Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Honduras 3: more birds – and mammals

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, one of many jewel-like hummingbird species in Honduras.
The stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot. Keel-billed and Blue-diademed (now split from Blue-crowned) were also seen, and a lucky few also heard Tody Motmot.
We may have only had five days in the field, but it felt like a lot longer – in a good way. Starting at dawn, working and birding throughout until dusk fell, and sometimes continuing into late evening with spotlights, it was one of those trips which seemed to run at a relentless but enjoyable pace.

Male Yellow-eared Toucanet, a very localised species which we were fortunate to encounter.
Great Potoo at its daytime roost in the grounds of The Lodge at Pico Bonito - an extraordinary bird.
In previous posts I gave an overview of why we were in Honduras, the country’s birds and a few of the interesting taxonomic points which visiting birders should bear in mind. Here I’ll close off coverage of the trip with some more images of birds plus some of the mammals and other wildlife we encountered along the way.

Mantled Howler Monkey - they sound far more fearsome than they look.
A great find by Jeff Bouton when we were out spotlighting one night at Pico Bonito: Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine.
On view in an adjacent tree to the porcupine was this Central American Woolly Opossum.
This is really just a taster, and if you’d like more I suggest you check out the links below of some of my fellow travellers. There’s also an album of largely different material on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share.

This Kinkajou curled up and went to sleep before I could grab a photo of it peering down at us.
Proboscis Bat. Several bat species seen included one which fed at the lodge's hummingbird feeders at night.
I visited Honduras courtesy of Leica Sports Optics to attend the world launch of its new Trinovid binocular range. Many thanks to Jeff Bouton of Leica, and to fellow participants Nina Cheney (Eagle Optics), Ed Hutchings, Laura Kammermeier (Nature Travel Network), David La Puma (Cape May Bird Observatory), Jonathan Meyrav (Champions of the Flyway/IOC Tourism), Rob Ripma (Sabrewing Nature Tours), Nate Swick (American Birding Association) and Drew Weber (Nemesis Bird). Thanks also to all at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, especially James Adams and our guide Elmer Escoto, for supporting this visit.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Honduras 2: a second look

Male Velasquez's Woodpecker: depending on your taxonomic outlook, it's a Central American endemic (IOC) or a form of Golden-fronted Woodpecker, which occurs north to the southernmost USA (Clements).  This individual, photographed at Pico Bonito in Honduras, is of the subspecies pauper, which is narrowly barred above; santacruzi, which occurs in south-west Honduras, has buff or brown tones in the mantle barring. 

Male Golden-fronted Woodpecker, photographed in Texas in March 2008. Note the differences in crown pattern and upperparts barring; together with genetic and vocal differences, there are valid reasons for separating these two woodpeckers at species level, and surely it is only a matter of time before Clements catches up with the IOC.
I mentioned in the first post on my recent trip to Honduras that the country boasted either 779 or 772 bird species, depending upon which world taxonomic authority the national checklist is based. Such are the differing views on avian taxonomy these days that perhaps most, maybe all, of the world’s countries are affected in similar ways – there are enough disparities between different taxonomic perspectives to affect national lists around the globe, and wherever you go it’s worth getting to grips with the detail of what’s involved.

In the case of Honduras, at seven species the headline difference between the International Ornithological Congress view (779 spp) and that of Clements (772 spp) amounts to just 1 per cent of the total avifauna. But actually it’s much more complex than that, as the distinctions between these two authorities also involve differences in subspecies and both English and scientific names. Using the excellent tool that is Avibase, I managed to generate a tabulated summary of these differences:

While in the field in Honduras with a group of birders mainly from the US, the North American preference for following Clements was both expected and obvious (Clements also being the taxonomy adopted by Cornell’s eBird program, which our group used to submit sightings in the field). However, as welcome as it might be to set eyes on the likes ‘Golden-fronted Woodpecker’, this is not the same bird as my compadres and I know from Texas. Clements currently considers the differences significant only at subspecies level, but the more progressive IOC treats it as the specifically distinct Velasquez’s Woodpecker, including all former Golden-fronted subspecies bar nominate aurifrons in the newly split species on the basis of Garcia-Trejo et al 2009. I suspect Clements will eventually play catch-up on this, as the American Ornithologists’ Union already has a proposal on the table setting out the reasoning to accept this split.

In general, the example of Golden-fronted and Velasquez’s Woodpeckers can be used to characterise the differences between the IOC and Clements perspectives. Broadly, the IOC view is based on an international consensus and is relatively fast moving and proactive; in contrast, Clements is somewhat more conservative – at least it has been since it was taken over by Cornell after the death of Jim Clements in 2005 – and in the Americas it now, unlike previously, rigidly follows the line of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Which species? This is a Middle American Screech Owl if you follow the IOC, or a Vermiculated Screech Owl in Clements's world order - a species which in the IOC's view occurs no further north than Costa Rica. Either way,
this Megascops species is one beautiful owl.
Back to the case in point with Honduras, where the species-level differences between the two taxonomies can be identified in the following which are recognised by IOC but not Clements:
  • White-breasted Hawk Accipiter chionogaster split from Sharp-shinned Hawk A striatus.
  • Spot-bellied Bobwhite C leucopogon split from Crested Bobwhite C cristatus.
  • Azuero Dove Leptotila battyi split from Grey-headed Dove L plumbeiceps.
  • Guatemalan Pygmy Owl G cobanense split from Northern Pygmy-Owl G gnoma.
  • Velasquez’s Woodpecker Melanerpes santacruzi split from Golden-fronted WoodpeckerM aurifrons.
  • Mistletoe Tyrannulet Zimmerius parvus split from Paltry Tyrannulet Z vilissimus.
  • Mayan Antthrush Formicarius moniliger split from Black-faced Antthrush F analis.
  • Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia being split into Mangrove Warbler S petechia and American Yellow Warbler S aestiva.
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler S coronata being split into Myrtle Warbler S coronata and Audubon’s Warbler S auduboni.
That’s nine species-level differences, not seven, one of the other two being explained by the Clements list recognising Tricoloured Munia Lonchura malacca, an introduced species which is established in Honduras, and which should therefore also appear on the IOC’s version (in which case the IOC Honduras list total becomes 780). The other ‘missing’ species-level difference is not immediately identifiable, so presumably may have resulted from a similar glitch.

Significant diversity in a species doesn't always equate to a 'split', whatever taxonomy you follow.  The range of American Kestrel extends from southern Brazil and Chile north to Alaska, and there are 17 subspecies, including three in Honduras alone, two of which breed. These birds are probably tropicalis, the distribution of which extends from northern Honduras to southern Mexico - but they are still considered by all authorities as American Kestrels.
All of which goes to show that perhaps no checklist or taxonomy is ideal, and that it pays to check the minutiae of your chosen world order and keep on top of any changes. There is no perfect solution!

In the next post: mammals and more in Honduras.

I visited Honduras courtesy of Leica Sports Optics to attend the world launch of its new Trinovid binocular range. Many thanks to Jeff Bouton of Leica, and to fellow participants Nina Cheney (Eagle Optics), Ed Hutchings, Laura Kammermeier (Nature Travel Network), David La Puma (Cape May Bird Observatory), Jonathan Meyrav (Champions of the Flyway/IOC Tourism), Rob Ripma (Sabrewing Nature Tours), Nate Swick (American Birding Association) and Drew Weber (Nemesis Bird). Thanks also to all at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, especially James Adams and our guide Elmer Escoto, for supporting this visit.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Honduras 1: first impressions

Trogons are a birding highlight of any visit to the Neotropics; this is a Slaty-tailed, photographed in the lodge grounds.
Earlier this month I was one of an international group of birders and ornithologists invited by Leica Sports Optics to cover the launch of the company’s new Trinovid binocular range. Nine of us – mostly but not exclusively journalists and bloggers – were assembled for the task, with two from Europe, one from Israel and the remaining seven from the US.

Why Honduras? Exotic locations are the exception not the norm for such launches, but Leica clearly wanted to showcase its new product in a strong birding environment, and actually this Central American destination was a relatively short flight for most participants. In the event it proved an excellent choice, with our short stay in the country based at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, near the Caribbean coast just outside La Ceiba. My coverage of the product launch itself and the new binocular range (right) will appear shortly on BirdGuides and also in the February 2016 issue of Birdwatch (published January), but in the next few posts here I’ll share some personal impressions of the birding experience in the country, as few birders from Britain visit Honduras.
The Lodge at Pico Bonito - an excellent base for birding in Honduras.
It was my first time in the country, though I have birded neighbouring Guatemala (2010), as well as Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the north (2007 and 2011) and Panama to the south (2006 and 2007). Of the seven countries in Central America, Honduras – the second largest – boasts some 779 species, ranking it third in avifaunal terms after Panama (995 species) and Costa Rica (992 species). This is based on IOC taxonomy; Clements - generally the preferred taxonomy in North America - puts the Honduran total at 772 species, while Gallardo (2014) cites 770. The country boasts a single endemic bird species, the delightful Honduran Emerald.

Honduran Emerald: the country's sole endemic bird species is a top priority for any first-time visiting birder.
Another hummer worth watching out for: Brown Violetear.
Our visit was a binocular launch and not a bird tour, so we had serious working priorities to factor in as far as the itinerary was concerned. Nonetheless, the overall number of bird species recorded by the group was still 268, a very respectable total for only five full days in the field. In an under-visited country such as Honduras much is still to be learned about species distribution, and any visiting birder(s) can help improve local knowledge by submitting their records; ours were entered daily into eBird by stalwart recorders Nate Swick and Drew Weber.

The amazing Black-and-white Owl - one of three we watched at a roost near Pico Bonito.
A good range of woodpeckers included the beautiful Chestnut-coloured.
The comical-looking but very desirable Boat-billed Heron.
A good number of the species were familiar to me from previous visits to Middle America, but there were also some new experiences to savour. In addition to the above endemic hummingbird, other highlights included Rufescent Tiger Heron, Boat-billed Heron, King Vulture, Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Lesser Roadrunner, Middle American Screech Owl, Mottled, Black-and-white and Spectacled Owls, Great Potoo, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Brown Violetear, Canivet’s Emerald, Slaty-tailed Trogon, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Keel-billed Motmot, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Black-cheeked, Velasquez’s and Chestnut-coloured Woodpeckers, Bat Falcon, Red-lored Amazon, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Great Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Lovely Cotinga, Azure-hooded Jay, White-bellied Wren, White-vented Euphonia, Slate-throated Whitestart, Black-cowled Oriole, Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant Tanagers, and Blue-black Grosbeak.

Next up: some of the specialities and 'splits' in more detail.

Lesser Roadrunner can be found in dry thorn scrub habitat in the same area as Honduran Emerald.
I visited Honduras courtesy of Leica Sports Optics to attend the world launch of its new Trinovid binocular range. Many thanks to Jeff Bouton of Leica, and to fellow participants Nina Cheney (Eagle Optics), Ed Hutchings, Laura Kammermeier (Nature Travel Network), David La Puma (Cape May Bird Observatory), Jonathan Meyrav (Champions of the Flyway/IOC Tourism), Rob Ripma (Sabrewing Nature Tours), Nate Swick (American Birding Association) and Drew Weber (Nemesis Bird). Thanks also to all at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, especially James Adams and our guide Elmer Escoto, for supporting this visit.

Gallardo, R J. 2014. A Guide to the Birds of Honduras. Privately published.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

January 2016 | Issue 283

A friend who left the RSPB recently after a long and productive career commented “I’m not sure what difference I made,” lamenting that the same problems continue to affect Britain’s birds year after year, even decade after decade: persecution of raptors, declining numbers on farmland, falling migrant populations, illegal hunting, environmental challenges and so on. My response was to point out how much worse things might be without the likes of those at the RSPB to champion the cause of birds.

Someone who knows that only too well is Chris Packham, subject of this month's Birdwatch interview. Broadcaster, impassioned spokesman for wildlife and the man voted Conservation Hero of the Year last year, his tireless campaigning work on behalf of birds earned him a second shortlist nomination in the latest annual Birders’ Choice Awards. We launched these honours a year ago to single out those who go above and beyond in the fields of birding and conservation, and you took to them like – well, like a duck to water. Fully established in their first year, I have to say that this time around we have been truly astonished by the scale of participation: thousands of you in many countries cast your votes to acknowledge the best people, products and services in a range of categories. We were very touched by your nominations for local heroes and their achievements; while there can only be one category winner, there are clearly many working hard on behalf of birds at a local level up and down the country, and we will return to this subject soon.

In the meantime, if you feel inspired by those who take an active role on behalf of birds, perhaps a new challenge or developing a special interest will be for you in 2016. In the first of his two-part ‘New directions' mini-series in the January issue, Peter Alfrey explores different ways from political activism to participating in surveys to take your birding to the next level, while Chris Harbard also has suggestions for giving your birding a shot in the arm over the next 12 months.

Have a great New Year!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Landfill gulling: the end is nigh?

Gulls have a visible, year-round presence in London, just as they do in many other places, but things are changing. Life is not what it used to be for larids on the capital's landfills, even compared to just a few years ago, and the same must be true on many other tips in south-east England and beyond. Waste management policies have changed dynamically, and all of a sudden far less food waste is being disposed of alongside general refuse - our left-overs are, of course, the reason why gulls and other birds (typically corvids and Starlings) scavenge on landfills.

My study site four years ago - upwards of 10,000 gulls were present on several occasions.
So what's happening? Increasingly, food waste is now being composted by local authorites, reducing the amount of money they pay in Landfill Tax, freeing up space for other waste in landfill and providing a new revenue stream in the process. According to government figures published a year ago, the amount of food waste sent for composting (including anaerobic digestion) has more than doubled since 2010. And overall, local authority managed waste going to landfill has fallen by 60 per cent since 2000/01, and is down by 6.8 per cent compared to 2013/14. In 2000/01, the majority (79 per cent) of all local authority waste was sent to landfill; this has continued to decline and the proportion sent to landfill was just 31 per cent in 2013/14.

The ability to study gulls at close range on landfills has helped refine the ID criteria for species such as Caspian Gull.
That may be a good thing environmentally, as organic material such as rotting food and garden waste disposed of in landfill is broken down by bacteria and ultimately generates methane, a greenhouse gas shown to have a warming potential 21 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. But a direct result is that gull numbers have fallen dramatically, being able to exploit only a small proportion of the food waste formerly available.

Landfill ringing schemes and colour-ring reporting have also improved knowledge of gull dispersal and migration. This first-winter intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gull was ringed as a chick in a colony in north-east Denmark
and resighted on its first southward migration in east London, probably en route to Spain or north-west Africa.
In time the impact of this change may be felt in breeding populations as well as by feeding birds. Although an analysis of Lesser Black-backed Gull data shows that birds breeding in urban areas are currently more productive than their rural counterparts, common sense suggests that this must change as landfills become largely dry waste burial pits. Worryingly, a recent study in the Balearic Islands found that after the landfill closure there was a significant decline among local Yellow-legged Gulls in the average body mass of breeding females and males, in average egg volume, and also a shift in the modal clutch size from three to two eggs. Rotting food waste may be low in nutrients, but it is still food.

Landfill throngs like this in south-east England are fast becoming a thing of the past.
While rising human populations and their trash mountains may have helped fuel an expansion in gull numbers and distribution in recent decades, today's more efficient recycling and disposal techniques are putting that trend into reverse. I haven't been counting gulls at my study site for long enough to have any meaningful long-term data on this, but anecdotally, in winter 2010-11 I estimated upwards of 10,000-15,000 birds in total on several occasions; today, I counted 838 large gulls of five species, and 78 per cent of them were European Herring Gulls. This species may be ubiquitous in Britain and the 'default' large gull, but it is also on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. The Amber List is even more heavily populated with larids, and Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged, Glaucous and Iceland feature alongside Mediterranean, Little, Black-headed and Common. With the decline of Britain's fishing industry preceding that of its landfills, is it any wonder that gulls face an uncertain future?

With little food waste being deposited in landfills, the environment may benefit but gulls will not.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

November 2015 | Issue 281

If any evidence were needed of just how detached from the environment some sections of society have become, it can be found in the recent furore over carrier bags. Vociferous debate over the new 5p charge for bags in England, stirred up by parts of the media, often misrepresented the purpose of the policy – not to make money (with the charges instead being passed on to charities, including the RSPB), but to encourage a change in behaviour which will ultimately benefit the environment. Current usage figures are shocking, having risen to 8.5 billion single-use carrier bags provided by major supermarkets alone in 2014 – that averages about 130 per person in Britain annually.

As someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time (literally) around rubbish tips watching gulls, I’ve seen the vast amounts of non-biodegradable waste that go daily into landfill, and the countless bags which get wind-blown across the surrounding countryside. I’ve also seen the directly harmful consequences, with bag handles frequently ensnaring birds, often preventing them from feeding and resting, and sometimes leading to the loss of limbs (something everyone can help avoid by routinely cutting the handles before discarding old bags). Introducing a charge has already been shown to work – in Wales it led to a 79 per cent decrease in use of carrier bags in the first three years, with clear environmental benefits which also included carbon savings.

If it was down to me, an initiative like this should be considered for an award. But it’s not – it’s down to you. Along with campaigns to preserve the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, end the illegal killing of migrating birds in the Mediterranean, stop drilling in the Arctic and eradicate rats on South Georgia, it’s on the shortlist in just one of the categories of our second annual Birders’ Choice Awards. This is your chance to have your say and acknowledge the initiatives, people and products that have made a real difference over the last 12 months – please take a few moments to cast your vote.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Dungeness's one-day wonder

It was surely a mistake. 'Empidonax sp., Kent, Dungeness.' Of all the species to turn up on a routine seawatch in the English Channel in September, you would not put money on an American flycatcher. But the message repeated, necessitating an immediate change of plans - better safe than sorry. By noon, we were on site but suspected it was already too late; observers were spread out over a large area of shingle near the fishing boats, scanning and walking in random directions. Clearly the bird was no longer on show, and not where it had first been seen and photographed so well.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, 22 September 2015 - the first for Britain and second for the Western Palearctic.
As we'd driven down to Dungeness, those much-tweeted images of what was indeed clearly an 'Empid' confirmed we'd made the right decision. Unless it had succumbed, there was every likelihood it remained in the immediate area, so we began searching. I opted to check gardens on the inland side of the road, starting at Derek Jarman's old house, and slowly worked in the direction of the lighthouse, then zig-zagged back across the road to check a patch of low cover. At that point a shout went up, someone sprinted along the road and it was suddenly game back on - the bird had been relocated in the garden of South View cottage, and before long we all converged to soak up views from a safe distance.

The crowd starts to build after the flycatcher is relocated in a chalet garden just inland from the road at Dungeness.
Despite worsening rain, the flycatcher periodically sallied out from cover, occasionally perching in the open to very appreciative noises from the crowd. The photos had shown a somewhat greeny-yellow bird, helping to eliminate initial options and leading to suggestions of the Western Palearctic's first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but during the few hours after its discovery the pendulum began to swing towards Acadian Flycatcher for a number of subtle reasons.

Intermittently good views were possible when the bird occasionally perched out in the open.
There's just one previous record of Acadian Flycatcher in the WP, involving a bird found dead in Iceland on 4 November 1967, so getting the ID satisfactorily nailed was crucial for this potentially first live example on this side of the Atlantic. That process took place in the field and online during the course of the day, through a mass collaborative effort which I won't repeat in this brief post - we've just finished putting together coverage of the find and the steps that clinched the identification for the next issue of Birdwatch (out on 17th October), so you can read the full story there.

On the day itself, with this ID looking increasingly strong as the afternoon wore on, understandably the bird's continued presence dominated the afternoon's news, as evidenced by this BirdGuides app screenshot. Unknown hundreds managed to get to Dungeness by dusk, some from as far as Bristol, Derbyshire, East Yorkshire and even northern France, but unfortunately for many others who arrived the next day, it proved too late - the flycatcher was not seen again.

The Acadian Flycatcher might look unwell here, but it is simply scratching an itch.
Britain's first Alder Flycatcher, in Cornwall in October 2008, had seemed like a one-off event at the time, but a second appeared within two years. Hopefully those who missed out on this extraordinary record will get another chance to see the species in Britain.
Acadian Flycatcher artwork by Steph' Thorpe.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Azores rares: read all about them

When I first visited the Azores back in September 1994, the only easily accessible birding ‘literature’ was a handful of random trip reports. They provided an exciting but inevitably incomplete taste of the rare and scarce species turning up in the islands. My own inaugural visit added a few more records of vagrant American waders and wildfowl, but also set in train an ongoing connection with this beautiful Atlantic archipelago. I’ve now made 14 visits (some the highlights of which are summarised in this BirdGuides article), and look forward to leading another group to the islands in a fortnight’s time.

The Azores birding scene is altogether more co-ordinated these days, with a small but active resident community of birders spread across the islands and a growing cohort of regular visitors. From this network the Azores Bird Club has emerged, and now, plugging that much-needed gap in archiving the growing volume of records, there is a bird report documenting the islands’ scarcer migrants and vagrants.

After last year’s first report, a more comprehensive edition for 2014 is about to be published. Compiled principally by Peter Alfrey, Richard Bonser, Josh Jones, Darryl Spittle, Vincent Legrand and Sofia Goulart, it includes a comprehensive review of the year, a 50-page systematic list, finders’ accounts for the first Northern Shrike and Barred Warbler for the islands (the former also being the first for the Western Palearctic), a rare regional record of South Polar Skua, and more than 50 mouth-watering photos of locally and regionally rare species, including a stellar cast of American waders and warblers.

I joined the editorial team in the latter stages of report production; naturally, my opinion is completely biased! But I do think that if you have ever visited the Azores or intend to do so, you may well want to obtain a copy; more than that, with details of many records of rare Western Palearctic species, it will serve as a key reference for keen birders elsewhere in the region.

The print run is limited, so any interest should be expressed now to guarantee a copy. You can order by emailing with your name, email and postal address. The price is £10 UK/€15 continental Europe, including p&p.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

October 2015 | Issue 280

You might think an organisation with a name like Raptor Alliance would be supporting Britain’s most persecuted group of wild birds. You’d be wrong: it lobbies on behalf of pigeon fanciers against Peregrine Falcons and Sparrowhawks, with potentially damaging consequences for these protected birds of prey. Raptor Alliance believes the law should be changed so that pigeon fanciers can apply to have ‘problem’ raptors relocated – an unworkable but also unnecessary idea, as only 14 per cent of domestic pigeons not returning to their lofts are thought to become prey items.

Of course, some collateral damage ought to be expected when a million pigeons bred domestically each year are destined for skies already occupied by natural predators. But what really struck me about this attitude was the implicit assumption that nature is an inconvenience to be controlled or tampered with whenever it suits. A similarly warped view of our natural heritage is also the hallmark of the Countryside Alliance, an organisation supporting the destruction of wildlife. The CA recently unleashed an ill-conceived tirade against BBC presenter Chris Packham – voted by readers of this magazine as Conservation Hero of the Year – for “blatant political propaganda” when he did little more than highlight serious wildlife crimes.

These latest attacks on the conservation movement and the welfare of wildlife follow another summer of illegal raptor killings, and an ongoing campaign by pro-game shooting You Forgot the Birds against the RSPB and its work. There is a co-ordinated feel to this sustained negative press about a conservation body cleared by the Charities Commission of charges made against it.

The RSPB may have its faults, but it’s no different in that respect from any other large organisation, and its work in the countryside deserves commendation. More than that, the society and others who speak out on behalf of our natural heritage need defending from partisan interests who are far more concerned with their own agendas than the sustainable management of our disfigured countryside and its fast-declining wildlife.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Spain's new bird fair

It is 29 years to the month since I last visited the Ebro Delta in north-east Spain, a fabulous expanse of wetlands and agriculture now home to its own major birding event, the Delta Birding Festival. I first met event organiser Francesc Kirchner on a trip to Sweden three years ago, and earlier this year we were able to showcase his new festival in Birdwatch. Francesc’s nature supplies shop in Barcelona, Oryx, stocked the magazine at the event, so I was pleased to travel out with copies to see the festival for myself.

Stars of the show: some of the many Greater Flamingos on view at Catalonia's Delta Birding Festival.
I was impressed. This was a well-organised event, thoughtfully planned by Francesc and his team, and full of attractions and activities, with an excellent line-up of speakers including Hadoram Shirihai, Dick Forsman, Carles Carboneras, Conor Jameson and Dani Lopez Velasco. It was also set in a superb location in the heart of an area of bird-rich lagoons and salt pans, and it’s the first trade show I’ve attended where visitors can watch glowing pink lines of Greater Flamingos, hawking Caspian and Whiskered Terns, and rafts of Red-crested Pochards while browsing books and testing optics.

The elegant Audouin's Gull, something of a speciality of the Catalan coast.
The schedule allowed for some birding before and after the event, and in company with Carles Oliver of Barcelona Birding Point, Conor and I had a good journey down from Barcelona on the first day, the varied species list including Griffon Vulture, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Little Bustard, Eurasian Crag Martin, Thekla Lark, Woodlark, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and Blue Rock Thrush, as well as Spanish Ibex.

Male Spanish Ibex on the lookout in the mountains of El Port, overlooking the Ebro Delta from the west.
Excursions in the Ebro Delta itself netted a good haul of waders and other mainly wetland species, from 'Mediterranean' Shag (the globally rare and declining subspecies desmarestii) and Red-necked Phalarope to the elegant Audouin’s Gull and a migrant Savi’s Warbler. Hadoram and I spent some time trying to photograph Purple Swamphens, now firmly re-established in this area since my previous visit; they proved too shy for good images, but we saw plenty. On the final morning, a pelagic on the flat-calm, sun-drenched Mediterranean brought Balearic Shearwater and more Audouin’s Gulls, as well as small numbers of European Honey-buzzards migrating overhead and – for a lucky few – glimpses of 'Mediterranean' Storm-petrel (the melitensis form of European).

A Little Bustard 'ups periscope' in a sea of alfalfa.
I was very impressed with the field skills and knowledge of the Spanish birders I met, and also by the fact that to a person every one of them could converse in fluent English (shame on most of us Brits for not being able to return the compliment). More generally, what also struck me about this short trip to Spain was that in the same amount of time it takes to drive to northern England from London, it is possible to get to Catalonia and enjoy an altogether more exotic avifauna. With numerous cheap flights to Barcelona from UK airports, I can see the Delta Birding Festival and its environs becoming increasingly popular with visiting British birders in future.

Thanks to Francesc Kirchner and colleagues, especially Ricard Gutiérrez and Miquel Rafa, for being such accommodating hosts.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

As good as it gets

Wryneck in Alexandra Park, north London, this morning. This nationally scarce migrant has now appeared in the same area of scrub at the site in four of the last five years. Coincidence? Maybe not ...
Having been away in Scotland last week when autumn migration kicked off in style on my north London local patch of Alexandra Park, the obvious assumption was that I had paid the price of being away from home and missed out big time. Wrong. In fact, having woken up early this morning and decided to give the patch a thrash anyway, I actually hit the big time. This morning's visit was probably my best-ever session in the park, a site I first birded as a teenager in the late Seventies.

Four Common Redstarts included this showy individual (above) and a first-winter male (below).
I'd assumed the Wryneck found by David Callahan last week had now gone, as it was unreported yesterday, so instead focused initially on the good numbers of warblers present. After a while I met fellow patcher Gareth Richards and another local birder, Tony Jakeman, who fairly quickly located the Wryneck in a hawthorn in the 'cricket scrub', just west of the pavilion - result! Gaz, Tony and I then birded the bushes extensively, eventually being joined by Alan Gibson, Paul Rawlins, Henry-Wyn-Jones and others, and between us we racked up a really respectable list for this one small area of the site: four Common Redstarts, single Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, 10+ Blackcaps, three each of Willow Warbler and Common Chiffchaff, two Reed Warblers, single Garden Warbler and Common and Lesser Whitethroats, and two Yellow Wagtails and a Peregrine Falcon overhead. In small urban parks with limited potential, such a list constitutes nothing less than a red-letter day.

The least colourful of today's three Willow Warblers.
From memory, Wryneck has now been recorded in Alexandra Park in the second half of August in four out of the last five years. After last year's bird I tentatively suggested that possibly only one individual was involved, an idea given short shrift by some of my birding friends. They may of course be right; I don't expect Wrynecks live for very long and in any case their appearances here will to some extent be influenced by weather conditions. But now it's happened again, I ask the question again - what's more likely, one Wryneck stopping off at the same regular location on its annual autumn migration (something we know happens in many other species), or up to four different Wrynecks randomly finding the exact same inland patch of scrub in north London at the same time of year in a five-year-period? Discuss.


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