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Guernsey and Sark, Channel Islands: June 11th-13th 2018   2 comments

This is my first post since mid May. Apologies for the absence of updates but there have been two very good reasons.

Without going into details I’ve had a episode of ill health which has changed my priorities, but also I’ve had problems with space allocation on my blog. I purchased a large amount of blog space from WordPress in late August 17 but I didn’t use it carefully, uploading photos at far too high a resolution for the sheer convenience of not having to prepare a second ‘low res’ copy. I found out in May that I had used 99% of the space available and guess what, I can’t purchase anymore until the plan renews itself in about a months time.

I have been on two excellent trips this year, to Vietnam and Mongolia, but the uploading of those photos will have to wait. In the meantime here are a few pictures from a short trip we did in June with our granddaughter Amber.

With Amber’s 21st birthday approaching we offered to treat her to a trip somewhere. Options included a weekend in London with a West End show or a visit to the Channel Islands. She chose the latter, but as she was a bit short of leave we had to restrict it to three days away.

 

Map showing the position of the Channel Islands with respect to France and the UK. Alderney is just above the NN of ‘Channel’ and Sark is just above the ‘se’ of Guernsey. I was taken to Guernsey and possibly Sark as an infant, but remember nothing about it and I visited Jersey in 1989. The Channel Islands form two Crown Dependencies, ie are not part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island and as such I treat a visit there as going abroad. Jersey forms one Crown Dependency and Guernsey and the remaining inhabited islands the other.

 

Of course the great advantage of living in Poole is that it was only a three mile drive to get to the Condor ferry to the Channel Islands. That said, in 40 years of living here this is only my second visit and the one time I wanted to take the boat to Cherbourg the ferry from Poole wasn’t running and I had to drive to Portsmouth. Another advantage of leaving from Poole is that you get spectacular views across Poole Harbour to Brownsea Island and beyond …

 

…. over Studland and the Purbeck hills ….

 

…. and Old Harry Rocks with Swanage and Durlston beyond.

 

The Condor ferry is a fast service, taking only 3 hours 15 to reach Guernsey. As we approached the island of Alderney we passed Les Etacs, a rocky stack home to 8000 pairs of Gannets.

 

In due course we approached Guernsey and entered the harbour of St Peter Port.

 

We had a look around the harbour …

 

… and then drove to the gardens at Saumarez …

 

…. before reaching our hotel in the far south west of the island. We decided it was as cheap and far more convenient to take my car to Guernsey than hire one locally.

 

The view from our hotel room towards the Martello Tower of Fort Grey.

 

Another panoramic view at dusk from the hotel.

 

One of the most charming visitor attractions on Guernsey is the Little Chapel.  Apparently close to total collapse due to the rain damaging its structural integrity it has recently been restored.

 

The following is taken from Wikipedia: The chapel was originally built by Brother Déodat in March 1914 (measuring 9 feet long by 4.5 feet wide). After taking criticism from other brothers, Déodat demolished the chapel. He finished a second chapel in July 1914 (measuring 9 feet by 6 feet). However, when the Bishop of Portsmouth visited in 1923, he could not fit through the door, so Déodat again demolished it. The third and current version of the chapel started soon after the last demolition, and measures 16 feet by 9 feet. Déodat went to France in 1939 and died there, never having seen his chapel finished.

 

Again from Wikipedia: The chapel has been described as “probably the biggest tourist attraction in Guernsey”, and “intricate”. In late 2013, there was major work on the overgrowth which was, in places, hiding parts of the chapel. In November 2015 it was closed to allow some major structural work to be undertaken. The works include underpinning the building, stabilising the foundations and weatherproofing the building, and are estimated to cost £500,000. Fundraising is being undertaken. Fully open again to the public in April 2017, the major works such as stabilising the foundations are complete however additional fundraising is needed to finish the final phase of renovation.

 

We also visited the Occupation Museum. The Channel Islands were the only part of Britain to be occupied by Germany during WW2. The islanders suffered badly especially towards the end of the war when food supplies were in very short supply and starvation seemed imminent.

 

Much of the museum concentrated on the hardware and other memorabilia left over from the war ….

 

…. but also had some reconstructions of what life was like then. Here a man listens to an illegal crystal radio set whilst his wife (not to subtly) watches out for German guards. To Amber this must have seemed like ancient history but both Margaret and I had parents who served in the war and these were the sort of stories we were brought up on.

 

We had a look around the south-east point of the island near Jerbourg. There were great coastal views ….

 

… and you could see the nearby islands of Herm on the left and the more distant island of Sark to the right..

 

It was easy enough to get a day ticket to Sark but hard to find anywhere to park in St Peter Port. Fortunately the company selling the tickets is awarded five parking places on the quay and we were able to purchase the last of these. Of course if you are staying in St Peter Port or could come in by bus then that wouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re not then I’d recommend buying the ticket to Sark well in advance and enquiring about parking on the quay at the same time.

 

We set off mid morning for the 50 minute trip to Sark, passing Castle Cornet in St Peter Port harbour as we departed.

 

On route we passed close to the island of Herm ….

 

…. a few Puffins and ….

 

…. Razorbills enlivened the journey.

 

Fishing boats attracted a lot of gulls ….

 

…. including many enormous Great Black-backed Gulls.

 

Places where a boat can dock are few and far between but on the east side the are two adjacent coves ….

 

…. this cove is used by inflatables and small dinghies ….

 

…. and this one by the ferry from Guernsey. Access to the rest of the island is through the tunnel seen on the left.

 

Famously on Sark all cars and forms of motorised transport other than tractors are banned. Hence tourists can climb to the centre of the island in this contraption pulled tractor.

 

… but we took the path that winds between through the woods.

 

We had a choice of horse and cart, bike or foot to explore the island, we chose bikes! I suspect that as cars are banned that there are rather more tractors on Sark than is strictly necessary to farm the land!

 

We cycled down to the south end of the island enjoying spectacular views of rocky coves …

 

… and eventually arrived at the narrow causeway known as La Coupée which joins the peninsula of rocky Little Sark to the main island. Until the road was built islanders had to crawl over a narrow track to reach Little Sark and there were a number of fatalities during bad weather.

 

Mind you the causeway still strikes terror into the hearts of some. Behind Amber you can see Margaret (in blue) rapidly pushing her bike away from the precipice.

 

Amber and I spent a few moments enjoying the view (and enjoying an ice cream) before heading on …

 

… to the southernmost part of the island.

 

From there we met up with Margaret at a cafe in the islands centre and then cycled all the way to the northern point.

 

For those interested in the magic island of Sark here is the introduction to it’s Wikipedia entry: Sark (French: Sercq; Sercquiais: Sèr or Cerq) is an island in the Channel Islands in the southwestern English Channel, off the coast of Normandy, France. It is a royal fief, which forms part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, with its own set of laws based on Norman law and its own parliament. It has a population of about 500. Sark (including the nearby island of Brecqhou) has an area of 2.10 square miles (5.44 km2). Sark is one of the few remaining places in the world where cars are banned from roads and only tractors and horse-drawn vehicles are allowed. In 2011, Sark was designated as a Dark Sky Community and the first Dark Sky Island in the world.

 

Soon it was time to leave Sark. Some people come here stay for a while as part of a ‘get away from it all’ type holiday, but that’s not my style and I like to see as much as I can in the time available.

 

On the return we passed rocky outcrops offshore ….

 

… and the island of Becqhou which is a tenement of Sark. Owned by the Barclay brothers (co-owners of the Telegraph) they are in a long-term dispute with Sark as to whether they are subject to Sark’s feudal law, for example they flaunt Sark law by using cars and helicopters. In a separate issue they have built this monstrous mock castle which spoils the views of an otherwise beautiful island.

 

Soon we were back in St Peter Port.

 

Time for some shopping and a meal in St Peter Port’s quaint narrow streets.

 

Far too soon it was time to leave. A group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins put a brief show as we left Guernsey. Three and a bit hours later we were back in Poole after a very enjoyable short break.

April – early May 2018: a few spring migrants   Leave a comment

I returned from Vietnam at the end of March and for the first time in several years I was at home during the peak spring migration period.

That said I didn’t benefit much from it. Cold weather at home and in particular bad weather in Europe and North Africa has delayed or aborted spring migration. Many species, most notably the hirundines (swallows and martins) have arrived in very small numbers and although early arriving migrants like Blackcap and Chiffchaff are here in good numbers, many of the later arriving species are not. Seawatching, at least for me, has been poor. Most of my visits to Portland have been on days when seabird passage was light or I manged to miss the key species like Pomarine Skua by scanning the horizon when they were in fact passing just under my nose!

That said April and early May was not without its benefits. Here are a selection of the most memorable birds I have seen this spring.

 

There has been a Bonaparte’s Gull hanging around Longham Lakes near Poole for some time. I visited on 7th of April when it was in winter plumage. Hearing that it was rapidly moulting into summer plumage and gaining a full black hood, I returned on the 26th and took these shots.

 

Bonaparte’s Gull wasn’t named after Napoleon Bonaparte but his nephew Charles (1803-1857). Born in France, yet raised in Italy Charle Bonaparte later moved to the USA. He is known for discovering Moustached Warbler and Wilson’s Storm Petrel.

 

Superficially like a small Black-headed Gull, Bonaparte’s has blackish rather than chocolate-brown head, all black bill and whiter underwings. The isolated dark mark in the outer primaries indicates that this is in third-summer plumage rather than a full adult. This species seems to have a got a lot commoner in the UK in recent years but whether this is due to one or two wandering individuals I’m not sure.

 

Also at Longham was this lovely Greater Scaup, seen her with two Tufted Duck. This species was once regular on Littlesea at Studland but the (? deliberate) introduction of predatory fish has changed the ecology of the lake and now there are no ducks at all wintering. A few Scaup often winters at Abbotsbury Swannery but views are usually distant. Good views of this drake were therefore greatly appreciated. Photo by my friend Chris’s father Tony Minvalla.

 

I usually find Portland Bill to be the best area in the county to experience spring migration. Sticking seven miles out into the Channel it acts as a magnet for birds flying from the Continent. In autumn larger numbers seem to congregate along the Purbeck coast, eg at our ringing site at Durlston.

 

This spring has been unusually poor for migrants at Portland and elsewhere see https://www.portlandbirdobs.com There was only one large fall and that was on a day when I wrongly judged conditions to be unsuitable for migration and only birded locally rather than go to Portland or Durlston! However I have managed to see a reasonable selection of spring migrants and of course the usual resident species like this Common Kestrel.

 

The highlights of this spring were this Hoopoe that graced the ‘top fields’ and the Crown Estate fields opposite Portland Bird Observatory. Photo by my friend Roger Howell.

 

Hoopoes are common over much of southern Europe, Middle East and North Africa in summer and migrants sometimes ‘overshoot’ and end up on the British south coast in spring. Resident populations in tropical Africa are often treated as a separate species, African Hoopoe based on differences in wing pattern. Photo by Roger Howell.

 

This photo, also by Roger Howell, of the Portland bird shows the typical wing pattern of Eurasian Hoopoe. African Hoopoe’s wing pattern lacks the broad white band in the outer primaries and has much more white on the secondaries and greater coverts.

 

Another highlight of the spring was a pair of Golden Orioles seen in the ‘top fields’. During my visit the female showed very well but the male appeared only briefly. There was a time when it looked like Golden Orioles might colonise parts of the UK with regular breeding occurring in East Anglia. Unfortunately they have ceased to breed in the UK, despite suitable habitat remaining and are now no more than a scarce migrant. The female of the pair was photographed by Chris Minvalla.

 

I have only been on one out-of-county twitch this spring and that was to see a rather dodgy bird that had taken up residence in this small cul-de-sac at East Budleigh in east Devon.

 

Italian Sparrow is a rather dodgy recently evolved species formed by hybridisation of House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, but it has been decided that it is valid and has been accepted as a species by the IOC. The question is – is this individual a genuine Italian Sparrow from the core of its Italian range or the  the hybrid offspring of a vagrant Spanish Sparrow that just happens to breed with a British House Sparrow? Add to that the question whether it could have got here on by its own steam or hitched a ride on a ship and the significance of the deformed bill (that could indicate captive origin) and you can see why opinions are highly divided about this bird. Photo from Devon Birds www.devonbirds.org/news/bird_news/devon_bird_sighting

 

I was persuaded to go by my friend Olly but although I didn’t rate the sparrow very highly I enjoyed the trip partly because of the lovely scenery on the nearby Devon coast.

 

Part of the world Heritage Site Jurassic Coast, these sandstone cliffs are actually from the earlier Triassic period when the first dinosaurs were evolving. I have walked the coast from near Beaulieu in the New Forest to Beer in Devon but have yet to walk this section. One day ….

 

The detour to the coast was well worthwhile as we had great views of a male Cirl Bunting. Careful management and a Cornish reintroduction scheme is helping the threatened Cirl Bunting regain territory lost to agricultural ‘improvement’ in recent decades. Apart from a single bird seen in west Dorset a few years ago, all my sightings have been in south Devon, however the species has now crossed the Exe River and is now breeding in the coastal habitat between the Exe and the Dorset border. This photo was taken near Exeter in 2011.

 

There is no good news to report about Turtle Doves though. It has never been common during the 40 years I’ve been birding but there was always a realistic chance of seeing one when out birding, either on its breeding grounds inland or on migration on the coast. Now the triple whammy of habitat destruction at home, desertification in the African wintering grounds and relentless hunting pressure in autumn and spring (especially in Malta) is driving this lovely bird to extinction. I now know of only one location where it can be seen locally, just over the border into Hampshire at Martin Down, where we saw and heard four individuals a few days ago.

 

Of course I’ve carried on with the ringing program at Durlston this spring, but eight visits in April and three in May resulted in the capture of just 137 birds. It was not all bad however, we retrapped birds that ringed in almost every year between 2011 and 2017, including an eight year old Great Tit plus Lesser Whitethroats, Common Whitethroats and Blackcaps that had returned from Africa to breed at Durlston, some for several years in succession. Gathering information like this concerning longevity and natal philopatry (returning to your birth place to breed) is more important than ringing a large number of birds, that will never be heard of again. The commonest migrant was of course Willow Warbler. Willows have a longer and more pointed wing shape than Chiffchaffs but as any trainee ringer soon learns it is the lack of emargination on the 6th primary that is the clincher.

 

Olive-grey coloured Willow like this one may be Scandinavian birds of the race acredula

The movements of Firecrests at Durlston is a bit of a mystery. As can be clearly seen in the above graph, the vast majority occur in late October and November and probably mainly represent post breeding dispersal of British bred birds and birds from the near continent, The very few records in August and early September may be of locally bred birds. There have only been two records in spring on 21st April 2014 and 28th April 2018 – so where might they have come from?

 

This bird was ringed on 28th April this year. It looks in bad condition but it’s not. The black matted feathers around the bill is due to pollen which it has either fed on directly or has picked up whilst feeding on small insects attracted to the pollen. Chiffchaffs often arrive in the UK in spring looking like this and it is a generally held opinion that they pick up the pollen from stop-over sites in Spain (I haven’t got the actual reference so I’m being a bit cautious about the location here). It could be that this female Firecrest, which didn’t have a brood patch so was not yet breeding, had arrived all the way from wintering grounds in Spain.

 

Two Common Whitethroats, a female on the left and a male trapped at Durlston. The female was newly ringed but the male was ringed as a 1st year bird in August 2017.

 

Ringing at our site at Canford Heath was successful throughout March (although I wasn’t around to enjoy it) so it was decided we would continue into April. Three visits in the first half of the month produced the goods but another on the 19th after a spell of fine weather produced little, showing that the birds ringed earlier had migrated elsewhere as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A few Siskins hung around to breed but most departed with the change of the weather.

 

A comparison of the wing pattern of a first year male (age code 5) Siskin (top) and an adult male (age code 6) below with some welly boots included for good measure.

 

But an outstanding feature of the ringing at Canford this spring was the Lesser Redpolls. we catch a few throughout the winter but numbers really built up in  early April with 31 ringed compared to 3 during the rest of the winter. These must have been birds migrating through the area to points further north. Some had the classic red ‘poll’ whilst other had an orange ‘poll’. It’s not clear if these ‘orangepolls’ are all first year birds as some had adult type tails.

 

An adult male Lesser Redpoll in breeding plumage is a bit of a stunner.

 

I have neither the time or space to go through the complex vagaries of redpoll taxonomy except to say that Lesser Redpoll is the form (now usually treated as a species) that breeds in UK, Western Europe and the Alps whilst  Mealy Redpoll breeds all around the northern hemisphere in the temperate zone. Mealy (or Common) Redpoll is a scarce winter visitor the UK (but in some years it is irruptive and occurs in much larger numbers). Here in the south of the UK we get very few Mealies so the bird we caught on 9th April and again on the 11th was the first undisputable Meal;y Redpoll to ringed by our group. Its frosty appearance, pale pink breast and large size (wing of 78 compared to 68-73 of the Lesser Redpolls handled the same day) all confirm it as a Mealy.

 

Ringing of migrants is just about over for the spring. Some ringing of chicks in the nest and an important Nightjar study is about to start but I’ll be taking a break for a little while.

A visit to Dorchester: a museum and an important ceremony – 5th April 2018   4 comments

This post covers our brief visit to Dorchester for an important ceremony. Whilst there we took the opportunity to visit Dorset County Museum.

 

There can be no more spectacular foyer of any building in the world than that of the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London. Apart from the architecture, this enormous space is filled with a cast of a Diplodocus skeleton – or at least it was! The powers that be have decided that after being on show for 102 years this magnificent exhibit has had its day and now it must go. But before it vanishes into packing boxes in the museum’s vaults it’s going on tour and the first destination is ….

 

…. Dorset County Museum in Dorchester! Of course the dimensions of Dorset County Museum are considerably less than the museum in Kensington and it only just fits.

 

Indeed the relatively tiny skull could only be incorporated by removing part of the balcony and enclosing it in glass (hence the reflections) and the incredibly long tail had to be bent double.

 

And these same reflections prevent you getting a photo of the whole animal, as there is no viewpoint from which you can get a clear shot. This may sound like the rantings of an old bloke but I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the cult of the ‘selfie’. I see nothing wrong with taking a photo of your family and friends or of yourself  (best done against a neutral background) and of course if you go to see an exhibit or a lovely view you want to photograph it but why must you have yourself in every picture. Apart from anything else it stops the rest of us from getting a good view.

 

But what of the dinosaur itself. Of course it’s not the original fossil, that would be far too heavy to be held up by such flimsy support. Diplodocus was first described as a new species of sauropod dinosaur in 1878 by Professor Othniel C Marsh at Yale University. The species lived sometime between 156 and 145 million years ago and belongs to a group called sauropods, meaning ‘lizard feet’. The cast is of a fossilised skeleton found in Wyoming USA in 1898 and exhibited in Scottish-born millionaire businessman Andrew Carnegie heard of the discovery and set out to acquire the bones as a centrepiece for his new museum in Pittsburgh. King Edward VII saw a sketch of the Diplodocus while visiting Carnegie at his Scottish castle and remarked how much he’d like a similar specimen for the animal galleries of the Natural History Museum. Carnegie obliged by commissioning a replica cast of his dinosaur which was exhibited in the museum in 1905. (information taken from the Natural History Museum website)

 

There was a lot more to Dorset County Museum than ‘Dippy’. Dippy was a Jurassic dinosaur from the period (200-145 million years ago) and of course Dorset is the location the famous Jurassic coast. Many other fossils from that period are represented, these dinosaur footprints were unearthed near Swanage.

 

The jaws of a Pliosaur.

 

and a small Ichthyosaur.

 

There were plenty of human artifacts as well. These crude stone tools date from about the Paleolithic period 450,000 years ago, the time our Neanderthal cousins roamed the country.

 

By the time of the Mesolithic period (12,000 to 7,000 years ago in NW Europe but earlier in the Middle East) many fine stone tools were in use, flaked off the flint cores seen on the left. The remains of a mesolithic settlement has been excavated in recent years on Portland.

 

By the Neolithic period Britons were farming, however some hunting must have still occurred as evidenced by this deer antler pick and the skull of an auroch, the enormous wild ancestor of domestic cattle which survived in the wild in Europe until just 400 years ago. although were extinct in Britain by the Bronze Age.

 

Moving onto the Bronze Age, 4500 to 2800 years ago. Dorset had a thriving Bronze Age culture as seen by the many bronze swords and implements found.

 

By the late Bronze Age beautiful gold necklaces or torcs were being worn by the nobility.

 

The Iron Age (2800 years ago until Roman invasion in 43 AD) saw the emergence of tribal groups such as the Durotriges who lived in Dorset and surrounding areas. They were responsible for the many hill forts such as Maiden Castle that dot the landscape even today. These two skeletons were discovered at Maiden Castle …

 

There is no doubt about the cause of death of one of them, a Roman ballista bolt though the spine.

 

Maiden Castle near Dorchester was the largest Iron Age hill fort in Britain and was occupied by the Durotriges up until the Roman invasion. We visited the site with our granddaughter Amber a few years ago.

 

Of course he Romans left plenty of archaeological evidence behind in Dorset such as this mosaic.

 

The County Museum also features a section on famous Dorset writers and poets ….

 

… including this reconstruction of Thomas Hardy’s study.

 

Enjoyable as it was our visit to the museum was just filling in time on the way to the main event of the day. Margaret had an important appointment at Dorset County Council’s chamber ….

 

…. joining ten other applicants for the ceremony that would award her British citizenship.

 

After swearing an oath and singing ‘God Save the Queen’ she was presented with her citizenship certificate by a local dignitary.

 

It has taken quite a while (the main delay was getting the necessary documentation from South Africa) but after nine years of marriage I’m no longer married to a foreigner!

Late autumn to early ‘spring’: Birding and ringing from October 2017 to March 2018.   Leave a comment

This post shows a number of photos, mainly of birds, taken between October 2017 and March 2018. The majority were taken in Dorset.

 

The shorter days increased the chance that I was still out birding at dusk allowing me to photograph some great sunsets.

 

The ‘far fields’ at Lytchett Bay (now renamed Sherford Pools and French’s Pools) proved to be quite productive in the autumn with many species of wildfowl and waders present.

 

One bird that the ‘regulars’ had all caught up with at Lytchett Bay but I hadn’t was Great White Egret, as they seldom seem to stay for long. A phone call from Shaun in early December had me shooting down there immediately. Unfortunately I didn’t take my main camera but as I came round a corner of a hedge and it was there straight in front of me. This was taken with my pocket camera on maximum zoom (about 10x).

 

Not a bird but probably one of the most stunning moths to be seen in the UK, the rare and quite enormous Death’s Head Hawk Moth photographed at Portland Bill.

 

I showed a picture of Great White Egret earlier and one of the best places to see this scarce but slowly increasing species is Longham Lakes, about a 20 minute drive north of here. But it wasn’t a Great White Egret or this Green Woodpecker that had me twitching the site in early October …

 

….but a group of four Common Scoter. To be fair I see this species fairly regularly both as a migrant when seawatching from Portland Bill and as a wintering bird in the Poole Harbour area, but Margaret had never seen one well and this was a chance for her to see this group of two males and two females without losing them in between the waves.

 

There are many other waterbirds at this excellent site including several Great Crested Grebes, this one is still in partial summer plumage …

 

… but this individual is in the process of losing it’s ‘sum plum’. Eventually all vestiges of the ear tufts will be lost,the whole cheek will be white and the will just be a hint of a crest.

 

On a visit to Longham  couple of weeks later I saw some birders I knew on the far shore, as I moved towards them I noticed a ‘scaup’ with the Tufted Ducks. Initially thinking it to be the far commoner Greater Scaup, I moved closer and realised it was a Lesser Scaup from North America. Delighted to think I had found this rarity I hurried towards the other birders just as they were phoning the news out to the information services. I wasn’t quite the first to see it!    Unknown in the UK before the mid-eighties, Lesser Scaup (on the left) is now found annually. Again I didn’t have my camera with me so I’ve included this photo I took in South Wales in 2012.

 

During the winter months we visited the feeders at Holton Lee from time to time, both to look at the birds and for ringing. Most of the birds at the feeders were tits and finches but occasionally the larger Jackdaws dominate. Although I have seen this happen often at Holton Lee I actually took this photo at Carsington Water in Derbyshire after Christmas.

 

I pop in to Carsington Water almost every time I visit my brother. It is an excellent reserve situated on the edge of the Peak District, but for me the main attractions are two species that are shown rather poorly in this photo. Tree Sparrow and Willow Tit. Both have been extirpated from Dorset. Willow Tits were regular in Wareham Forest when I first came here, but Tree Sparrows have always been always localised (at least in recent decades) and now seem to have gone. Whilst the ID of Tree Sparrow is straight forwards, Willow Tits are very similar to Marsh Tits but are easily identified by voice. Even in this poor photo the matt cap (as opposed to glossy in Marsh), thicker neck and pale panel in the wing can be seen.

 

One of THE bird events of the winter has been the invasion of Hawfinches, presumably from eastern Europe. A scarce breeder with probably less than thousand breeding pairs, this winter has seen ten to twenty times that number in the UK. Of particular note was a flock of up to 120 birds near Blandford. I visited the area twice, once in late 17 and again in early 2018. It was difficult to get good views as in spite of the numbers the birds were flighty and flew as soon as they saw you. A single Hawfinch has been seen on several occasions at Lytchett Bay but in spite of multiple visits to the area I haven’t got it on my local patch list.

 

Last autumn whilst I was in Australia a North American Stilt Sandpiper turned up near Weymouth. It later moved to Poole Harbour and then to Lytchett Bay, the latter move was particularly frustrating! Luckily when I returned I caught up with it first at Middlebere in Poole Harbour and then later when it returned to Lytchett Bay. Towards the end of the year it was on Brownsea Lagoon but rising water levels meant it left for Christchurch just after Christmas, first in the Avon Valley and later at Stanpit (above).

 

I was keen to see it in 2018 and in spite of its being around Poole in 2017 and our several visits to the USA Margaret had never seen one, so we made a concerted effort to connect with it in the Christchurch area. It took four attempts but eventually we saw it at Stanpit on 9th February. Here it seen with two Redshanks.

 

Stilt Sandpiper is one of the rarer North American vagrants to the UK. This is the fourth I have seen in the UK over the years, There have been about 36 records in all but this is only the fourth juvenile. Larger than a Dunlin (similar in size or a little bigger than a Curlew Sandpiper), it can be identified by the comparatively yellowish long legs (hence the name), slightly decurved bill and prominent supercilium.

 

There is a substantial gull roost at Ibsley Water at Blashford, just over the border in Hampshire, more than 5,000 birds may be involved. The commonest are Lesser Black-backs and Black-headed with smaller numbers of Herring and Common. There are often very small numbers of Great Black-backed, Caspian, Yellow-legged and Mediterranean and recently there has been single Ring-billed and Thayer’s Gulls making ten species viewable on a single visit! Birds come in very late in the day and at a considerable distance and identifying, let alone photographing, them is a considerable challenge. My friend Chris’ father, Tony Minvalla did well to get this shot of the juvenile Thayer’s Gull (just left of the wooden post).

 

Thayer’s Gulls breed in Arctic Canada and winter on the Pacific coast south to California. Formerly considered a race of Herring Gull, then a full species they have. as of late 2017. been lumped with Iceland Gull. Although this robs me of a ‘lifer’ it is a decision I agree with as there seems to be continuum from the pale primaried Iceland Gulls in the east through variable ‘Kumlien’s Gull’ to the darker primaried Thayer’s in the west. There has always been controversy surround this taxon and there are those who consider some aspects of the research that led to it being given species status to be fraudulent. The finely patterned feathers, ‘clouded’ plumage and dark eye mask gives the juvenile a distinctive look (note the Iceland group & Glaucous Gulls do not moult in their first year so technically it is a juvenile not a first winter). This excellent photo of a juvenile was taken by Clay Kempf off California see: http://gull-research.org/thayers/thayers2cy/2cyjan54.html

 

It was another gull that drew me to Lodmoor in Weymouth last week. Initially it wasn’t on show but there was plenty to watch as we waited, a Dutch colour-ringed Spoonbill, Lapwing and Teal plus several other waders and waterfowl …

 

… and good numbers of Mediterranean Gulls both on the mud …

 

… and on the water.

 

Birds would suddenly rise ….

 

…. whenever the local Marsh Harriers appeared.

 

The return of Marsh Harriers as a breeding species to Weymouth and elsewhere in Dorset is one of the great conservation success of recent years.

 

The wait proved worthwhile as suddenly it was there – a beautiful adult Ross’ Gull (in flight top centre). As soon as it landed it was off again …

 

… but it soon returned joining Common, Black-headed and Med Gulls for this family portrait.

 

Over the next couple of days the Ross’ movements became more erratic but it seemed to be coming into Radipole RSPB in the later afternoon rather than Lodmoor. Margaret wanted to see it, so we returned three days later. Whilst we were waiting Luke, one of the RSPB wardens, picked out this 2nd winter Caspian Gull (left) – another Dorset tick for me. Slightly larger, longer legged, with a more attenuated body and a longer bill than Herring Gull and with a more advanced state of moult, the identification of this species from eastern Europe and central Asia remains one of the biggest challenges in bird ID. I have to say that if I was on my own I’d have probably overlooked it.

 

In due course the Ross’ appeared. Initially quite distant, it flew and landed on the island just in front of the Visitor Centre. In better light the pale pink flush to the breast can just be seen. There is a previous record of this species in what is now Dorset, in Christchurch in 1974, however at that time Christchurch was in Hampshire, so strictly speaking it’s a first for Dorset.

 

This is what the bird looks like taken by a proper photographer using a proper camera. Many thanks to my friend Chris Minvalla for permission to use his photo. Much to the relief of the gathered crowd of birders the Ross’ put on a great show. it had been seen briefly by one observer at nearby Ferrybridge the morning two days previously but had flown off, we assumed never to be seen again. It was later seen at Lodmoor that afternoon but again only seen by a few before it flew out to sea. Fortunately it repeated that pattern the following day and many birders (including me) connected with it. The species is named after Arctic and Antarctic explorer captain Sir James Clark Ross whose many exploits (including his voyage to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Sir John Franklin of Franklin’s Gull fame,) are too numerous to mention see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clark_Ross. Ross’s Gull breeds regularly only in coastal north-east arctic Siberia where I saw several hundred in 1996. Breeding birds have a black collar and a beautiful pink flush to the breast but these features were only just visible on this winter plumaged adult. I have seen three Ross’ previously in the UK, all in the 80s but of course this was a new to my Dorset List.

 

And now to a series of photos on our ringing activities during the period. I continued to ring at Durlston until mid November. Late in the season we caught a few Lesser Redpolls.

 

The balmy days of summer and early autumn were behind us and Ginny and Fenja look a bit chilly whilst waiting to ring some birds.

 

The bird Ginny most wanted to ring was a Sparrowhawk so she was delighted to catch up with one on a brief pre-work visit in late October.

 

Firecrests have gone from being a scarcity to, well if not common, to being at least regular with 27 ringed at Durlston in autumn 2017.

 

At our ringing site at Lytchett Bay we caught three on one net round. This and the next six photos were all taken at the same remarkable ringing session on 3rd November.

 

2017 was a good breeding season for Bearded Tits. Not tits at all, some rename them Bearded Reedlings but they don’t have beards, they have moustaches! Such are the vagaries of English nomenclature. What is important is that they have been shown to be so unique that they are placed in their own family the Panuridae, the only breeding species in the UK to fall into that category. We trapped a number of ‘Beardies’ ringed elsewhere and had several of ours retrapped by others, mainly at ringing stations along the south coast.

 

In the 80s Rock Pipit (sl) was split into three species, Rock Pipit (ss) of the coastal regions of NW Europe, Water Pipit of the mountain alpine zones from the Pyrenees to south China and Buff-bellied Pipit in Siberia and North America. That meant in winter we have to distinguish between our mainly resident Rock Pipits and the Water Pipits that arrive from their breeding sites in the Alps and Pyrenees. This isn’t too hard as Water Pipits prefer fresh water habitats and Rock Pipits rocky shores. Things became more complicated when it was realised that both species also wintered on saltmarshes. We long had our suspicions that the saltmarsh Rock Pipits weren’t our local breeding birds but migrants of the race littoralis from coastal Norway. The capture of a Rock Pipit at Lytchett Bay a few winters ago ringed weeks earlier in Belgium fitted in with this scenario but this capture of a Norwegian colour-ringed Rock Pipit in early November proved that this was the case.

 

The bird had been ringed on the coast of central Norway in September 2017. Race littoralis is very like the local nominate race but may have whiter outer tail feathers. In breeding plumage, littoralis can show a pink flush to the breast and a grey head just like breeding plumage Water Pipits.

 

On the same net round we caught a Water Pipit allowing for direct comparison. See the paler fringed median coverts, longer and paler supercillium and that the white extends all the way up the outer tail feathers.

 

Then later we trapped a third bird which was somewhat intermediate between the two. The supercilium and median covert fringes weren’t quite so marked and the white didn’t extend so far up the inner web of the outer tail feather. We decided it was a Water Pipit, this was probably a 1st year bird and the earlier one was an adult.

 

And then if this was not excitement enough for one ringing trip we trapped a Norwegian ringed Reed Bunting as well! This bird was ringed in September 2016 a bit further south than the Rock Pipit. Wait ages for a Norwegian control and then two come along on the same day (a bit like buses).

 

We used to do quite a lot of wader ringing but most of our attempts recently have been thwarted by bad weather, so when we did manage to arrange a session there was a huge turn out of ringers but unfortunately not of birds. In fact all we caught was two Jack Snipe. However this was far from disappointing as Jack Snipes, due to their skulking nature, are rarely seen let alone trapped and was well worthwhile from a scientific point of view as one of the birds had been ringed at the same site in 2013. Being an arctic breeder only visiting the UK to winter this is an excellent example of winter site fidelity.

 

As autumn turned to winter our focus moved from Durlston and Lytchett Bay to a site near Canford Heath in Poole. This has proved to be very productive for ringing Redwing (at least in November and early December) and several species of finch. Redwings can be aged on the shape of the white fringe to the tertials. The white fringe to the outer web terminating in a distinct ‘step’ indicates a 1st year bird, however 1st years can moult all their tertials and show an adult like pattern so it is important to check the shape of the tail tips as well.

 

Even so, the shape of the tail can be misleading when it comes to ageing birds and caution is advised. Trainee ringers are taught that pointed and abraded tail feathers are indicative of first years (abraded, because in most species adults moult in the summer after the young have fledged so their tail feathers are newer and less abraded than young birds that grew the feathers in the nest). However if a young bird was to lose all its tail feathers (through moult or accident) then the feathers would be regrown in the adult shape. This can be seen in this Reed Bunting tail where the outer two feathers on the right have been lost and are regrowing and are clearly newer and more rounded then the retained first year feathers.

 

The site at Canford has proved excellent for finches with many Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Bullfinches ringed and quite a few Siskin and Redpoll. The unabraded and relatively rounded tail feathers plus the lack of contrast in the median coverts (between moulted and unmoulted feathers) clearly show that this male Siskin is an adult (ie hatched before 2017). Photo by Terry Elborn

 

One real oddity trapped at Canford was this bird, an apparent Chaffinch x Brambling hybrid, a so-called ‘Chaffling’. The orange inner greater coverts, slight orange flush to the breast  are indicative …

 

… but the clinching feature was the partial white rump. Unfortunately these are the only two photos that were usable and we were not able to collect any accidently shed feathers for DNA analysis. The nearest breeding area of Brambling is southern Norway so it must at least have come from Scandinavia, possibly northern Russia. Both these photos by Terry Elborn.

 

And if you were wondering what a real Brambling looks like, we trapped a cracking adult male in February. Brambling numbers are very variable here in the south but a few can be found in most autumn and winters. One of the best times to find them is early spring when birds that have wintered to the south of us return towards their taiga breeding territories. Photo by Terry Elborn.

 

A fairly common woodland species but one that we ring infrequently is (Eurasian) Treecreeper. Here is one ringed at Holton Lee. The reason I put the full English name in parenthesis is because there is another species in the same genus, Short-toed Treecreeper.

 

Although common on the continent in deciduous woodland, Short-toed is incredibly rare in the UK. As ringers we have a duty to check that all our trapped treecreepers are not Short-toed. Apart from in the in-the-field characteristic of brownish flanks there are a number of features in the hand that can tell the two specie apart. The obvious downward step in the pale band on the primaries is an easy and quick way to confirm that you just have a Eurasian Treecreeper. There are many other, subtle features as well. Of course if you thought you actually had a Short-toed then you would need measurements of hind-claw and bill, a detailed feather by feather description and photos of the wing to get the record accepted.

 

Those readers of this blog living in the UK can’t have escaped noticing that we have had a ‘bit of snow’ recently. Poole must be one of the most snow free locations in the entire UK, due no doubt to the many inlets and bays of Poole Harbour such as Holes Bay (above). Even when snow settles all around us Poole usually remains unaffected, or if it does settle it is gone by lunchtime. In 40 years of living here I have only seen enough snow to cause real disruption on a couple of occasions (I missed the severe weather of February 1978 by a few weeks). The infamous ‘beast from the east’ brough dreadful weather to much of eastern UK earlier in the week but it stayed sunny, if cold here but with storm ‘Emma’ approaching from the south it looked like we might get some of the white stuff after all. On Thursday morning, 1st March a few cm had fallen and I thought this was going to be another overreaction by the Met Office (at least as far as Poole was concerned) …

 

… and I found this sign beside a perfectly clear road to be rather amusing. However in the afternoon the snow really set in. Even so I don’t think that much fell, not by the standards of other countries that lie at 50 degrees north, but there again we just aren’t geared up to cope with it. I remember waking up to metre deep snow drifts in Hokkaido, Japan and thinking we would be trapped indoors for the day. The owner of the hostel said ‘of course not – the children have to be a t school by 9 o’clock and sure enough the road was cleared by then. Former work colleagues reported homeward journeys of five hours to drive as many miles that evening and to the east and west of us people were forced to spend the night in their car as the road to Dorchester and through the New Forest became totally blocked.

 

On that morning I checked Holes Bay in the hope of seeing a Smew, a duck that sometimes occurs in our area after bad weather. I scanned the many wildfowl and was amazed to pick up a drake Garganey in flight.

 

Garganey are the only duck that are exclusively spring/summer visitors to Europe and used to be called Summer Teal. Given the current weather conditions this was the last thing I expected. This bird must have left Africa  heading north to breed and run into arctic conditions on arrival. These last two photos were taken near Christchurch under more normal condition for watching Garganey in spring 2012.

 

This photo of the actual bird was taken by Ian Ballam who located it just a few minutes before and a few hundred metres away from where I was standing.

 

Overnight the snow turned to freezing rain. The car, the roads and pavements were covered in snow capped with a sheet of ice. Driving, especially on side roads was out of the question …

 

… so I walked down to Holes Bay. See how the snow on this hedge is topped with a hard layer of ice.

 

It was tricky walking, but with virtually no traffic it was easiest to walk on the road. Upton Park was a winter wonderland …

 

… even if it was the first day of spring.

 

Robins proved quite tame in the harsh conditions and posed for ‘Christmas Card’ photos.

 

Even the seawater around the edge of Holes Bay had frozen. Good numbers of Wigeon and Avocet were sheltering from the wind.

 

Over 120 Avocets were resting on the ice. Avocets usually roost at high tide on Brownsea Island lagoon but as the water there is only brackish it is the first to freeze. Poole water treatment works brings warmer water to Holes Bay so at least part of the Bay remains open in adverse conditions.

 

Other Avocets swam in shallow water or fed at the water’s edge.

 

Black-tailed Godwits waited for the tide to fall so they could start feeding again.

 

Although Godwits are long-legged they can’t feed whilst swimming like Avocets do. These birds are all from Iceland, a few ‘Blackwits’ of the European race breed in the East Anglia but none are seen in the UK during the winter.

 

There were perhaps 500 wigeon in Holes Bay but I didn’t do an accurate count.

 

Gadwall is much rarer than Wigeon on these salt water habitats but as a species is doing well and in some places is commoner than Mallards.

 

Unlike Blashford lakes or Weymouth, Holes Bay doesn’t host a gull extravaganza but these Lesser Black-backs sat dejectedly on the railway embankment. By the 4th the snow and ice was melting and temperatures were up to 10c by the 4th. For us at least the cold snap was over.

 

Of course I understand that much of the UK endured (and in some case are still enduring) far, far worse conditions than we did during these few days but the 48 hours of 1st and 2nd of March were unusual times for all of us. I’ll leave with another ‘Christmas Card’ photo of a Robin.

 

 

 

Chris Bunn’s 60th birthday party: 21st February 2018   2 comments

Thuis short post is about a 60th birthday party we attended in February. An update concerning birding and ringing over this winter period will follow shortly.

 

 

I worked with Anne Bunn (right) for many years at the Microbiology Lab at Poole Hospital, here seen (at an earlier event) with Jessica Pietrangelo, another former colleague and wife of my friend Gio Pietrangelo. We have all stayed in touch since I retired and it was with pleasure that I received an invitation to he husband Chris’ surprise 60th birthday party held at the British Legion in Wimborne.

 

I’m not sure how much of a surprise it was to Chris but he certainly acted like it was!

 

The theme of the evening was ‘The Blues Brothers’, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s 1980 film about two brother’s who reform their rhythm and blues band to perform a ‘mission from God’. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen the film then it’s a wonderful mix of music, comedy and improbable car chases with musical interludes by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles to name but a few.

 

Many guests donned the black ties, black glasses and black hats of the titular characters. Here are three of my former colleagues, Ann (another one), Sheila and Janet …

 

…. and here are their husbands Ken, Mike and John (but not necessarily standing in the same order as their wives).

 

I think I made a better Jake than an Ellwood! A very drunk guy, not in our party, was propping up the bar and was on the phone to his mate. He said ‘I don’t know what’s going on tonight, they’re all wearing black suits and dark glasses – I think someone’s died!’

 

Margaret got into an improbable ‘police lineup’ – and no she’s not that tall!

 

My friend and former colleague Tim was there along with his ever cheerful son Simon.

 

Ann and her daughter Clemency had hired an excellent band, but unfortunately in a small room they were very loud and I had to communicate with friends by typing messages on my phone and passing it over to them. But it was an excellent night out and a chance to catch up with some old friends.

 

Other than that night out social events have been few and far between this year with just the odd pub get together, but there has been a fair bit of ringing and birding which will form the subject of the next post.

 

 

 

Posted February 27, 2018 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

Canary Islands part 2: Gran Canaria: 2nd – 5th February 2018   2 comments

The last post dealt with our first day on Gran Canaria and our two days on Fuerteventura. This post covers our remaining three days on Gran Canaria and is mainly concerned with sightseeing although a few bird photos, both wild and captive, sneak in.

 

We were using Tony Clarke and Dave Collins’ Canary Islands book as a site guide, but it was published in 1996 and is out of date for some areas. They gave details of a tidal lagoon in Maspalomas known as the Oasis which often hosts waders. However all we found in this area were posh hotels and this concrete canal. However the palm trees near the hotels contained large numbers of Rose-ringed and Monk Parakeets and the scrub surrounding the canal held Sardinian Warblers whilst a number of near-endemic Plain Swifts and a single Barn Swallow zoomed about overhead.

 

We also saw a few of the introduced Common Waxbills in the area.

 

We thought we would visit the ‘bird park’ at Los Palmitos some way up in the mountains, partially to see the captive birds and partially because birding was said to be quite good in the area. The scrub around the car park held a number of species including the trips only Blackcaps (of the non-migratory race heineken which ‘refreshes parts other Blackcaps cannot reach’). From Blackcaps in the car park we moved to white Peacocks in the park itself.

 

I didn’t take many photos of the captive birds as I hate to see photos with bars in the background, but this rare Helmeted Guan from Venezuela proved an exception …

 

… and I couldn’t resist a close up of the facial features of Saddle-billed Stork.

 

We also went to a flight display of various birds such as this Red-legged Seriema but it started to rain and the handler said that all the flying displays would have to be cancelled because the birds of prey in particular wouldn’t fly in the rain.

 

The park has obviously diversified into a small zoo with quite a few mammals on display, an orchid house …

 

… and an aquarium, I don’t know what this bizarre species is …

 

…. but these days, after an entertaining cartoon film, most of us are familiar with Clown Fish!

 

But the most popular and most entertaining show was at the Dolphinarium. Six Bottle-nosed Dolphins (one is underwater) put on an excellent show with their trainers …

 

… catching balls …

 

… lifting their trainers up out of the water …

 

… or propelling them underwater …

 

… or into the air.

 

Two young girls in wet suits were taken around the pool on a raft (I don’t know if they were related to staff or volunteers from the audience) but they must have got a surprise when two dolphins leapt over their heads. This was all very entertaining and enjoyable but I’m not sure that keeping animals like dolphins (or any cetacean) in captivity is ethical. I know some people are very opposed to dolphinariums and I tend to agree with them. They told us that the dolphins were all captive born, I’m convinced they are well looked after and have a lot of stimulation in their lives and they do give many people a chance to see these lovely creatures that otherwise would have no encounters with them at all, but they are very intelligent creatures and the pool is a poor substitute for the open sea.

 

The following morning we drove into the mountains but soon got waylaid by an attraction that tried to recreate the Neolithic (late stone age) living conditions of the Guanches, the original inhabitants of these islands. Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek and Roman sailors seem to have landed in the Canaries in antiquity (the Romans in 1st C AD) and reported buildings, yet saw no people. The Romans encountered dogs and named the island Insular Canaria after them. Clearly the dogs didn’t swim on their own accord from Africa and indeed archeology places a date of around 1000 BC for the initial colonisation of Berber-like people from North Africa. Spanish colonisation in 15th C led to wars and the annihilation of the Guanches. The tourist site was nicely set out but the information boards were poor (the English translation looked like it had been done by ‘Google Translate’) there was little mention of the origins of these people, no timeline and the disappearance of the Guanaches was put down to the arrival of ‘later invaders’!

 

The site was quite good for birding though and I was able to photograph several species. A common bird in the area, indeed throughout the Canaries was Collared Dove. In my two visits to the islands in the 80s I didn’t see a single one, now they are everywhere.

 

The Canary Islands are one of the few areas where Spanish Sparrow rather than House Sparrow is the common species (a few House Sparrows, probably ship assisted, occur around Maspalomas but we didn’t see any). Spanish Sparrows are far from common in mainland Spain. The male Spanish Sparrow is a handsome beast, much more strongly marked than House Sparrow …

 

… but the female Spanish Sparrow can be hard to tell from it’s House Sparrow counterpart. Well marked individuals such as this one are paler with a whiter belly, have well-marked streaks on the mantle, a narrower and more distinct supercilium and better marked pale fringes to the wing coverts.

 

Berthelot’s Pipits were common in the area …

 

… and we had great views of Atlantic Canary, the bird that derived its name from the islands, not the other way round.

 

A male Sardinian Warbler was singing and I think I got some of my best ever views of this common but inveterate skulker.

 

With a range from the Canaries across southern Europe and North Africa as far east as Turkey, ‘Sards’ are common in scrubby habitats, but all is usually seen is a small bird with a long tail diving into cover.

 

Surprisingly the wind was now dropping and the sun was shining.W e wanted to pay at least one visit to Maspalomas and Playa del Ingles famous beach so headed back down the mountain …

 

… and went for a walk on the edge of the mighty sand dunes. The towers of the church at Oasis de Maspalomas can just be seen rising above the sand.

 

Any hopes that the weather was improving were short-lived. The wind increased, whipping sand into our faces and it was far too cold for those traditional beach activities like sunbathing or going for a dip. However one or two brave souls were in the sea!

 

We retreated to a nearby covered area for lunch, although gusts of wind blew over stall holder’s stands and caused chaos among the assembled holidaymakers. Later following up a suggestion from the Clarke and Collins guide that the Playa de Arinaga and Playa de Pozo Izquierdo areas might hold Trumpeter Finches we headed north-east.

 

You knew the area was usually windy from the plethora of wind turbines …

 

The promenade at Playa de Arinaga was battered by the waves …

 

… these guys just avoided getting wet whilst photographing the waves …

 

… unfortunately I didn’t!

 

Local surfers were taking advantage of the powerful surf …

 

… including this young guy who seems to have mastered the art perfectly.

 

We found no finches of any description but did locate these salinas. Commercial salt pans often are havens for shorebirds in arid areas but we only found two individuals, single Grey Plover and Sanderling although both were additions to the trip list.

 

On our last full day on Gran Canaria we drove north to the capital Las Palmas and then westwards along the northern shore. Our destination was the north-western tip of the island (in the distance in the above photo) where we might see some newly arrived Cory’s Shearwaters back from their wintertime pelagic wanderings. We were probably a month too early as we didn’t see any, indeed the whole area was of little interest, just a far from completed tourist complex in the middle of a banana plantation. Stopping briefly at a small harbour on the way back I noticed this cat staring wistfully out to sea. Remembering Meryl Streep on the Cobb at Lyme Regis in Dorset at the start of the 1981 film adaptation of John Fowle’s book, I have titled this photo ‘The French Lieutenant’s Cat’.

 

Having had little success in the north-west we headed inland. The views of the north-east towards to Las Palmas were impressive. Margaret’s daughter and two grandchildren used to live on a yacht in the marina and we had wanted to see where that was. However once there we found no easy parking in the area so just did a drive by. As a result our only photos of the capital were from this vantage point and from the plane as we left the island.

 

The outer islands of La Palma, El Hierro, La Gomera and Tenerife (plus Madeira) have extensive areas of the type of laurel forest that once cloaked much of North Africa. However on Gran Canaria the only remnant left is in this valley and that is pretty degraded.

 

But we did see some new birds including the endemic races of European Robin and Common Chaffinch. The latter, pictured above is quite different from European races and many have wondered why like the Blue Chaffinches they haven’t been split. Recent genetic work has shown a complex picture of repeated colonisation of the Atlantic Islands by European and/or North African birds leading to a confused picture with no clear-cut division into species.

 

Normally receiving more moisture than the south, the northern slopes were greener more cultivated than the centre of the island or the south. As we climbed we left the grey skies of the north behind and saw the clouds spilling over into the drier centre and evaporating.

 

It was now a glorious day, the best of the trip. We drove southwards until we reached Artenara, the point where we turned off westwards on our first day. Unfortunately the road to Tejeda was closed and we had to make a big detour. However I don’t know if the word ‘unfortunate’ is really applies to driving for another hour in such wonderful scenery!

 

In the distance we could see the rock stack of Roque Nublo ….

 

… whist we got a lot closer to Roque Bentayga.

 

Deep barrancos ran westwards towards the Atlantic Ocean ….

 

,,, where winding roads connected remote villages.

 

Further south still we came across areas of Canarian Pine forest …

 

… and photographed the Gran Canaria endemic race of Great Spotted Woodpecker (although it didn’t look that different from the ones we see at home).

 

The final descent into Maspalomas and back to our resort was through the arid hills of the southern slope.

 

Well that was it for our week-long adventure in the Canaries. A few mishaps in the earlier part of the trip but great birds and wonderful scenery. The following day we left mid morning for the airport and were back at Hurn by late afternoon. Here is a view from the plane just after take off …

 

… and one of the peninsula of La Isleta in the north-west and the capital Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

 

But I’ll conclude with another panorama from the mountainous centre of this spectacular island.

 

The Canary Islands part 1: Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura: 29/01/18 – 01/02/18   Leave a comment

This post and the next one cover a recent week-long trip to the islands of Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. The first describes our first full day on Gran Canaria and our two days on Fuerteventura. The next will cover our final three days, all on Gran Canaria.

We were looking for somewhere to have a quiet week together without long flights, having to travel to Heathrow etc. It seemed a good idea to take a break during the winter as we had few other commitments at this time of year. Gran Canaria was an obvious choice, partly because I had never been there but mainly because the Blue Chaffinch on that island has recently been split from the much commoner and easier to find Blue Chaffinch on Tenerife, which I saw back in 1984.

We chose a package deal that flew from Hurn Airport (now often called Bournemouth Airport in spite of the fact that it’s at Hurn and not Bournemouth) and booked a hire car for the week. As well as some birding we hoped it might be warm enough to go to the beach and maybe even take a dip.

On the birding front things became more complicated when a Dwarf Bittern from tropical Africa turned up on nearby Fuerteventura. Although I had seen this species in Uganda it was only a flight view and besides, it would make a good Western Palaearctic tick. In addition, on my 1989 trip to Fuerteventura our view of Houbara Bustard was very distant. This didn’t bother me at the time as I had seen it well (or so I thought) in Israel in 1982. However in the 90s the Asian and the African forms of Houbara were split and I was left with just this unsatisfactory view of the African form.

Logical thing then was to fly from Gran Canaria to Fuerteventura for a couple of days, even though this meant doubling up on hotel and car hire costs.

All in all it was a successful trip, however even for experienced travellers like us, this ‘easy’ holiday threw up a number of pitfalls.

 

The Canary Islands, also known as the Canaries are an archipelago and autonomous community of Spain located on the Atlantic Ocean, 100 kilometres west of Morocco at the closest. The seven main islands are (from largest to smallest in area) Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. The archipelago’s beaches, climate and important natural attractions, especially Maspalomas in Gran Canaria and Teide National Park and Mount Teide (a World Heritage Site) in Tenerife (the third tallest volcano in the world measured from its base on the ocean floor), make it a major tourist destination with over 12 million visitors per year, especially Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. (Information copied from Wikipedia). I visited Tenerife and La Gomera in July 1984 and Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in February 1989.

 

The recent split of the critically endangered Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch meant that seeing it was the top priority on the trip, but with four days at our disposal I didn’t think it would be a problem. However we came out of our hotel on the first day and found our hire car had gone. Apparently they had tarmacked the area in front of the hotel overnight and had towed our car away! The drive to the forest of Pajonales near El Juncal took far longer than I expected due to steep and winding roads, so it was about 1000 by the time we arrived. Although it was obviously going to be colder than the coast, I hadn’t expected it to be 4c, thick mist and heavy rain and we weren’t really dressed for those conditions. Given the late hour and the dreadful weather I concluded that today would be just a recce …

 

… however just 200m from the car I was pointing out at Great Spotted Woodpecker (endemic race) to Margaret when she said ‘what’s those small birds above it?’ Yes, they were the Blue Chaffinches. They are separated from their cousins on Tenerife by the dark band over the bill, white wing bars, greyer plumage and quite different call note – a monosyllabic uit compared to a disyllabic tchap-chie. Photo credit: see below.

The song of the two species is very different too.

Here is the Common Chaffinch like song of Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch taken from Xeno Canto: https://www.xeno-canto.org/356448

And here the song of the Tenerife Blue Chaffinch:  https://www.xeno-canto.org/354887

 

Here is the female. Our birds were not colour ringed (apparently many are in order to aid ongoing research into the survival of this threatened species with an estimated population of just 200 individuals). Our initial views were quite poor as the birds were high in the tree and our binoculars soon got covered with rain but about 500m further on we saw them (or another pair) again, this time lower down and we were able to scope them. Of course given the conditions I didn’t get any photos, so these two shots have been copied from Wikipedia and were taken by Miguel Angel Pena Esteve.

 

Another species we were to see in the Pajonales was the African Blue Tit. A recent split from Eurasian Blue Tit, it is comprised of four races in the Canaries and two in North Africa. Two of the races, the one on La Palma and the one in NE Libya have been tipped as possible future splits. The La Palma form could easily be seen in the future but getting to NE Libya safely might be a different matter. The races on the central Canaries differ from the others by the lack of a wing bar and also, in the case of the the La Palma birds, by the lack of a white belly. Again conditions were too poor for photos so this is taken from the Internet Bird Collection and was photographed by Erkki Lehtovirta on Gran Canaria. https://www.hbw.com/ibc

 

Once we were away from the forest the weather improved somewhat. It seems like the valley was channeling up moist air from the Atlantic and dumping it as rain on the forest. Perhaps this is why it remains the largest area of surviving pristine Canarian Pine forest on the island and why nearly all of the Blue Chaffinches are found here.

 

We soon came across our first Canary Islands Chiffchaff. When I visited Tenerife in the early 80s this was just a race of Chiffchaff and was undoubtedly given little attention. With species status comes critical examination and it was great to note the very different song, brown colouration with paler underparts, long thin upturned supercilium, very short primary projection (the birds are of course non migratory so evolution will favour a shorter wing) and as a result the comparatively shorter tail.

More from Xeno Canto:

The familiar song of Common Chiffchaff: https://www.xeno-canto.org/396148

The call and then song of Canary Island Chiffchaff: https://www.xeno-canto.org/45371

 

Although the rain had eased our time in these scenic mountains was still hampered by low cloud.

 

Occasionally the spire of Roque Nublo would appear through the mist.

 

Other birds we saw in the mountains included Berthelot’s Pipit which is endemic to the Canary Islands, the Salvages and Madeira …

 

…. and of course the Atlantic Canary which is endemic to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries. It is generally thought that the name Canary Islands derive from these birds, but that is untrue. Roman sailors who landed on Gran Canaria in the 1st C AD found many dogs (although apparently they didn’t find the dog’s owners who must have remained in hiding) and they named the island Insula Canaria or ‘Isle of Dogs’.

 

Eventually the sun broke through the clouds giving views of the volcanic spires and buttes. The Canaries are, of course, of volcanic origin and three islands Lanzarote, Tenerife and La Palma still show some activity today or in the recent past.

 

Small towns and villages nestled on steep slopes were the norm.

 

We debated whether to return the way we had come from the south (as there were a number of scenic lookouts that we had just driven past without stopping) or to continue northwards to Artena and then descent to the west coast. We chose the latter.

 

The westward descent through the Barranco de la Aldea was long and tortuous …

 

… with many towering side canyons and increasingly arid conditions.

 

So steep was the barranco in places …

 

… that locals had cut directly into the cliff face to build their homes.

 

However there were a number of reservoirs in the valley but we found nothing on them except a few Coots and Yellow-legged Gulls.

 

Eventually we saw the Atlantic ocean ahead of us and in due course we arrived in the town of La Aldea de San Nicolas.

 

If we thought that was the end of our mountain drive we were mistaken, the onward road to Mogan involve numerous steep climbs and hairpin bends, albeit on a wider road.

 

Beyond Mogan we were able to pick up the GC1 motorway and return to our resort. It had been a long but very rewarding day. Only about 120km of driving, but with the exception of the last bit on the motorway, almost all of it in second and third gear. That evening we checked if resurfacing was going on tonight as we had an early departure. We were advised to put the car in a pay and display car park that wouldn’t be resurfaced. However on our return from a meal in town we found they were closing the entire access road to our resort. ‘Closed until 0700’ was the answer to our inquiry, we would have been in the air by then. We had to move the car but all parking was taken up a km away.

 

The following morning we had to get up at 0350, walk with all the gear to the car and drive to the airport. Of course we got there in good time but you never take chances with being late when you’re flying. We arrived on Fuerteventura just as it was getting light and set off in search of the Dwarf Bittern.

 

After some driving over fairly rough terrain we arrived at Barranco de Rio Cabras, a dry vegetated wadi or gully that runs to the sea just north of the airport.

 

In places the barranco has been dammed producing some semi-permanent pools.

 

Unfortunately our time there was far from comfortable, during the first three hours we were hit with three heavy downpours, the sort that you can see and hear sweeping towards you across the desert. During one of them this Common Buzzard of the endemic race insularum was forced to land and seek shelter.

 

More notable was multiple sightings of Canary Island Chat. This bird really should be called Fuerteventuran Chat as it is found on this island and nowhere else.

 

This is a male, the female is a rather nondescript brown.

 

Fuerteventura still has a population of Egyptian Vultures. This species, like most vultures, has seen a huge decline in recent years.

 

There were quite a lot of birds on the pools in the barranco, Black-winged Stilts, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, Little Ringed PLovers plus a couple of Hoopoes. The ones that surprised me though were Ruddy Shelduck, this species was only a vagrant to the island when I visited in 1989, now I understand they are quite common wherever there is water and have been breeding here since 1994. However try as we might we couldn’t find the Dwarf Bittern. After getting wet for the third time we opted to return to the car, dry out and eat some lunch. Unfortunately Margaret fell on the now slippery rocks and so decided to stay at the car and rest. Crossing the barranco was tricky too as the dry bed had now become a river!

 

I returned, but after another hour there was still no sign of it, then a tour group (from the company Heatherlea) appeared on the far side of the barranco and after a while found the bittern. It must have sheltering so close the south wall that it was invisible from above. Try as I might I still couldn’t see it but by returning upstream to the crossing point and then following the rim until I joined them I could make it out sheltering in a bush. It then crossed to our side ….

 

…. and gave some great views. I understand that this bird wasn’t seen after today until the day we departed (5th Feb) probably because there were many other wet areas for it to explore upstream and down. As I said earlier this is a very hard bird to see well in tropical Africa and birders have flown from all across Europe to see this individual, apparently the 6th for the Canaries and for Spain.

 

Margaret opted not to join me back at the barranco so I returned to the car and we set off for the rocky Tindaya plain in the north of the island.

 

Initially apart from a few Berthelot’s Pipits and Lesser Short-toed Larks there was little showing but as late afternoon approached we drove slowly around the tracks looking for Houbara Bustard.

 

 

As I indicated earlier my previous views of this species were pretty distant. Populations east of the Nile Valley have been separated as MacQueen’s Bustard (or Asian Houbara) and I have seen them in Israel where they are resident, western India where they winter and Kazakhstan where they breed. Although I am sure that I did see a Houbara in 1989 on Fuerteventura I have always wished for a decent view and to be able note the differences between it and its Asian cousin.

 

The differences between the African and Asia species are small but significant, involving the crown and black neck feathers and there are differences in the nature of the display and vocalisations during display. It is thought that due to these differences that although birds from each species could cross the narrow habitat divide of the Nile Valley they would not interbreed with each other if they did. We only saw one Houbara whilst a friend of mine who went recently saw up to 12. I wanted to stay on till dusk in the hope of finding more but Margaret wisely said we should find our hotel and return at dawn for more views.

 

We found a supermarket to the north and stocked up on food for breakfast and lunch. Whilst Margaret was inside shopping I was in the car park photographing Spanish Sparrows …

 

… and Laughing Doves, a recent colonist from Africa.

 

Nearby we had excellent views of Algerian Hedgehog at the side of the road.

 

With dusk coming on we drove to our booked accommodation just east of the village of Guisguey. Trouble was we just couldn’t find it. We drove up and down the narrow roads, were threatened by one local and graciously helped by others but nobody knew where it was. It didn’t help that phone reception was poor and maps and booking.com who we booked via were no help at all. After an hour or more we decided it was a scam (I think now it was just a case of very bad directions) and opted to look for a hotel in the capital Puerto del Rosario. Trouble was that the rain was now torrential and in the dark it was hard to see the car in front of you let alone find a hotel. We later found that the capital city has only two hotels neither of which were signposted or visible on my phone app!

 

Unfortunately most Fuerteventuran accommodation is in the form of holiday apartment complexes like this, rather than hotels that provide a one-night stay.

 

We found ourselves well south of the capital and south of the airport (photo taken the next day as it was now dark) …

 

… fortunately about 8pm, having been searching for several hours we found this hotel with an all-inclusive dinner and breakfast. Hardly surprisingly we didn’t get to the Tindaya plain for dawn!

 

However we did return as early as we could and saw several Southern Grey Shrikes …

 

… the unusually small but surprisingly common endemic race of Northern Raven …

 

… and the delightful Cream-coloured Courser. This desert bird can be found from the Canaries and Cabo Verde in a band across the desert to western India. It has even turned up in the UK.

 

The right-hand courser might be a little out of focus but the left-hand one shows the remarkable pattern on the nape.

 

We birded at several other localities on the island including the reservoir at Los Molinas where Ruddy Shelduck were abundant and we also saw four Spoonbills …

 

… before calling in at some salinas which have now been turned into a ‘salt making museum’. But at least this means that the Barbary Ground Squirrels habituated and are hand tame.

 

Introduced from North Africa these cute critters seem to be doing well, not surprisingly as all the tourists feed them tit-bits.

 

We also had great views of Southern Grey Shrike. A study some years ago showed that from a genetic basis the ‘great grey shrike’ complex could be split into multiple species, one of which would be endemic to the Canaries. However genetics and morphology don’t really match and no firm decisions have been made. IOC currently recognised four species but this could change in either direction in the future.

 

We got to hear this one sing, something I have never heard with north European Great Grey Shrikes.

 

Well it was now time to head to the airport and return to Gran Canaria, passing over Puerto del Rosario as we did.

 

Although the light was fading we could see the shoreline and the barrancos of the northern part of the island …

 

… before the plane turned to the west revealing the whole western coast of Fuerteventura.

 

So ended our short visit to Fuerteventura, like my 1989 visit before it, it was marred by bad weather. The main draw back was the problem with the accommodation, we really thought we would have to sleep in the car that night. However we saw the birds we came for (other rare migrants remained unseen but we didn’t have time for them) and we saw some dramatic scenery.

We were back at our hotel at about 8 o’clock. With the main birds under the belt we opted to spend the remaining three days sightseeing and that will be the subject of the next post.