Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Estonia: May 2017

Pygmy Owl
Last year I spent the first week of May in Estonia catching up with some of my "most wanted" European birds.  Colin Wilkinson and I joined a short tour organised by Estonian Nature Tours and led by Tarvo Valker, to see "Great Snipe and woodpeckers", then added a couple of extra days on our own at the superb Matsalu National Park.  We enjoyed almost unbroken sunshine, though it was pretty chilly: Estonia was just coming out of it's coldest spring for decades.

My personal highlight of the tour was a brilliant view of Pygmy Owl, sitting just above us in the forest edge, bathed in the last rays of evening sunshine. Here is a selection of my images from the tour:
Female Capercaille feeding beside a forest track
Black Woodpecker, male
Hazel Grouse, male
Hazel Grouse, female
Old growth forest - a rare habitat in Estonia - but of course, the best place the look for woodpeckers
Grey-headed Woodpecker, male
Part of a huge flock of European White-fronted Geese - many tens of thousands stop off in Estonia en route to the arctic in spring
White Stork
Liverleaf  Hepatica nobilis
Red Squirrel
Woodcock on track at dusk (in car headlights!)
Male and female Common Toad
Brambling, male
Garganey, male and female
Other highlights of the organised tour included:
  • an evening visit to a Great Snipe lek near Tartu (Karavere Slid)
  • tracking down a male Three-toed Woodpecker in the depths of an old growth forest
  • great views of Wrynecks singing in parkland and orchards
  • Red-necked Grebes in gorgeous breeding plumage on many lakes
  • Great food and hospitality, one place we stayed was a vodka factory turned into a hotel.
At Matsalu, Estonian Nature Tours booked us into a superbly located guest house, in a prime location overlooking a fine expanse of coastal wetland.  On arrival we were greeted by a large flock of Ruff feeding really close to the front lawn!  A very nice place to stay, with great breakfasts and lovely hosts.
View from Tuulingu guest house, Matsalu
Ruff were numerous all around Tuulingu, some great views from the road as you approach the guest house
Wood Sandpiper
Barnacle Geese
European White-fronted Geese
Sunset from the viewing tower at Tuulingu
Ruff, male
Wood Warbler
Other highlights at Matsalu:
  • Displaying Montagu's Harriers
  • Migrating sea duck - hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks, Common and Velvet Scoter
  • Spotted Redshanks in lovely chocolate-black breeding plumage 
  • Nice restaurants in nearby Happsalu
I can thoroughly recommend visiting Estonia. It is a very forested landscape that is actively managed - every property in the rural areas has a big stack of logs in the yard.  This means that old growth forest is actually pretty scarce and sadly we did see some areas of old mature pine and firs in the heart of the best area for forest birds (Capercaille, Pygmy Owl etc) being clear-felled.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

SP 42 Short Day Count: Hawfinches and Farmland birds

Great to be out all day on Saturday taking part in the BOS Short Day Count with Colin Wilkinson, covering 10km OS grid square SP42.  This was our second year covering this patch for the winter count and we are starting to get to know some of the sites quite well.  One place we always head to is the hamlet of Kiddington, where there is some nice parkland with mature trees, an old church with yew trees and a small lake that is relatively undisturbed.  We called in reasonably early in the morning as we felt this was our best potential site for Hawfinches. And so it proved, with a small flock of at least five in tall trees as we approached the main house, and at least eight more as we left the churchyard and walked towards the lake - at least 13 in all - the largest number I've seen so far this winter.  Extremely wary, they did not stay around too long, soon flying off up the small valley.

Our favourite site is probably the area around Northbrook, just south of Lower Heyford.  This a great place for farmland birds - the last Corn Bunting stronghold in the BOS area - and also close to the Cherwell Valley.  Pretty much the first birds we saw were a pair of Grey Partridge, then a little further on, a large mixed flock of buntings and finches soon produced a good number of Corn Buntings (at least 30), as well as plenty of Yellowhammers and a single Reed Bunting.  Our "purple patch" continued with a Little Owl appearing briefly in a barn window, then further on, we picked out a Yellow-legged Gull amongst a mixed group of gulls in the valley.  Very surprisingly, given the abundance of farmland birds in this area we didn't locate any Skylarks, and we regretted not trying harder for them, as by dusk we hadn't found them anywhere else! 

This afternoon I spent some more time watching farmland birds, this time a bit closer to home, near Thorpe Mandeville (Northants)  This particular area is often quite good in winter, with large flocks of linnets every winter, for example.   But this winter it seems to be better than normal, with a large flocks of Skylarks and Yellowhamers as well at the Linnets.  Searching though bunting flock a week ago I was very pleased to find two Corn Buntings - now quite a scarce bird in Northamptonshire - giving hope they may just be hanging on as a breeding bird in this area.  The star birds this afternoon though were Lapwings.  A flock of about 300 were spread across the field, busy pulling earthworm after earthworm from the soil. It looked so easy for them to find the worms, they just had to make sure the attendant Black-headed Gulls didn't steal them.
A flock of 300 Lapwings is a very notable sighting in our area
Busy swallowing an earthwor.
The flock were constantly filling the air with their wonderful calls
Fieldfares and Redwings were also very much in evidence, one Fieldfare obligingly walked towards me:
Two great patches of farmland showing how nature can flourish alongside productive farming & heartening to see.

For more about the Short Day Count look here and here

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Queensland 2016 No. 4: Daintree and Cairns

Great Bowerbird, Mount Molloy School
Donation box at the school where the Great Bowerbird can be seen.
Before I start rounding up 2017, here is the final instalment of Queensland from 2016.  It would have been a shame to not have finished the story, as some of the best birds came towards the end of our week in the Cairns area.  Here are some highlights. It really is a lovely area to visit, highly recommended - September is an ideal time to visit as it is not too hot.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
Pale-yellow Robin

Australian Bustard
Blue-winged Kookaburra
This Blue-winged Kookaburra was is the garden along with many other birds at Hannah's Habitat, a really nice and affordable place to stay.

The next series of images are from the Daintree area, some taken during our Daintree Boatman river cruise.  We stayed at the excellent Red Mill House.
Azure Kingfisher (river cruise)
Great-billed Heron, juvenile (river cruise)
Sacred Kingfisher, Daintree NP

Large flock of Cattle Egrets, Daintree Village

Searching for the Southern Cassowary, a bird with a somewhat intimidating reputation, was near the top of my priorities in the Daintree National Park.  They live in the lowland rainforest, much of which has already been cleared, fragmenting the cassowary populations and bringing some of the birds into close contact with people.  And sometimes they are aggressive toward people, especially when looking after their chicks.  One of the best places to see them is the Jindalba Boardwalk trail.  I was lucky enough to spot a stripy cassowary chick on the path, then quickly realised there were two.  I peered upwards through the dense forest vegetation to see the male Cassowary towering above the chicks (and with him being up the slope, me too!).  One of those heart-stopping wildlife moments! Slowly, he led the chicks away from the path and I was able to continue along the trail and enjoy more views of the family group.  In cassowaries, it is the male that incubates the eggs and raises the chicks on his own.
Southern Cassowary, Jindalba Boardwalk Trail
One of the two chicks
The third and last of my main target birds for the trip, the Beach Thicknee, was the hardest to find.  It took three tries at different sites before I finally succeeded: at the Mossman River entrance (accessed from Newell Beach).  Even then, after a long search, I was literally about to close the car door and leave the site, when one bird flew into the muddy creek.  This bird was very relaxed and spent a long time preening, feeding and loafing around, gradually getting nearer and nearer.  I really couldn't have hoped for better views, just awesome.  This was also a great place to watch Ospreys fishing.

Beach Thicknee, Mossman River
Beach Thicknee
Comb-crested Jacana, Cattana Wetlands
Returning to Cairns there was just enough time for a walk along the famous Esplanade.  The light was fading fast but still delivered a great wader experience, including a flock of Great Knot, a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and this Eastern Curlew:
Eastern Curlew, Cairns Esplanade - what a bill!!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Burton Dassett: Winter Random Square bird survey

This morning I spent two hours out and about around Avon Dassett, a few mile north of Banbury, participating in the BOS Winter Random Square Survey.  This involves spending 2 hours counting all the birds you can find in a 1km square.  Sometimes the two hours can drag a bit by the end, but this morning, in glorious sunshine, there were plenty of birds about, helped by a reasonable diversity of habitats within my allotted square - a leafy village, parkland, scrub, arable farmland, pasture and tall hedgerows.

Having spend a bit of time yesterday checking potential Hawfinch sites locally without further success, I was not particularly expecting to find any on the survey.  So it was a very pleasant surprise when, after about ten minutes, one popped up on top of a nearby tree, bathed in the morning sunlight, a great view but almost immediately it was off.... 

I managed to find a total of 38 species, including a pair of Ravens, a flock of about fifty Skylarks, five Yellowhammers and plenty of Redwings and Linnets.

Fieldfares have become noticeably more common in the past week or so, this bird was guarding an apple tree, fending off blackbirds when it could.

Fieldfare near Edgcote
Mute Swan, Wroxton College
Grey Heron searching for food in a field of winter wheat near Thenford
Edgcote Church and Yew trees