Archive for the ‘Griffon Vulture’ Tag

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

 

Picus viridis sharpei 033.jpg

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 6: Tal Chhapar and the Mumbar Gardens near Jodhpur: 27th-28th November 2019   4 comments

This is the 6th post on our wonderful trip to northern India in November 2019. The custom tour was arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel who arranged an itinerary, accommodation, transport and guides to our specification that combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights.

After spending a day touring historic sites in Jaipur it was the turn to do some birding in the reserve of Tal Chhapar (yes that is the correct spelling!) a reserve near the village of Chhapar which is just under half way between Jaipur and the Pakistan border.

 

We were relatively close to Tal Chhapar on my Birdquest Western India trip in 2016 when we visited Bikaner, (as so often happens it was added to the itinerary the following year). There were two lifers for me here, one mammalian and one avian, the beautiful Blackbuck and the little-known Indian Spotted Creeper.

 

It was a 215 km drive from Jaipur and took over four hours. The village of Chhapar was quite unremarkable with a single busy main street and a few back streets like this.

 

We stayed at Raptors Inn, a private guest house run by local bird guide Atul Gurjar and his wife Sunita. They made us very welcome and provided great food. Margaret was very taken by this home stay and had a chance to ask Atul and Sunita about many aspects of Indian life including their cuisine. See more here

 

They tried their best to keep their boisterous children away from us but we found them most entertaining.

 

That afternoon we headed to a ‘gaushala’ a walled off area where the sacred cattle can safely graze. On route we passed this camel and buggy. There is clearly no law about using your phone whilst driving a camel in India! Here we were to search for the ‘semi-mythical’ Indian Spotted Creeper. Now I can’t say that I’ve been waiting to see this species all my life, I didn’t even know about of it until after it was split from its African cousin in the late 90s, but I have been wanting to see the area’s other attraction, the beautiful Blackbuck since I was a small child.

 

Finding the Indian Spotted Creeper took some time but there was no problem with seeing Blackbuck, up to 50 were on view. The females ,which are smaller, brown and white and have no horns were present but elusive, but the males were in rut and were bold and approachable.

 

Males would approach each other and then ‘parallel walk’, sizing each other up …

 

… sometimes disputes were resolved by this but often it ended up with an all out battle.

 

In due course Atul found a Spotted Creeper but it was in a line of trees by the gaushala wall. After a brief view and one very mediocre photo, it flew to some trees outside the gaushala where it could be seen but not photographed (there was a considerable drop on the other side of the wall so climbing over was impractical).

 

This was my first bird lifer on the tour and I was pretty pleased at this moment. This species and its African cousin are members of the Sittidae, the Nuthatch Family rather than Certhidae which contains all the (Holarctic/Oriental) treecreepers. Both photos by Prasad Natarajan see here

 

I think I said in an earlier post, when discussing the catastrophic decline in Indian vultures, that the only vulture we saw on the trip was Egyptian. That’s not quite true as we saw a single wintering Eurasian Griffon Vulture. How ever that doesn’t detract from my earlier statement that because of poisoning, the formerly widespread and abundant Slender-billed, White-rumped and Indian Vultures are now critically endangered.

 

Other raptors included this Black-winged Kite …

 

… and a beautiful Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Other birds photographed that afternoon included the punk-crested Brahminy Starling (above) and …

 

…  flocks of Indian Silverbills, small estridid finches, native to India but introduced to many other places.

 

There were a few ‘lesser whitethroats’ wintering. The taxonomy of this group has been controversial with between one and five species accepted at various times and by various authorities. IOC and HBW both now recognise three species, Hume’s Whitethroat which breeds in the mountains of Central Asia and winters in southern Baluchistan and SW India, Lesser Whitethroat which breeds from western Europe to east-central Siberia and winters in Africa and northern India and Desert Whitethroat which breeds in parts of China and Turkestan and winters in the Arabian peninsular and north-west India. This bird is a classic minula, ie a Desert Lesser Whitethroat, small, sandy with reduced grey in the crown.

 

There were quite a few Lanius shrikes in the area, including this male Bay-backed, which looks like a Penduline Tit on steroids …

 

… and the more familiar Great Grey Shrike, although here of the race archeri. The ‘great grey shrike’ group has undergone a lot a changes during the last few decades. Originally one species, then three (Southern, Great Grey and Steppe), its now still three but a different three: Northern Grey occurs in North America and eastern Siberia, Iberian Grey occurs where it’s name suggests and all the rest are re-lumped in Great Grey again. The problem seems to be that genetics and morphology don’t match, maybe eventually more sensitive and innovative genetic methods will be able to divide this group further and so better match DNA to plumage.

 

Also present were a number of Common Woodshrikes. These are not related to true shrikes of the genus Lanius (see the two photos above) but instead are members of the Vangidae, an unusual Family which includes the vangas of Madagascar, the African helmetshrikes and shrike-flycatchers and Asian philentomas.

 

After we had our meal that evening we heard very loud music coming down the street. Atul and Sunita said it was a pre-wedding celebration, so we decided to take a look.

 

Although they had never met us before the villagers were most welcoming. First they brought chairs out into the street so we could watch the dancing in comfort, then they invited us into their house and where the ladies were keen to be photographed with Margaret.

 

Later we (well mainly Margaret) joined in with the dancing …

 

… and we were treated as honoured guests. The bride and groom-to-be had yet to arrive but everyone else seemed to be having a great time on their behalf.

 

Now I’ve heard of ‘a bull in a china shop’ but its not that often that you come across the ‘cow at the mobile disco’, well not this sort of cow anyway.

 

Atul was a bit hesitant about visiting the actual Tal Chappar reserve (Tal meaning low-lying land) as heavy rain had made the tracks unsuitable for vehicles. As a result the following morning we first visited a lake near the gaushala.

 

We found a few waterbirds we had seen earlier on like these Indian Spotbills but the River Terns we found were new for the trip.

 

Spotbill used to be a single species but has since been split into Indian and Chinese varieties. I think it looks rather splendid in the pale-yellow light of dawn

 

Eventually Atul relented and took us to the nearby Tal Chhapar, but we had to leave the vehicle at the entrance gate. In this low-lying hollow the mist persisted, producing some atmospheric views of the local Blackbuck.

 

As well as Blackbuck there were quite large numbers of Wild Boar.

 

However some of the piglets showed characteristics more typical of domestic pigs so there must be some interbreeding. Also seen were Common Cranes and Western Marsh Harriers, but unfortunately not Monties or Hen Harriers (I dare say we would have seen more if we could have stayed or if the visibility had been better).

 

Well we weren’t able to walk very far as we had huge great clods of mud stuck to our boots, making walking rather difficult. Back at vehicle we had a very close encounter with a male Blackbuck. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this magnificent antelope again, but if I don’t I can’t complain about the views we had this time.

 

So we returned to the other side of the road and explored another area dodging great herds of goats on route.

 

Here we found Indian Desert Jirds. We only saw about ten but their burrows were everywhere.

 

These little rodents are preyed on by many raptors including …

 

… Booted Eagles (although in Europe rabbits are their favoured mammalian prey) …

 

… and Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Tawny Eagles are know to be mainly a scavenger and a kleptoparasite but I dare say the odd Jird or two would make a tasty snack, if they were quick enough to catch one.

 

We had spectacular views of a Tawny Eagle being harassed by a pair of Lagger Falcons. Unfortunately in my photos either the eagle or falcon are blurred so I’ve included one from iNaturalist taken by Philippe Boissel see here

 

The little Shikra is in the genus Accipiter which feeds mainly on birds rather than rodents.

 

Rather commoner than the larger Gyps vultures but still declining severely is the widespread Egyptian Vultures.

 

We came across a group of four on our drive around.

 

Also seen was (yet another) Spotted Owlet.

 

Enjoyable as it had been it was time to leave Chhapar and heard to our next destination.

 

That afternoon we drove to Jodhpur and stopped for a short while at Mumbar Gardens near the city where there was an attractive temple and a wetland area caused by the damming of the local river.

 

We didn’t learn anything about the temple a this was just a short impromptu stop …

 

… but like all old Indian architecture it was very beautiful.

 

There were a few birds in the temple area …

 

… but most were in the overgrown water channel. These included a ‘water rail’, I hoped that it would be the recently split Eastern Water Rail (or Brown-cheeked Rail), after all the scientific name is Rallus indicus, but it proved to be the same one we get at home.

 

Perhaps the most notable feature of the temple was the very approachable Hanuman Langurs.

 

The next post will cover our visit to the city of Jodhpur, the nearby Bishnoi villages and a nearby lake where Demoiselle Cranes gather.