Archive for May 2015

May 2nd – 4th 2015 – The Alps trip part 1 – The French Alps   1 comment

This is the first post describing Margaret and my trip around the Alps and to southern France. When we were invited to the wedding of Margaret’s nephew Marc Hörburger to Elisabeth Lau on May 15th we decided to do a full 18 day trip and make the most of sightseeing and birding in this wonderful part of the world.

Due to an early flight we stayed overnight at a hotel near Heathrow on 1st May and arrived in Zürich, Switzerland late morning the next day. After the bad experience I had hiring a car with Europcar two years ago I specifically avoided them and chose a company called Unirent. Imagine my dismay when I found out that Unirent was administered by Europcar! We have yet to find out whether history will repeat itself or whether we had a trouble-free car hire this time (certainly nothing untoward happened to the car, but there again nothing untoward happened in 2013 either!)

The plan was to visit the high peaks of the Swiss Alps first, then go to the French Alps for Rock Partridge (which as the last post explained was the last European bird that I yet to see) before heading into Italy and reaching Austria via the Italian Lakes. The problem was a week of rain was forecast and there seemed no point in trying to visit the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn if we couldn’t see them.

At the last-minute we decided head straight for the French Alps and then if the weather didn’t improve, drive south to the Mediterranean coast.

 

IMG_6839 Vizille

Our first night was spent in the little town of Vizelle south-east of Grenoble close to this charming chateau.

IMG_6020 St Christophe hike

The following day’s forecast was spot on and it rained for the entire morning, but we drove to the village of St Christophe and started the hike up the mountain to the site I had been given for Rock Partridge. The early stages were easy enough as we followed the path alongside this stream and through birch woodland.

IMG_6007 St Christophe hike

The track carried on up, climbing some 300m above the starting point. Margaret gave up about a third of the way up but I pressed on.

IMG_6010 St Christophe hike

After about 90 minutes I reached the site, a rocky outcrop above a scree slope. Some judicious use of a recording gave an immediate response, but the bird was hidden between the nearby outcrop and the more distant ridge.

IMG_6011 St Christophe hike

Climbing the outcrop was out of the question, so my only option was to descend a bit and cross the scree slope which was quite slippery due to the rain. Being on my own and having no phone signal I was quite nervous, as a slip could end in a broken ankle or worse. I left my waterproofs, scope, rucksack and camera behind in case anything would unbalance me and crawled over the loose rocks. Yes, I got a good view of the calling bird, which was as I thought in the hidden gully, but of course no photos. See the previous post for a photo of Rock Partridge from the internet.

IMG_6024 French village

I was back at the car by early afternoon wet, but unscathed and delighted to have seen this bird at last. We decided to try another area for Rock Partridge a little to south where we thought they might be visible from the road, to give Margaret a chance of seeing one and so spent the afternoon driving through a succession of French alpine villages. Whilst they might not have the chocolate box lid perfection of Swiss alpine villages, these French one have their own charm and we stopped several times to wander about.

IMG_6855 Chapelle-en-V valley hotel view

Eventually we stopped for the night at St Firmin, although finding the proprietor of the town’s only hotel was a bit of a mission. Languages were always my weak point and trying to communicate with the hotel’s gardener using (failed) O-level French that hasn’t been used for nearly 50 years was problematic. Anyway, once sorted out we had a lovely view from our room and even saw a Goshawk fly past.

IMG_6854 Chapelle-en-V valley hotel view

The following day we explored the valley as far as Chapelle-en-Valgaudmar but saw no sign of Rock Partridges. We did however see a Chamois perched high above us and a number of alpine birds.

IMG_6866 Chapelle-en-V valley

Although the weather was deteriorating we continued towards the head of the valley.

IMG_6862 Chapelle-en-V valley

The recent heavy rain has swollen the streams and waterfalls abounded ….

IMG_6896 Chapelle-en-V valley

…. but with the rain and spray from the waterfall in the strengthening wind it was hard to keep the camera lens dry.

IMG_6901 Chapelle-en-V valley

We eventually reached the head of the valley where we saw some Alpine Chough, a Rock Bunting, Western Bonelli’s Warblers and Crag Martins ….

IMG_6882 Alpine Marmot

…. but the only thing that came close enough for photos was this rather wet Alpine Marmot.

With the forecast still giving rain for the next few days we thought it best to leave the Alps behind for now and head south. The Camargue and the stony plain of La Crau seemed a good option, the only trouble was we wouldn’t have time to give this extensive area the justice it deserved, but we would try!

 

Rock Partridge – my last European bird?   Leave a comment

Over the years I have got to see almost all the birds of Europe (at least somewhere in the world) but one remained elusive – Rock Partridge. Because of its shyness and difficult to access habitat, Rock Partridge remains one of the least observed birds on the continent. The fact that it closely resembles the easy to see Chukar of the Middle East doesn’t add to its desirability for many, but for some years now its been my most wanted European bird. I tried at a site in Austria two years ago without success (see https://gryllosblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/july-5th-21st-austria-and-italy-with-short-visits-to-germany-hungary-and-san-marino/). Since then some reliable sites in Croatia and central Italy have come to my attention, but as we were in the Alps anyway for Margaret’s nephew’s wedding, I thought it made sense to check out some areas in the French Alps. I’ll include some photos of the French Alps in the next post and concentrate in this one on my claim that Rock Partridge is my last European bird, just to say that after a stiff climb I saw one well near St Christophe, south-east of Grenoble on 3rd May.

Rock_Partridge Martin Flack Croatia.4

Due to the circumstances I will outline in my next post, I was unable to photograph the Rock Partridge but I got a view almost as good as this. This is the nominate race which is found in the Balkans whilst I saw the race saxitalis which occurs in the Alps. A third race whitakeri occurs in Sicily. Photographed by Martin Flack in Croatia, taken from the Internet Bird Collection.

So is this my last regularly occurring European bird? Well firstly there are several species that breed in Europe that I have only seen outside of Europe, for example Black-winged Kite (breeds in Spain, seen Morocco and many other places), Little Buttonquail (has bred in Spain, seen in Cambodia) and Little Swift (breeds in Spain, seen many places in Africa) and several others, but I am talking about whether I have seen the species anywhere within its world range.

There is another European bird that I need to see: Moltoni’s Warbler, this is a recent split from Subalpine Warbler. The chances are that I have seen this bird already before I knew about the possibility of a split but I cannot be 100% sure. I tried to locate one in Piedmont in NW Italy on this trip without success, but we are going to Mallorca next spring for a few days and should be no problem there. See http://www.birdwatch.co.uk/categories/articleitem.asp?item=1022

Also my claim to have seen every European bird depends on your definition of Europe. Is it a geographical unit, an economic one or do we include all the countries which take part in the Eurovision Song Contest? (in which case that would include Israel – I have never understood how Israel can qualify as European by any definition.) What about Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Most definitions include Turkey west of the Bosphorus and Georgia and Azerbaijan north of the highest ridge of the Greater Caucasus mountains in Europe, thus including northernmost Georgia and Azerbaijan. So there is another bird I haven’t seen that might just be considered European; Caspian or Hycranian Tit. This is a recent split from Sombre Tit and occurs in northern Iran and in eastern Azerbaijan. I have yet to find out if it occurs on the northern slope of the Caucasus. Having already birded in Georgia and Armenia I will have to decide if I want to go back to that region for a bird that looks very like the Sombre Tits I have seen elsewhere.

And then there are birds that are split by the Dutch national checklist committee but not by the major world checklists, such as Sicilian Rock Partridge (yes, a Rock Partridge still occurs on the want list), Mediterranean Storm Petrel, Slender-billed Barn Owl and Madeira Barn Owl and Lilford’s Woodpecker (split from White-backed) but none of these have passed the seven point test as used in the new Illustrated Checklist see http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/birdlife-and-lynx-publish-first-ever-illustrated-world-bird-checklist. Also in this category are Hierro and Palma Blue Tits but of course the passerine volume of the Illustrated Checklist won’t be published until 2016 (a recent genetic paper has indicated that Palma Blue Tit, but not the Hierro one deserves full species status).

There are a few vagrants to Europe that I haven’t seen, although they don’t fall within the category of ‘regularly occurring’, these include – Tristan Albatross, Ascension Frigatebird*, Relict Gull, Aleutian Tern*, Horned Puffin*, Parakeet Auklet, Red-throated Thrush*, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, African Desert Warbler and possibly Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (views the Portland bird did not exclude Pale-legged Leaf-warbler) and Pallas’ Rosefinch. The birds marked with an asterisk are birds on the British List that I have yet to see.

Also there are a few birds, that although I am confident that I have seen them, I would like better views, these include Spanish Imperial Eagle, Houbara Bustard and Balearic Warbler, in each case I thought I had seen the species concerned on previous trips only to later find out it had been split and perhaps I made less of an effort to secure better views as a result, although in at least one case it was just bad luck.

So the conclusion is – I might have seen the regularly occurring birds in Europe, but there are still enough loose ends to keep me busy for some time yet!

Caspian_Tit greyowliran

Caspian Tit, whether it occurs in Europe or not its still on the wanted list. Photographed by Greyowl in Iran. Taken from Bird Forum Opus.

20th May 2015 – Red-footed Falcon Wareham   Leave a comment

Margaret and I have just returned from a two week trip to the Alps and the south of France which culminated in attending Margaret’s nephew’s wedding in Donbirn, in western Austria.

One of many bird species we saw whilst in the area was the beautiful Red-footed Falcon, a species that breeds from easternmost Austria eastwards across the steppes of Central Asia. Little did I expect that within a day and half of returning to the UK I’d be watching one just seven miles from my home at Wareham.

With most of my gear still unpacked I left the house without my camera, after all I reasoned it was going to be a spot in the distance and hardly worth photographing. How wrong I was as it gave wonderfuly close views at time, but Ian Ballam has kindly allowed me to use a selection of his shots.

Red-footed Falcons tend to migrate further to the west in spring than in autumn and turn up in Britain with some regularity in late spring. That said, although I have seen eight in the UK, it is 23 years since I last saw one in Dorset and this was my first one in the Poole Harbour area.

9536RFF5IanBWareham

Red-footed Falcon. Second calendar-year female. Wareham Dorset 20/5/15 – Photo by Ian Ballam

9515RFF1IanBWareham

Red-footed Falcon. Second calendar-year female. Wareham Dorset 20/5/15 – Photo by Ian Ballam

9521RFF2IanBWareham

Red-footed Falcon. Second calendar-year female. Wareham Dorset 20/5/15 – Photo by Ian Ballam

9523RFF3IanBWareham

Red-footed Falcon. Second calendar-year female. Wareham Dorset 20/5/15 – Photo by Ian Ballam

9525RFF4IanBWareham

Red-footed Falcon. Second calendar-year female. Wareham Dorset 20/5/15 – Photo by Ian Ballam

And just for comparison here is a shot of an adult male I photographed at the Bodensee in westernmost Austria on 17/5/15

 

IMG_8301 RFF

Red-footed Falcon adult male

IMG_8299-RFF

Red-footed Falcon adult male

IMG_8271-RFF

Red-footed Falcon adult male

 

The trip to the Alps was a photographers dream and of course I have many hundreds of photos to edit. I managed three ‘ticks’ a new bird, a new mammal and a new country. I’ll be posting more on that soon.

Posted May 21, 2015 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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Late April 2015 – local birding and ringing   Leave a comment

With just a few weeks between our return from the USA and the upcoming get together with Margaret’s family in Austria for her nephew’s wedding, spring birding and ringing, has of necessity, taken a back seat. However I have managed a few trips out in the field and three ringing visits to Durlston (it would have been more but I was hampered by strong winds for much of the time). This short post highlights some of the more interesting birds ringed.

P4260336-Portland-Bill

I made two visits to Portland and later to Lodmoor and or Radipole and was able to catch up with some of the spring migrants. Here in a photo taken in spring 2014 a group of birders are scanning for seabirds/passage migrants at the Obelisk at Portland Bill. On my last visit I saw Great and Arctic Skuas, Manx Shearwater, Common Scoter, Whimbrel and Sandwich Terns passing this point as well as the commoner or resident species like Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Shag, Gannet, Fulmar and Kittiwake.

IMG_5971-Mordon-Bog

The area round Mordon Bog in Wareham Forest is a favourite of mine and although it hasn’t delivered many new birds for my year list recently, birding here is always a pleasure. Dartford Warbler, Woodlark and breeding grebes and ducks on the nearby lake are always nice to see and a heard only Cuckoo added enjoyment. I will have to leave it until my return from the Alps to see Hobby and Tree Pipit though.

IMG_5972-Leswh

Spring ringing at Durlston has always been a hit or miss affair. Unlike Portland migrants seldom seem to linger and we get far fewer birds than in Autumn. Various hypotheses based on the geographical positions of the two headlands have been put forwards. A small number of Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have been trapped as well as the five species shown in this post. This Lesser Whitethroat was ringed on 21/4/14 and was retrapped almost to the day and presumably breeds somewhere at Durlston.

IMG_5975-White

Common Whitethroats are as the name suggests, a much commoner birds with anywhere from 50 -100 pairs in the Park. Young birds have dark eyes but by the spring both second-calender year birds and adults have the same eye colour. A few can still be aged on the colour of the outer tail, white in adults, fawn coloured in second year birds, as having a complete moult after breeding these will be the same feathers that they migrated with in the autumn. The dark grey head is indicative of a male but many intermediates between this bird and the brown head of a typical female occur.

IMG_5993-Garwa

Garden Warblers belong to the genus Sylvia along with Common and Lesser Whitethroats (actually they are not warblers at all but babblers – but that is a different story). Unlike their congeners they undergo a partial moult post breeding and both adults and young undergo a complete moult in Africa. Thus adults are abraded when they migrate to Africa in autumn but both adults and second year birds are pristine on the return, as can be seen by the fresh pale tips to the primaries, secondaries and tertials and so cannot be aged.

IMG_5989-Common-Redstart

I was pleased to ring this female Common Redstart on the 23rd of April as we seldom trap many in the spring….

IMG_5987-Black-Restart

….but far more rewarding was its the capture of its cousin, a female Black Redstart. This was the first Black Redstart to be ringed at Durlston and the first I have seen in the hand. Common Redstarts breed in mature woodland, our migrant birds are probably heading for Wales and NW Scotland. Black Redstarts however are seen in the UK as winter visitors, summer visitors and passage migrants. They prefer rocky outcrops, cliffs, abandoned buildings, industrial sites etc to breed but are nowhere common. A pair has bred on the cliffs at Durlston for years but are never seen away from the immediate area. It is far more likely that this bird was a passage migrant.

We have fewer ringers to man the ringing site at Durlston this year but come the autumn I intend, weather permitting, to put in as much time as I can to help monitor migration at this outstanding location.