Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Portuguese rarity recording: a new era

The Comité Português de Raridades, or Portuguese Rarities Committee, in session at the offices of BirdLife International's national partner SPEA. From left: Alex Leitão, Pedro Ramalho (Secretary), Pierre-André Crochet, Ray Tipper (Chair), Michael Armelin (non-member but representing the board of SPEA), Magnus Robb, Dominic Mitchell, João Tiago Tavares and Thijs Valkenburg. Long-standing CPR member Peter Alfrey was unable to attaned.
Anyone who has been birding in Portugal or its island regions will know what a fantastic country it is both for native species and for rarities. As the south-westernmost nation in continental Europe whose borders extend westwards into warm Atlantic waters courtesy of the Salvage Islands, the Madeiran archipelago and the Azores, it punches firmly above its weight in terms of rare birds, from all points of the compass. Having first visited Portugal in 1993 and made many trips to the Azores since 1994, I have a personal long-term interest in rarities at a national level, and have also been part of the team assessing them in recent years.

Historically, Portuguese rarities were considered by the Iberian Rarities Committee, but since 1 January 1995 the Comité Português de Raridades (CPR), or Portuguese Rarities Committee, has fulfilled this role. The CPR has published a run of reports documenting rarities from the mainland and islands, the most recent being that for 2011 which was published online in SPEA's Anuário Ornitologico (see here). However, with the sudden departure of the last Secretary, a deluge of records from the Azores and the need to appoint new members, it is no secret that a major backlog of work has built up - hence last weekend's meeting in Lisbon.

It was an extremely productive two days, the results of which will be reported in detail by the CPR elsewhere. Suffice to say here that we now have a talented and experienced line-up of new members, a new Secretary and some exciting new initiatives in the pipeline. Importantly, voting has since taken place on some on significant rarity records relating to species not only potentially new to Portugal, but also to the Western Palearctic. While it will inevitably take time to catch up, the CPR has started as it means to go on, and I'm sure there will be more news to report soon. Watch this space!

Blue-crowned Parakeets at Campo Grande, photographed after the CPR meeting in Lisbon. The committee has also been responsible for assessing naturalised exotic birds for the Portuguese list: this South American species is currently in Category E, but now seems well established and may be a candidate for upgrading to Category C.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Lisbon revisited

Cork oak woodland at the Sado Estuary near Lisbon.
I first stayed in the Portuguese capital back in June 1993, and from there birded my way across the rich plains of the Alentejo to the Algarve in the south. Fond memories of that trip include Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red-necked Nightjar and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, among many other exciting species.

Most subsequent visits have been all-too-brief transit stops en route to and from the Azores, but back in 2012 I had the opportunity to make the most of a longer airport lay-over by teaming up with João Jara of local specialists Birds and Nature Tours Portugal. A few very worthwhile hours on the Tejo Estuary produced some excellent birds on that November trip, not least Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Kite, Iberian Grey Shrike and two countable ‘Category C’ species, Black-headed Weaver and Yellow-crowned Bishop, for which the Tejo's rice fields and marshes are well known.

Crested Myna - an established exotic restricted to the Lisbon area.
Last weekend I was back in Lisbon, this time for a Portuguese Rarities Committee meeting, and my schedule again meant that I had some time to spare beforehand. João arranged a local itinerary to make the best use of this opportunity, and Helder Cardoso was my guide. We started off in the south of the capital where another Category C species, Crested Myna, can be found – the Lisbon area is the only place in the Western Palearctic where this Asian exotic has established itself. A roadside verge near a popular beach soon produced the myna, while Pallid Swift and Red-rumped Swallow overhead were more typical of the Mediterranean species most birders target in Portugal.

One of many Purple Herons encountered at close range around the Tejo Estuary.
From there we headed upriver along the Tejo, and worked an extensive area of rice fields and marshes close to the estuary. Although it was the height of summer and temperatures were touching 100 degrees Fahrenheit there were still plenty of birds, including good numbers of White Stork, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis and Eurasian Spoonbill, with passerines including Short-toed Lark, Great Reed Warbler and some dazzlingly colourful male Yellow-crowned Bishops. One field held a large flock of immature gulls, the great majority of them Lesser Black-backeds, but prolonged scrutiny produced a few Yellow-leggeds and what was eventually confirmed as easily our best bird of the day – a first-summer Audouin’s Gull, a major rarity in Portugal away from the Algarve (more photos and some comments on the ID on.my eBird checklist here).

Second-calendar-year Audouin's Gull - a rarity this far north in Portugal.
After lunch in the impressive reserve centre at Leziria Grande, which laid on Collared Pratincoles outside the window while we ate, it was time to move on to the Barroca d’Alva area. Here we noted more bishops and a good mix of wetland species, including two unseasonable Green Sandpipers, while on a private estate nearby – access being one of the benefits of using Birds and Nature – Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Booted Eagle, Hoopoe, Short-toed Treecreeper and Iberian Magpie (now split from Azure-winged) were among the numerous additions on the day list.

Male Yellow-crowned Bishop feeling the midday heat as temperatures hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
At a final stop at the Sado Estuary we managed to catch up with Melodious Warbler, along with a flock of Scaly-breasted Munias. This is not – yet – the ‘countable’ munia species in Portugal: that used to be Black-headed Munia, but the past tense seems appropriate as the species has apparently disappeared from its former haunts in the Tejo Estuary and its Category C status may prove  premature. In contrast, as our flock of nine birds demonstrated, Scaly-breasted Munia is more numerous and widespread, and potentially a strong candidate for upgrading from Category E to Category C.

A party of Scaly-breasted Munias. Another naturalised exotic, this species is a potential addition to Category C.
As with my previous outing with Birds and Nature Tours Portugal, the experience was extremely rewarding. I could have rented a car myself and gone birding, but with limited time, lack of knowledge of local sites, and the need to travel around, out of and back into the Portuguese capital to find my hotel, I could not have made better use of the available time. Importantly, it's also good to support local ecotourism businesses that offer great service and value for money. I'd thoroughly recommend Birds and Nature Tours Portugal to anyone birding in the Lisbon region, and for that matter anywhere else in Portugal.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Wax returns

It’s a thankless annual chore, but there may be some advantages to filling in tax returns just ahead of January’s deadline. Six years ago this month, just after handing in my tax return, I drove on afterwards to my local patch at Rainham in east London and found Britain’s first Slaty-backed Gull.

One of the two Waxwings getting 2017's garden list off to a flying start.
While I would be lucky to improve on that personal best, yesterday I had another welcome find while sorting out my tax papers. Glancing out of the window from my desk to keep half an eye on the male Blackcap that is intermittently visiting our garden, I glimpsed a distant bird sally almost vertically out of the top of a large tree. No regular garden bird should be behaving like that in north London in January, so I reached for my binoculars and, sure enough, it proved to be a flycatching Waxwing – one of two, no less. (The fact that insects are still on the wing in mid-winter is surely a sign of how mild it is currently).

Waxwings have been slow to reach the south this winter - hopefully these two are a sign of things to come.
The birds were only on view briefly, but I managed to fire off a few quick shots to document the record. Fortunately they returned later on, and since then have been reasonably settled in the vicinity of a fruiting berry tree in a neighbouring road. Waxwings are always noteworthy in southern England, and particularly in the capital – none have been in this area for a few years, but I did have up to 26 around the garden just after Christmas back in 2010. These latest birds were the crowning glory on a garden day list that ended on 27 species, the equal second-highest total I’ve had here in just over 15 years, with other highlights including 2 Fieldfares, 17 Redwings, a pair of Blackcaps and - numerically rarer than Waxwing in my garden in recent years - a single House Sparrow. You can read the full list on eBird.

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