding flight pattern with the wings held in tightly against the body for most of the time. Snow Bunting on the left here and Lapland Bunting on the right.

 Maybe these shots do not show the species off to their best advantage, so here are a few more...

Here are Snow Buntings photographed at Barn's Ness in September and November 2010. This first photo is of the November bird and this appears to be one of the paler rumped Scandinavian subspecies nivalis, which although regular is apparently less common than the Icelandic insulae. Both subspecies breed in Scotland. Nov'11: The second bird is difficult to classify - probably insulae.

Finally, here is a Lapland Bunting photographed on Fair Isle in October. What a great autumn 2010 was for this species across much of Britain. I wonder whether there might be a surge of spring records this year as they move North(-West?). It is quite a few years since I found a male in breeding plumage on my old patch at Nercwys Mountain in North Wales, now that would be something to repeat.

Eider Common or Northern?

I was a man on a mission today as there was a bird that I wanted to refind...

On my brief visit to Musselburgh on Thursday I had paused to watch the courting Common Eiders. The conditions were calm and the birds' calls seemed deceptively loud. As I watched them I thought that I should check them for birds resembling borealis Northern Eider, and straightaway I picked up a male showing the distinctive fairy-cake sails. It is the bird on the top left of the picture below - it is just possible to make out one of the sails sticking up from its back. Obviously the range was too far for any decent shots through the DSLR...

I was aware that the identification of this form is far from straightforward but was not encouraged by its bill colour which seemed identical to the other eiders present. On the other hand, this individual did seem to be smaller than the other males. What was interesting was that while this male was indulging in the same courtship display as the other males, he seemed to be actively rejected by the females. Other males were accepted by the females and mating was observed.

Until identification criteria are clarified for this form little can be concluded other than this was an 'Eider with sails'. Whether this is a variant of Common Eider, an intermediate bird or a vagrant Northern Eider can not be concluded although given the number of birds showing this characteristic along the NE coast of Scotland, maybe the latter is unlikely.

I did pass news of this sighting on to the County Recorder on Friday and this clearly encouraged Stephen to check his local patch today. Check out the results here! An identikit lookalike individual if I ever saw one. Now, that just might go to show how common eiders with sails are. Or maybe, just maybe, it is the same vagrant Northern Eider now just a few miles down the coast. After all, despite my searching I certainly couldn't find it at Musselburgh today...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Buzzards over the garden

With spells of settled sunny weather the Common Buzzards have been more obvious soaring over the garden than for the last few weeks. Here are some shots of a darkish first winter bird (2CY) that has passed over a couple of times recently.

I am quite a fan of these juvenile Buzzards - they have a different silhouette to the adult birds, with longer tail and bulging secondaries compared to their narrower inner primaries. Here is a paler juvenile that passed over in September. Like the bird above, the less heavily marked trailing edge to the wing is another distinction from the adults.

This adult shows the contrasting darker trailing edge to the wing and slightly longer inner primaries and shorter tail giving the bird a more compact and less rangy appearance in flight.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Esk mouth at Musselburgh

I managed a fleeting trip to the mouth of the River Esk at Musselburgh first thing yesterday morning. It is one of those sites where there is always something of interest to see.

As soon as I opened the car door a movement across the water caught my eye as a Kingfisher hovered briefly then dived for food. A quick record shot and then it was off, flying up a street rather than the river...
This nice year tick was soon followed by a flock of Twite and a smart male Reed Bunting. A quick scan of the seaduck and then I was off home again. Though not before grabbing a picture of the resident Carrion Crow x Hooded crow hybrid...

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Black-headed Gull variation

As I was passing through Holyrood Park this morning, I sopped briefly at St Margaret's Loch to see whether Edinburgh's resident Iceland Gull was still in the habit of hanging around at the lower loch in the morning before heading up to Dunsapie for the afternoon. Sure enough it was still there chasing the smaller gulls for bread. Nice to see half a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls back, always the first of the summer migrants to return to these parts.

In amongst the Black-headed Gulls this rosy individual with a flush of pink on its chest and neck was eye-catching. A well-documented variant in this species, it reminded me of the apricot coloured Common Gull that visited the back garden a few times during the winter. Both of these birds were more striking in the field than the photographs suggest...

First-winter Black-headed Gulls are also well known for the variation in their plumage. The following shots shows two contrasting birds - the individual on the left with much more melanin in the primaries, secondaries and primary greater coverts.

I only had a few minutes to try for that 'perfect' image of the Iceland Gull but somehow don't thibnk I managed that today?....