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Southern Florida – part one: 18th-19th February 2020.   2 comments

Back in late 2019 I had no idea of the impending storm brewing in China and couldn’t imagine that within five months international travel and indeed most travel, would be banned for a year or more.

I was looking for a bird tour in late February/March and whittled down the possibilities to two; either remote and little visited areas of Borneo or Guyana and Suriname in northern South America. In the end I went for the latter which was a good idea, because as far as I can tell the Borneo trip didn’t go, whether that was from lack of bookings or cancellation due to the pandemic I don’t know.

So what’s this to do with Florida? I have paid a number of visits to the USA but my only time in Florida was limited to a few hours on the way to and way back from my first trip to Costa Rica in 1981. Florida has a number of bird species found nowhere else in the ABA area (USA, Canada and Greenland as defined by the American Birding Association) but all but one, the Florida Scrub-jay can be easily found in the Neotropics. But although I don’t make a habit of visiting the ABA area just to up my ABA list, whilst I was there I thought I might as well target the ABA ticks as well.

But the question was when to go, there were two bird species and one mammal, the bizarre Manatee, that I really wanted to see. If I went in the summer I could see Antillean Nighthawk, a bird that I have missed on all my trips to the Caribbean (as it doesn’t arrive on the breeding grounds until late April) and the Scrub-jay – but the Manatees would be well offshore in the warmer weather. If I went in the winter I could see Manatees and the Scrub-jay but not the Nighthawk. Margaret had no interest in going as she had lived in Florida for several years in her previous life, so I couldn’t turn it into a family holiday.

In the end I decided the best thing to do was to visit Florida for a few days on my way to Guyana this February and hope I could see the Nighthawk on a future visit to the Caribbean, so I planned for three and a half days birding in southern Florida.

 

The direct flight from Heathrow arrived in the late afternoon, which was of course, late evening UK time. All of the eastern cost of Florida encloses the Intracoastal Waterway. In fact this sheltered waterway can be navigated from Brownsville in Texas all the way up to Baltimore. When Margaret first visited the USA she lived on a 33ft yacht in which she journeyed all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore.

 

Accommodation on these islands and on the outer banks of the lagoon is reserved for the ultra-rich. Initial driving in the USA is always problematic as you adjust to driving on the right (or is it wrong?) side of the road. But exiting the airport at dusk into a multilane highway system in the rush hour was always going to be a bit of a nightmare, but I soon found my rather shabby motel. I was later told this was the type of motel that you could book by the hour for whatever nefarious deeds that you had in mind, but that didn’t matter, it was a convenient place to rest. Due to the time difference it was only 2030 when I went to bed but I was away by 0430 the next day and on the road north.

I drove 88 miles north to Jonathon Dickinson State Park, which I had been told was a good site for the jay, but I arrived far too early. Whilst waiting for it to open I birded along the road seeing species like Palm Warbler (above), Pine Warbler and Myrtle Warbler – a species I’ve seen on Scilly in the UK in the distant past.

 

Another common species was Northern Mockingbird. Amazingly one of these turned up in Devon in the UK this February but we were in the middle of a Covid lockdown at the time. Some chose to break the rules but I stayed put until they were relaxed and visited just before Easter. This was the third British record of this species (almost certainly ship-assisted) but the other two weren’t twitchable and so it has generated a lot of interest. Unlike the individual in the photo the one in Devon had a normal shaped upper mandible! Postscript – after writing this earlier today I heard that the Mockingbird has left Devon and has been relocated an equal distance to the east of me in West Sussex!

 

Once in the park it only took about 30 minutes to find a pair of Florida Scrub-jays.

 

Originally considered one species the ‘Scrub Jay’, it has now been split into four with Island Scrub-jay only on Santa Cruz Island off California, California Scrub-jay in the westernmost Lower 48 and Baja California, Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay in interior western USA and central Mexico and this species which is confined to south-central Florida. Clearly there is a research program going on here as both birds were colour-ringed.

 

I spent some time looking around the rest of the park hoping to see a variety of birds, I had some success eg with this Anhinga but I was later to regret that I didn’t drive back south and go for the Manatees at West Palm Beach.

 

I had booked a boat ride on Lake Kissimmee, a few hours drive to the north, for 1500 so to allow plenty of time I set off early. I arrived with loads of time to spare and birded along the access road and around the dock for a couple of hours.

 

Eastern Meadowlarks and …

 

… Loggerhead Shrikes were easily seen along the access road …

 

… and lots of American Kestrels.

 

Along the shore of Kissimmee Swamp I saw …

 

… Great Blue Heron …

 

… and Wood Stork bathing in the hot sunshine. The former of these two birds is common throughout the Nearctic region but the Wood Stork is (outside of Florida and southernmost California) almost entirely Neotropical. However I already had the species on my ABA list as many years ago, circling over Miami after a trip to the Caribbean, I saw a flock out of the plane window!

 

It wasn’t just the herons and storks that were sunbathing in the hot temperatures, a flock of Ring-billed Gulls had all turned to face the sun and were panting in the high temperatures, either that or I had chanced on a Ring-billed Gull choral group! This species has turned up so regularly in the UK in recent years that it has been dropped as an official rarity. I’ve seen 22 in the UK and it could have been a lot more if I’d have put the effort in.

 

A Forster’s Tern perched on sign, another species I’ve seen in the UK but only four times.

 

White Ibis fed around the margins of the lake.

 

This is a widespread species in Central America and Mexico, the Caribbean and northern South America but in the ABA area its confined to the Gulf Coast, Florida and the coast north to the Carolinas.

 

The related Glossy Ibis is more widespread being found in many parts of the Old World from Europe to Australia, including these days, occasionally in the UK.

 

However in the Americas it is largely confined to a narrow strip from Maine to eastern Texas. As there is another closely related species, White-faced Ibis further west then it may be that Glossy Ibis is a relatively recent colonist of the New World.

 

Ubiquitous throughout the whole of the Americas is the rather ugly Turkey Vulture.

 

One of my first big twitches in the UK occurred in 1979 when I went down to Cornwall to see the UK’s first Belted Kingfisher which over wintered on the River Camel. This species can be sexed by presence (female) or absence (male) on a chestnut belt on the breast, which isn’t much help here as the breast is hidden.

 

There are four species in the family Anhingidae, the ones in Africa, the Orient and Australasia use those geographic terms along with the name Darter, however the one in the Americas takes its name from Brazilian Amerindian for ‘snake-bird’ – Anhinga. This group of birds differs from cormorants by their long necks which can be shot forwards at great speed to spear rather than grab fish.

 

Soon it was time to head out onto the water …

 

… earlier there had been a question as to whether the boat would go or not as I was the only person interested, but another couple had booked, so it was ok. The boat, a sort of hovercraft with a huge fan at the rear, could skim over all the marsh vegetation in a way no normal boat could, but it was mega-noisy hence the ear protection.

 

With my lifer (the jay) under-the-belt it was time to look for some of the species that makes visiting Florida essential for ABA birders, starting with Purple Gallinule.

 

Not to be confused with what used to be called ‘purple gallinule’ in the Old World and which is now treated as six species of ‘swamphen’, this bird is a colourful cousin of our Common Moorhen. I’ve seen it before in Texas and many times in the Neotropics but these were the best views I’ve ever had of it.

 

Another widespread bird that is only found in Florida outside of the Neotropics is the Limpkin. Limpkins have an unusual flight style in which the wing is usually held above the horizontal and the up-stroke is faster than the down-stroke.

 

Perhaps one of Florida’s most iconic birds is the Snail Kite, (once known in the States as Everglades Kite, but as it occurs as far south as Argentina it’s not a very appropriate name).

 

The kites were visible almost constantly whilst I was at the lake.

 

Males have this slate grey plumage – note the thin and highly curved bill …

 

… that has evolved to winkle apple snails out of their shells.

 

This Snail Kite with a very broad supercillium and spotted breast is a juvenile. Females are similar but with a narrower supercillium and heavily streaked breast.

 

Other species commonly seen included Great Blue Heron …

 

… and Snowy Egret which differs from our Little Egret by its bright yellow iris and lores, yellow on the feet extending up the tarsus and even (as can be seen here) the tibia and more but shorter plumes on the head. There has been one record of the species in the UK, in Scotland in 2002, whilst there has been two records of Great Blue Heron both on Scilly (2007 and 2015) …

 

… however a most unexpected fact is that the ‘type specimen’ of American Bittern (ie the first one to be collected for scientific reasons) was shot in 1804 at Puddletown in Dorset, UK,  just 15 miles from where I live.

 

I had the most wonderful views of American Bittern from the boat, I have seen this species before in the ABA area and the UK but never this close.

 

Another heron seen from the boat was Little Blue Heron, again this has been seen in Britain and Ireland, just the once in Co Galway in 2008. Of all the five American heron species seen in the UK and Ireland I’ve only seen two back home; Green Heron and American Bittern.

 

There were also a good number of Great Egrets on the lake. Whilst widespread throughout much of the world its only been the last 15 or so years that they have become regular in the UK. So far there’s no evidence that a New World Great Egret has made it to Britain but they are separable on bare part colouration and plumes during the breeding season and are probably a different species from the Old World ones (with the Australasian ones being a third species.)

 

There were other raptors around the lake, I usually have difficulty in identifying all the mid-sized American raptors because I mainly see them briefly when driving but here in the south the commonest species is Red-shouldered Hawk. This is an immature.

 

But there was no difficulty identifying this magnificent bird …

 

… I tend to associate Bald Eagles with boreal forests, so it was a bit of a surprise seeing two breeding pairs just a few degrees north of the tropics. I have previously seen them on the Oklahoma/Texas border but that was in winter.

 

I saw lots of other species from the boat from the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackle …

 

… to a terrapin with the wonderful name of Florida Red-bellied Cooter.

 

Of course no visit to a Florida wetland would be complete without views of Alligators, big ones …

 

… baby ones …

 

… and some very close views indeed.

 

There were a number of small waders out in the marsh. When I pointed them out to the boatman he replied that he ‘didn’t do peeps’ but closer views revealed them as Least Sandpipers mainly on account of the yellow legs.

 

One of the highlights of the boat trip was really close views of a nesting Sandhill Crane. This species is migratory over most of its range, wintering in southern USA and Mexico and breeding in the north from eastern Canada to eastern Siberia. However there is a resident population in Florida and Cuba.

 

The boatman convinced me that this sitting bird was used to the boats and didn’t move at all as we passed by.

 

Back on dry land there were a couple of Limpkin in a paddock close to the dock.

 

This ibis-like bird isn’t related to the ibises at all but to the cranes, rails and gallinules, thus its taxonomically closer to the Purple Gallinule above that to the White Ibis and Glossy Ibis shown earlier in this post.

 

After leaving the lake I stopped a few times along the access road seeing a range of species, Eastern Phoebe …

 

… Savannah Sparrow (I once saw an ‘Ipswich Sparrow’ a localised race of Savannah Sparrow, at Portland Bill in Dorset – first record for the UK) …

 

There were also a good number of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields.

 

Back in 2015 we went to Kearney in Nebraska to see the huge gathering of migrating Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River. In Florida I saw about 40 Sandhills, in Nebraska we saw 150,000!

 

From time to time I mention that this bird or the other has been ‘split’ ie is now treated as a full species when formerly it was treated as a subspecies. Of course the opposite happens, sometimes two species are found out to be a single species and are merged or ‘lumped’. This has happened since I went to Florida with the Northern and Southern Caracaras being lumped into Crested Caracara. The two former species were separated by the Amazon rainforest but as deforestation continues the two ‘species’ met and interbred. It’s likely this is a case of incomplete speciation, given another few tens of thousand years of continuous separation perhaps the speciation of the two forms would have been complete.

 

I headed back south, I didn’t find any motels in the area, indeed the one I had planned to stay at was in ruins after having been hit by a truck a few months earlier. I asked about motels at a gas station but was told I was ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and not to expect such things. I continued back south on the turnpike until tiredness and hunger took over so I stopped just outside Fort Pierce. The first motel I tried was mind-numbingly expensive but I found another at a more reasonable cost. Whilst checking in I told the receptionist I was heading down to West Palm Beach the following day to look for manatees when a guy queuing behind me said ‘no need to go all that way, there’s some just down the road from here, I saw them this morning’.

So what happened the next day and the two days after that will be the subject of my next post.

 

 

 

 

Madrid and Toledo, Spain: 11th-14th January 2020.   Leave a comment

Following our successful trip to Southern Spain to see the Iberian Lynx and lots of birds (see previous post) Margaret and I decided to stay for in Madrid for a further three nights so we could visit some of the tourist sites.

 

So we would be close to the start point for our bus tour the following day we stayed at a hotel near the bullring, a little way out of the centre. We caught the metro to ‘Sol’ and walked the short distance via Plaza Mayor (above) to the Sunday Market at El Rastro.

 

Margaret had asked to visit this market, which was fine, only problem that it was bitterly cold, probably under -5 C and as we were going to spend the rest of the day indoors we didn’t take all our warm clothes.

 

Margaret managed ok but I just shivered for the duration and was so happy to find a shaft of sunlight between the building where I could thaw out a bit.

 

I needed a pair of woollen gloves not woollen cacti!.

 

With the temperature rising above freezing we set off for the Paseo del Prado, one of Madrid’s main and most attractive boulevards.

 

We continued on to the Reina Sofia art gallery which specialises in 20thC art where we were delighted to find that admission was free for seniors. We found most of the exhibits difficult to appreciate, being mainly abstract but there were a few exceptions (and it was because of these exceptions that we there) including several Salvador Dali paintings including ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking’. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

and ‘Face of the Great Masturbator’. I am not a great fan of abstract modern art but I make an exception for Salvador Dali whose surrealistic masterpieces I really admire. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

However the most impressive of all was Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ – I hadn’t realised the painting was so big, it filled the whole gallery in both physical and emotional sense. I love the (possibly apocryphal) quote that Picasso, under house arrest in Paris in WWII, was asked by a Gestapo officer who had seen a print of his masterpiece ‘did you do this?’ to which Picasso replied ‘no you did’. Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

From Wikipedia: Guernica (from the old Spanish name for the city of Gernika) is a large 1937 oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. It is one of his best known works, regarded by many art critics as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history. It is exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. The grey, black, and white painting, which is 3.49 meters tall and 7.76 meters across, portrays the suffering of people and animals wrought by violence and chaos. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, screaming women, death, dismemberment, and flames. Picasso painted Guernica at his home in Paris in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion, Guernica was exhibited at the Spanish display at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, and then at other venues around the world. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief. The painting soon became famous and widely acclaimed, and it helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War.

 

We only spent an hour or so in Reina Sofia as we weren’t that interested in 20th century art. We returned to road name and continued on to the Museo del Prado. Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

The Prado dealt with pre-20th century art and so almost every single exhibit was worthy of study and contemplation. There were works by El Greco, Goya, Raphael, Rembrandt, Ruben’s and Titian along with hundreds of other artists that I had hardly heard of.  Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

However if I had to pick a single painting out of the whole collection it would be ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ an incredibly detailed triptych painted from 1490 onwards by Hieronymus Bosch. My late friend John had a book about the artist when we were at University together and I remember admiring it all those years ago. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

WE continued up the Paseo del Prado to the Plaza de la Cibeles …

 

… and continued on to the Puerto de la Alcala …

 

… and from there we caught the metro back to our hotel.

 

Today was the day of our bus trip to Segovia and Toledo. Segovia, dominated by the imposing Roman aqueduct, had long been on my wish list and Toledo sounded pretty good too. We had booked the tour in the autumn on the internet and discovering that the pick-up point was Las Ventas (the Bullring – see above), had stayed at the nearest hotel. The departure was at 0800 so we were there at 0750 and tried to board the waiting bus. However the guide said that this was the wrong company and our bus had departed at 0730. We rechecked the ticket, it clearly said 0800. Back in the hotel, we asked about car-hire, they directed us to a nearby place which opened at 0830 but it looked more like a repair shop to me and they looked mystified when we asked about hiring a car. We returned to the hotel but then at 0850 saw a bus outside with the correct logo. The guide apologised and said we should have been told about the change of time. Her bus was only going to Toledo, but after photographing our ticket and forwarding it to her boss we were allowed to board the Toledo only tour so at least we saw something and didn’t waste the day. Actually the Toledo only tour was really good, with quaint squares, interesting shops, a wonderful cathedral, a fascinating Jewish quarter with an old synagogue turned into a church, all set within a walled city high above a bend in the Tagus River. Back home, we made a written complaint and got a full refund, so we got a full day’s tour of Toledo for free.

 

On arrival at Toledo we climbed up the road on the other side of the Tagus River so we could get this panoramic view over the city. On the skyline right of centre is the fortress of the ALcazar of Toledo. To the left is the City Hall and behind it the cathedral.

 

We were taken down a series of narrow streets to see a series of beautiful churches, some markets and the Jewish Quarter.

 

Unfortunately as a year has passed since we did this tour (and I wasn’t taking a notes) a lot of details have slipped my mind. If anyone reading this can identify this church or spot any errors in the following then let me know in a comment.

 

This church had some beautiful detailed carvings …

 

We were shown shady courtyards with fruiting trees …

 

… quiet cloisters …

 

… with elaborately carved ceilings …

 

… as shown in detail here …

 

… and here.

 

Santa María la Blanca, the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing, is now owned by the Catholic Church.

 

When the catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors in 1492 they also acted to convert or expel Spain’s Jewish population. From Wikipedia (again): Following the Alhambra Decree in 1492, to eliminate their influence on Spain’s large converso population and to ensure its members did not revert to Judaism, many Jews in Spain either converted or were expelled. Over half of Spain’s Jews had converted to Catholicism as a result of the religious persecution and pogroms in 1391. Due to continuing attacks, around 50,000 more had converted by 1415. Those who remained decided to convert to avoid expulsion. As a result of the Alhambra decree and the prior persecution, over 200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism and between 40,000 and 100,000 were expelled. An unknown number returned to Spain in the following years. The resulting expulsion led to mass migration of Jews from Spain to Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean Basin. This can be seen with Jewish surnames as they began to show up in Italy and Greece at this time, like Faraggi, Farag and Farachi a surname which originates from the Spanish city of Fraga. The edict was formally and symbolically revoked on 16 December 1968, following the Second Vatican Council. This occurred a full century after Jews had openly begun to practice their religion in Spain and synagogues were once more legal places of worship under Spain’s Laws of Religious Freedom.

 

So this former synagogue is now a functioning catholic church.

 

We paid a brief visit to some Roman ruins.

 

… before heading to the cathedral.

 

The Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo (or Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo to give it its full name in Spanish), is a truly magnificent building for more details see here

 

From Wikipedia: The retable of the Cathedral of Toledo is an extremely florid Gothic altarpiece; it is one of the last examples of this artistic style, which was disappearing as the Renaissance began to take hold in Spain. Commissioned by Cardinal Cisneros, the work was begun in 1497 and finished in 1504. Among the architects, painters and sculptors who collaborated in this collective masterwork were: Enrique Egas and Pedro Gumiel (design), Francisco de Amberes and Juan de Borgoña (estofado: the technique of finishing sculpture of wood with gilding and punched patterns, and polychromy), Rodrigo Alemán, Felipe Vigarny, Diego Copín de Holanda y Sebastián de Almonacid (religious images), and Joan Peti (carving and filigree). The retable rises to a great height above the altar; it includes an important statuary and a magnificent, delicate filigree of balusters, spires, small dossals, and chambranles, all done by Joan Peti. It consists of five continuous panels, the center panel being the widest; it is five storeys tall, and the lines of separation are stair-stepped. The themes of the central panel from bottom to top are: the figure of a seated Virgin and Child plated in silver on the predella, above this the tabernacle and a Gothic monstrance carved in wood, then a depiction of the Nativity, and above that, the Ascension. The whole culminates in a monumental scene of Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary. Further themes of the life and passion of Jesus are represented on the other panels.

 

Again from Wikipedia: One of the most outstanding features of the Cathedral is the Baroque altarpiece called El Transparente. Its name refers to the unique illumination provided by a large skylight cut very high up into the thick wall across the ambulatory behind the high altar, and another hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself to allow shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. This lower hole also allows persons in the ambulatory to see through the altarpiece to the tabernacle, so that they are seeing through its transparency, so to speak. The work was commissioned by Diego de Astorga y Céspedes, Archbishop of Toledo, who wished to mark the presence of the Holy Sacrament with a glorious monument. El Transparente is several storeys high and is extraordinarily well-executed with fantastic figures done in stucco, painting, bronze castings, and multiple colors of marble; it is a masterpiece of Baroque mixed media by Narciso Tomé and his four sons (two architects, one painter and one sculptor). The illumination is enhanced when the Mass is being said in the mornings and the sun shines from the east, shafts of sunlight from the appropriately oriented skylight striking the tabernacle through the hole in the back of the retable, giving the impression that the whole altar is rising to heaven. The fully Baroque display contrasts strongly with the predominant Gothic style of the cathedral. The cathedral is also illuminated through more than 750 stained glass windows from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the work of some of the greatest masters of the times.

 

More magnificent sculptures, …

 

… and ceilings.

 

The choir must sit in these sumptuous surroundings …

 

… shown in detail here …

 

… and here.

 

Chapterhouse of the Cathedral of Toledo …

 

… plus, of course the cloisters, were admired in their turn.

 

There was time to admire the shops and get something to eat …

 

… and to admire the city’s ancient skyline …

 

… and enjoy the panoramic view …

 

… before returning to our bus for the drive back to Madrid.

 

On our final morning we had time to stroll in the Parque del Retiro …

 

… enjoying the lakes, statues …

 

… and fountains …

 

… some of which were rather bigger than others!

 

We had a look at the impressive Palace de Cristal …

 

… which seemed to be used to house exhibitions …

 

… but all we saw were these coloured banners.

 

Of course I took my binoculars with me and was able to add two species to the trip list, both introduced, Monk Parakeets from South America, a bird that has been introduced to the UK, but fortunately hasn’t become established …

 

… and the familiar Egyptian Goose from Africa, which is established and spreading rapidly in the UK.

 

 

The ornamental parts of the park were a bit bare being as it was still early January, but we enjoyed our brisk walk on a chilly morning. Later we returned to the hotel and got a taxi to the airport.

Our few extra days in Madrid and Toledo worked out very well. We really enjoyed the two art galleries in Madrid and the tour of Toledo. Of course it was a shame we didn’t get to Segovia but if we had our time in Toledo would have been much less. I still hope that one day we can fit in a tour of Segovia but with the current travel restrictions nothing is certain.

Southern Spain – Lynx special: 5th-11th January 2020.   Leave a comment

Spain is my most visited country outside of the UK. Previously have made 14 trips there: two to Mallorca, three to the Canaries, two to the north and north-east and two to the south or south-east. In addition I’ve made five visits to Bilbao, return boat trips from Portsmouth, mainly for seawatching and cetaceans in the Bay of Biscay.

However I’d never been there in winter and although I had seen the ‘avian specials’ there were a few that I wanted better views of or ones I had only seen before they were split from other more widespread forms. But most importantly, there was a mammal that I really wanted to see, the endangered Iberian Lynx.

Although my other trips to Spain were arranged by myself, on this occasion we opted to go with BirdQuest. Some of my friends had tried to see the lynx, sometimes with success, sometimes without, but I knew the BirdQuest leader Pete Morris well and he has an excellent record of finding the target species, so joining him seemed the best plan. Margaret was keen to come as well, and we decided to add on a number of days on our own at the end to explore Madrid (which will be the subject of the next post).

Pete is also an excellent photographer and uses 1st class equipment. He provided a CD of photos to the clients, so with permission I’ve used many of them in this post as they are superior to mine. All his photos are marked ‘©PM/BQ’ ie ‘copyright Pete Morris/BirdQuest’. The remainder, unless marked otherwise are mine.

 

After meeting at Madrid airport we drove south, stopping at Castillo de Calatrava la Nueva, from where we had this great view and saw species like … ©PM/BQ

 

this rapidly disappearing Black-winged Kite … ©PM/BQ

 

… the common (and truly wild, unlike in the UK) Red-legged Partridge … ©PM/BQ

 

… the widespread Black Redstart (this one’s a female) … ©PM/BQ

 

… gorgeous Black Wheatears … ©PM/BQ

 

… Thekla’s Lark, which can be told from the similar Crested Lark by its preference for rocky habitat, different song and a shorter bill with a curved culmen. ©PM/BQ

 

The big surprise though was finding an Alpine Accentor which usually winters at higher altitudes. My first Alpine Accentor was an even bigger surprise, I was at Portland in April 1978 on one of my first ever visits when someone said ‘have you see the accentor?’. I had no idea what he was talking about but he directed me to a point on the the cliff edge where Dorset’s first Alpine Accentor was feeding – my first UK rarity and there was no body else watching it but me! ©PM/BQ

 

After dark we arrived at our rural hostel in the Sierra de Andújar, so it was the following day before we discovered what it looked like. ©PM/BQ

 

Our next couple of days were spent along the La Lancha road in the Sierra de Andújar.

 

There were plenty of Red Deer visible along with some Fallow Deer (of true wild origin here unlike in the UK) … ©PM/BQ

 

… and I was delighted to see some Mouflon, a species of wild sheep that was a lifer for me. ©PM/BQ

 

Of course many of the species we saw were familiar from home like Dartford Warbler (that breeds just up the road from my house), one of the few Sylvia warblers that doesn’t migrate south in winter.

 

Also present were Long-tailed Tits, here of the rather different race irbil. ©PM/BQ

 

Firecrests have become quite common in the south of the UK in recent years, no doubt as a result of global warming. We had fantastic views of several along the road. ©PM/BQ

 

Along with the closely related Goldcrest, Firecrests are the smallest European birds. ©PM/BQ

 

Overhead we saw good numbers of Common Ravens. ©PM/BQ

 

Of course there were Spanish specialities too. Mainland Spain (away from the Canaries and Balearics) has no endemic birds, but there are four that are endemic, or nearly so, to the Iberian Peninsula. The first is Iberian Grey Shrike.

 

Pete’s photo shows the pinkish tinge to the flanks well. Originally a race of Great Grey Shrike, the southern group of races (from Iberia and the Canaries across N Africa and the Middle East to Central Asia) were split off as ‘Southern Grey Shrike’, but this did not agree with DNA findings. More recently the Iberian form has been split as a ‘stand alone’ species and the other southern forms lumped back into Great Grey Shrike – although I doubt if this is the last word on the subject. See my posts on India and Mongolia for more. ©PM/BQ

 

The second Iberian endemic is Iberian Magpie. Birds very similar to this are found in Japan, eastern Russia and eastern China. It used to be thought that Portuguese navigators returned from the Far East with these birds which then escaped and established a population in Iberia. That idea was quashed with the discovery of 40,000 year old bones in a cave in southern Spain. DNA evidence has shown that the two populations diverged long enough ago to be considered separate species. ©PM/BQ

 

However I would query if Iberian Magpie is the best English name. Several of the clients thought that when Iberian Magpie was called they were referring to this bird above. Having heard something about Eurasian Magpie being split (that’s the Maghreb population not the Iberian one, although a different race these are decidedly the same species as the one we get in the UK) they thought this was the bird being discussed Wouldn’t it be better to call Iberian Magpie, Iberian Azure-winged Magpie and the other species Asian Azure-winged Magpie. OK, its a bit of a mouthful but the Iberian/Asian bit would be dropped for field use and there would be no confusion. ©PM/BQ

 

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The third Iberian endemic is Iberian Green Woodpecker. I have seen this species on all my visits to southern Spain but this is the first time I’ve seen it since it was split from our familiar European Green Woodpecker. Neither Pete or I got a decent photo of this bird so I’ve taken one from Wikipedia by Luis García

 

But the fourth endemic was the one I most wanted to see, Spanish Imperial Eagle. Back in 1984, before it was split from Eastern Imperial Eagle, I saw it twice – distantly in Monfragüe and close, but briefly though the trees in Doñana National Park. There is no doubt I’d seen the species but I wanted better views and that’s what we got, we could watch this individual for ages until … ©PM/BQ

 

… it took off and flew right over head. We saw this species several times over three days but it’s not clear just how many individuals we saw. ©PM/BQ

 

Also seen were a number of Eurasian Crag Martins … ©PM/BQ

 

… and as the weather warmed up so the vultures appeared. Up to 40 Eurasian Griffon Vultures put in an appearance (anyone whose read my account of our trip to India will know there has been a catastrophic decline in vulture numbers in Asia, but as yet Spain seems unaffected) … ©PM/BQ

 

… as well as a number of Cinereous Vultures.

 

Originally known as Black Vulture, this species isn’t as Pete’s photo shows, black but rather a greyish-brown. The name Black Vulture is also occupied by a quite unrelated, but mega-common New World species. There was a misguided attempt to change the name to ‘Monk Vulture’ but a change to Cinereous seems a good idea all round. ©PM/BQ

 

We’d had a great first day in La Lancha but no luck with lynx. So it was a cold, early start the next day.

 

As the sun came out there were great views over the wooded hills …

 

… as the early morning mist cleared.

 

Eventually we had a distant view of the Iberian Lynx. Although too far for decent photos we could a watch a pair for an extended period through the scope.

 

We also had good views of a closer pair wandering through the scrub but all the photos ended up being rear-end shots. The reason that the period from Christmas to early in January is the best to see the lynx is because the females are on-heat and the males follow them around wherever they go and as such they are (unlike other times of year) visible in daylight.

 

The group was pretty strung out along when Pete found a pair right by the road. Just about everyone got there in time before they skulked off into cover. From Wikipedia: The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus) is a wild cat species endemic to the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In the 20th century, the Iberian Lynx population had declined because of overhunting and poaching, fragmentation of suitable habitats, as well as the decline in population of its main prey species, the European rabbit caused by myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. Fortunately, with protection the lynx seems to be making a slow recovery. ©PM/BQ

 

We also visited the nearby Jándula Reservoir. On the rocky scree above the dam we saw some Iberian Ibex, my third new mammal of the trip.

 

Whilst we were eating our picnic lunch a Black Stork flew over, a most unexpected find in January when they are supposed to be in Africa. ©PM/BQ

 

Next to the dam there were a couple of tunnels, one for the road, the other it would appear, as an overflow conduit in case of flooding.

 

In the roof of the tunnel we could see a number of roosting bats inside crevices. This is a Daubenton’s Myotis. ©PM/BQ

 

On the fourth day of the trip we left early (well not that early, about 0700 as it didn’t get light until well after 0800) and headed north to the plains south of Cuidad Real. There was still a frost on the ground when we arrived and it was bitterly cold, but there was no sign of rain, on the plain or elsewhere. ©PM/BQ

 

This is the sort of habitat loved by bustards and sandgrouse, open fields without hedges and only the occasional tree visible.

 

Soon we located flocks of Little Bustards and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. ©PM/BQ

 

We followed the flocks down and tried to observe them on the ground. ©PM/BQ

 

The beautiful Little Bustards showed well in flight but were too elusive to photograph on the ground … ©PM/BQ

 

… however at least a few of the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse posed for photos. ©PM/BQ

 

Even more elusive were the Great Bustards. These magnificent birds still occur in good numbers of the Spanish steppes. ©PM/BQ

 

An adult male Great Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing in at up to 5.8kg. For the last 15 years or more a reintroduction program has being trying to produce a viable population of these magnificent birds on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire and in 2019 it was announced that they had succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population of over 100 birds. I have been to Salisbury Plain a number of times to see them and the odd bird has reached Dorset in winter. Some birders are opposed to this reintroduction, something I don’t understand at all. Mankind was responsible for their destruction, the last Wiltshire bird was shot in 1832, and mankind should, if possible, be responsible for correcting past mistakes. ©PM/BQ

 

There are few more thrilling sites in European birding than seeing a Great Bustard in flight. ©PM/BQ

 

The following day we were back in the Sierra de Andújar where we saw more Iberian Lynx, including a very close female with cubs that were almost invisible in deep vegetation (I never did see the cubs) and explored some damp meadows where Hoopoes and Mistle Thrushes could be found.

 

In the late afternoon we explored the river around Encinarejo. ©PM/BQ

 

A few birds were seen around the river, such as this Common Kingfisher but I missed the flyover Goshawk … ©PM/BQ

 

However we did well for herps seeing a Horseshoe Whip Snake hiding in a rock crevice (I actually flushed it and saw it enter the crevice), this Vaucher’s Wall Lizard. ©PM/BQ …

 

… and this Stripeless Tree Frog (which seems to have a fairly obvious stripe down it’s side!) ©PM/BQ

 

We stayed by the river until sun set in the hope of seeing Tawny Owl, which we heard but didn’t see despite putting a lot of effort in. Views of the moon reflected in the water made it all worthwhile.

 

The following day we packed up and left Sierra de Andújar and headed for Laguna de Navaseca not that far from Cuidad Real. The commonest bird was Greylag Goose, not the feral ones that we see in Dorset but wild birds from central Europe here for the winter.

 

Half a dozen scruffy immature Greater Flamingos were also seen … ©PM/BQ

 

… along with a few Western Swamphens (once lumped in with Grey-headed Swamphen shown in my recent posts about India) … ©PM/BQ

 

… the ubiquitous Black-winged Stilt …

 

… and a few Black-necked Grebes. In the UK, although a few pairs breed we usually only see this species offshore where they occur regularly around Poole and Weymouth. ©PM/BQ

 

There were two ‘sort after’ ducks on the lagoon, a Ferruginous Duck which although visible never lifted its head up and several White-headed Ducks. ©PM/BQ

 

White-headed Ducks (WHD) has an interesting history. Although the eastern populations seemed secure, the Spanish population was under severe threat from hunting and by 1977 only 22 remained. Action by Spanish conservationists has seen their numbers rise to 2,500. Then a threat from the UK was realised. The related North American species Ruddy Duck had formed a feral population in England, originally from a few birds that escaped from Slimbridge and were now wintering in Spain and hybridising with WHD. It was clear that if nothing was done then the western population of WHDs would disappear into a hybrid swarm. Then feral Ruddy Ducks were found with WHDs in Turkey so even the eastern population was under threat. Under EU legislation the UK had no option but to cull our Ruddy Ducks. Yes, I miss seeing the delightful Ruddy Duck back home and regret they had to be killed, but prefer to see the bigger picture – that the global conservation of a threatened species (WHD) takes precedence over the enjoyment of a few UK birders who want to see a bird (Ruddy Duck) that is after all abundant in its native America. See here As an aside this brings up an interesting question, WHDs in the UK have always been considered escapes and indeed some of them are, I’ve posted images on this blog of one from St James Park, London that clearly falls into that category. Now when Ruddy Ducks were common there were a number of apparently wild WHDs discovered with them in England. The logical explanation isn’t that there was a mass break out of captive birds but the two species had paired up in Spain and the WHDs had migrated north with their Ruddy mates in spring. As soon as Ruddy Ducks were culled then WHD occurrences stopped. A strange co-incidence or should WHD be added to the British List as truly wild bird? ©PM/BQ

 

The margins of the lagoon yielded three top-class passerines – Bluethroat which Pete managed to photograph … ©PM/BQ

 

…plus Penduline Tit (photo by Martin Mecnarowski) …

 

… and Moustached Warbler – which neither of us did. (Photo by Marco Valentini)

 

Nearby we saw large flocks, possibly totalling over a thousand, of wintering Common Cranes. ©PM/BQ

 

A couple of Marsh Harriers may have spooked … ©PM/BQ

 

… as some of them soon took to the air.

 

Later we visited an area where White Storks were already building their nests. I was of the understanding that wild populations (as opposed to some of the northern European reintroduction schemes) were totally migratory and the only birds to remain in Europe throughout the winter were birds too sick to make the long journey to tropical Africa. I was clearly wrong. ©PM/BQ

 

Having dipped on Eurasian Eagle Owl at the start of the trip we were keen to visit Pete’s back up site. There was no sign of it until it was almost dark and then it appeared on the top of the crags and gave great views in the fading light. ©PM/BQ

 

We were still enjoying the deep hoots of the Eagle Owl when the moon rose above the cliff. We then headed for our hotel in Daimiel, a short distance from Cuidad Real where we were two days earlier. You may wonder why the trip wasn’t arranged around four consecutive nights in the Sierra de Andújar. and two in the Cuidad Real area. The answer was simple, the main purpose of the tour was to see the lynx and if weather or other circumstances had prevented us from doing so earlier in the week then then the itinerary would have to flexible enough to accommodate an extented stay at La Lancha.

 

On the last morning of the trip we spent several hours driving to Pinares de Peguerinos, an area of mountainous forests north-west of Madrid.

 

Here we expanded our list with birds like Common Crossbill … ©PM/BQ

 

… and the lovely European Crested Tit. ©PM/BQ

 

This species has a strange distribution occurring in coniferous forests from Spain, through the Alps, the Balkans, and northern and eastern  Europe with an outpost in the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland. Thus to an English birder it seems strange to see them as far south as Spain. As you can see from the photo, the beautiful blue skies we had enjoyed all week remained until the last day. ©PM/BQ

 

But the bird we most wanted to see in these forests was Citril Finch. I saw this species in the mid 80s in the Austrian Alps but views were brief, then again in Andorra in 2006 but have never seen it as well as this. ©PM/BQ

 

Well all that remained was to drive back to Madrid airport. There Margaret and I said our goodbyes to the group and got a taxi to our hotel for the cultural part of the trip. The BirdQuest group at Pinares de Peguerinos, Far left co-leader Dave Farrow, Margaret is in the middle dressed in black and I’m on the far-right (my location, not my politics!). ©PM/BQ

 

But it would only be fair to end with the best sighting of the trip – the superb Iberian Lynx. ©PM/BQ

 

It had been an unusual trip, the first of the many BirdQuests I’ve done without a life-bird. But I had three new mammals including one that falls into ‘mega category’. In addition I had my best ever views of a number of Spanish specialities. We both thought it was a most enjoyable trip.

The next post will deal with our three-day extension; our visit to Madrid and Toledo.

 

Northern India part 8: Sultanpur Jheel and Delhi: 31st November – 2nd December 2019.   Leave a comment

This is the 8th and final post about our trip to Northern India in November 2019. In order to combine natural history with cultural sites we arranged a custom tour organised by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel

On our final day we spent the morning at Sultanpur Jheel reserve, about an hour’s drive from Delhi and did some sightseeing in the city during the afternoon.

 

I had been to Sultanpur Jheel on my first visit to India in 1986, but the area held one bird that was a lifer for me, so a return was called for.

 

Much of the northern lowlands of India, especially the Ganges plain, is affected by smog and pollution in the winter, this is worst by far in Delhi where an acrid haze hangs over the city.

 

Sultanpur Jheel (jheel refers to a shallow lake or flood) is a small reserve compared to Bharatpur but still contains a wide range of waterbirds. Here Coots, Grey-headed Swamphens and various ducks can be seen.

 

In this photo a flock of Spoonbills and a Painted Stork are flying in …

 

… as well as the Coots and a single Moorhen plus Shoveler and Pochards.

 

This species was originally called Purple Gallinule, but this was also the name of a species in the New World, so the alternative name of Purple Swamphen was employed. Then the species was divided into six on morphological grounds and this one that occurs in South and South-east Asia is known as Grey-headed Swamphen, although this one doesn’t look all that ‘grey-headed’!