Category Archives: International

29th Mar-5th Apr 2017 – Spring Birding in Cyprus

Cyprus is a great place to witness early spring migration across the Mediterranean. On almost the 30th anniversary of my last visit, I decided it was about time I returned. So, we spent a very enjoyable week on Cyprus, based in the south-west, north of Paphos. Needless to say, there were lots of good birds to see, both regional specialities and migrants heading north.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was on our first full morning on Cyprus. We decided to have an early look round the archaeological site on Paphos Headland, which is a magnet for migrants. One of the first birds we came across was a male Cinereous Bunting, a very scarce visitor to Cyprus, on its way between back to breed in W Turkey or Lesbos, from its wintering grounds around the Red Sea. Quite a way to start!

6O0A1454Cinereous Bunting – a very scarce visitor to Cyprus

There are three endemic species found on Cyprus, which are ‘must sees’ on any visit. Thankfully, two of them are not hard to see. We saw Cyprus Wheatear every day. A small number were on the coast, possibly fresh arrivals, but slightly inland birds were singing and holding territory. Formerly considered a race of Pied Wheatear, Cyprus Wheatear has for some time been treated as a full species in its own right.

6O0A1320Cyprus Wheatear – a singing male, near to where we were staying

Cyprus Warbler was a little harder to find, but still we came across birds at three different sites. Like many Mediterraean Sylvia warblers, they are rather skulking birds, but the song of the male at this time of year alerted us to their presence. With a bit of perseverance, we were able to enjoy great views of them.

6O0A1775Cyprus Warbler – we came across singing males at three different sites

The third endemic species is another which has been elevated from a mere subspecies, in this instance rather more recently, just last year (and still not recognised as such by all authorities). Cyprus Scops Owl was previously treated as a race of European Scops Owl, but has a noticeably different ‘song’ and also tends to be rather darker. We had heard one singing at night on a couple of occasions, but were then told about a site where there was a day roosting bird which might be visible. Thankfully, after we heard it singing briefly in the middle of the day, we managed to find it roosting in a tree. A stunning bird! We also heard another day singing Cyprus Scops Owl the same day at another site.

6O0A3518Cyprus Scops Owl – now generally treated as a full endemic species

Aside from these three, there are also several endemic or near-endemic subspecies on Cyprus, several of which are found up a higher elevation in the Troodos Mountains. We spent a very successful morning in the Troodos, where were able to locate the four main target birds – Dorothy’s Treecreeper, Cyprus Coal Tit, Cyprus Jay and guillemardi Crossbill (the latter is also found in Turkey & the Caucasus). The first two are particularly distinctive.

Dorothy’s Treecreeper is quite a striking bird, much greyer above than Short-toed Treecreeper (of which it is currently considered a subspecies) and with a very different vocal repertoire. Both of these suggest that it could be a candidate for revised treatment as a full species in the future.

6O0A3361Dorothy’s (Short-toed) Treecreeper – much greyer & with very different vocalisations

Cyprus Coal Tit also looks very different from other subspecies of Coal Tit, with a very extensive black bib and reduced white cheeks and white nape stripe.

6O0A3243Cyprus Coal Tit – differing in appearance to other Coal Tits

Cyprus is also a great place to see several eastern Mediterranean species, like Cretzschmar’s Bunting and Ruppell’s Warbler. Ruppell’s Warbler is just a migrant, passing through at this time of year – we saw them quite regularly during our stay. As well as Ruppell’s Warbler, there were smaller numbers of Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and Eastern Subalpine Warbler plus a single Eastern Orphean Warbler on our first full morning at Paphos. As elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Sardinian Warblers are common and large numbers of Lesser Whitethroat and Chiffchaffs were seen daily, stopping off on their journey north.

6O0A2358Ruppell’s Warbler – a male

Cretzschmar’s Bunting breeds on Cyprus, but is much commoner at this time of year, as birds are also passing through on migration. We ran into them regularly during our stay, both at sites around the coast such as Paphos, and also inland. We also found a small number of Ortolan Buntings, often associating with the commoner Cretzschmar’s Buntings.

6O0A3533Cretzschmar’s Bunting – a summer visitor and passage migrant through Cyprus

As well as the Cypriot specialities, the main reason for visiting Cyprus at this time of year is to see all the migrants which are passing through the island. Wagtails and Pipits were particularly in evidence. It was great to watch large flocks of yellow wagtails, with one numbering a conservative 150 birds, feeding in the fields. The largest proportion of the flocks were Black-headed Wagtails, their buzzy calls very different from the Yellow Wagtails we get here. It was a particularly great experience to watch them feeding at close quarters in a carpet of spring flowers at Paphos headland. Stunning!

6O0A1556-001Black-headed Wagtail – feeding in the spring flowers at Paphos headland

Black-headed Wagtail intergrades with several other subspecies of yellow wagtail and some of these forms are distinctive enough to have specific names. However, the range of variation is considerable. ‘superciliaris’ typically has a black head with a clear white supercilium, but some birds have much reduced white on the head.

6O0A3845Black-headed Wagtail ‘superciliaris’ intergrade – with a white supercilium

The ‘dombrowskii’ intergrade form has a greyer head, blacker ear coverts and a bright supercilium, but again we found several birds which had a reduced supercilium, or had differing proportions of grey and black around the head. It was fascinating to see the range of variation.

6O0A3950Black-headed Wagtail ‘dombrowskii’ intergrade type – grey nape, but reduced supercilium

The Pipits were slightly less confusing, but no less exciting that the Wagtails. Another of the highlights was watching groups of Red-throated Pipits feeding just a few metres away in the spring flowers at Paphos. On one morning, we had at least 30 Red-throated Pipits here. Many were in full summer plumage now, with throats in various shades of red. We encountered smaller groups of Tree Pipits and Meadow Pipits too. Tawny Pipits were passing through as well, and a flock of about 20 Tawny Pipits in the hills was particularly noteworthy.

6O0A4231Red-throated Pipit – feeding in the spring flowers at Paphos

As well as the endemic Cyprus Wheatears, several other wheatear species were passing through the island while we were there. There were good numbers of Northern Wheatears, which we encountered regularly around the coast. However, it was particularly nice to have the chance to watch plenty of Isabelline Wheatears, a rather rare visitor to the UK.

6O0A2601Isabelline Wheatear – we saw good numbers of this species, mostly around the coast

On one morning, we encountered a particularly good arrival of wheatears on Paphos headland and in with the Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, we found a cracking male Desert Wheatear too. Desert Wheatear is a regular migrant through Cyprus, but in small numbers, so this was certainly a good bird to see.

6O0A1634Desert Wheatear – a smart male

We also encountered good numbers of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears on our travels, with males of both the pale-throated and dark-throated forms and a few females.

6O0A1717Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – of the pale-throated form

From around the middle of our week on Cyprus, there was a noticeable arrival of flycatchers. They came in particularly with some rain overnight Friday into Saturday. After that, we found Collared Flycatchers to be fairly common, mostly ones or twos but we ran into them at many different sites, and often just in bushes along the roadside. Smigies picnic site was one of the most productive sites – we had at least four different male Collared Flycatchers here one morning.

6O0A2756Collared Flycatcher – a noticeable arrival and then seen daily

As well as the Collared Flycatchers we found a couple of Semi-collared Flycatchers and Pied Flycatchers. It provided a great opportunity to compare the three different species. Most of the flycatchers passing through at this time were smart males, which always makes the process of identification easier.

6O0A2451Semi-collared Flycatcher – we found a couple of males of this species

As well as all the wheatears and flycatchers, there were smaller numbers of Common Redstart, Stonechat and Whinchat on their way north. While Nightingales breed on Cyprus, there were many around the coast especially that appeared to be migrants. We also came across three different Wrynecks at widely spaced locations.

There were smaller numbers of migrant larks passing through Cyprus at this time of year. However, we did encounter several small flocks of Short-toed Larks around the coast, which are always nice to see.

6O0A2235Short-toed Lark – we encountered several small flocks around the coast

The resident Crested Larks were very obliging, with their punk haircuts. Very photogenic!

6O0A1451Crested Lark – very obliging

Some other noticeable migrants we saw regularly were herons. Small flocks of Grey Herons and Night Herons were seen coming in around the coast or making their way inland.

6O0A2500Night Heron – several small groups seen on the move around the coast

On one morning, we flushed a Purple Heron from the archaeological site at Paphos, which flew round and landed in the trees nearby, and then watched a second Purple Heron come in off the sea. As well as the more obvious migrants, we saw several herons and egrets around some of the wetland sites, including also a few Squacco Herons, Cattle Egrets and Little Egrets.

6O0A2212Purple Heron – a fresh arrival, at Paphos archaeological site

Harriers are also passing through Cyprus at this time of year. We saw several Pallid Harriers, including a number of stunning pale grey males. A smaller number of Marsh Harriers were obviously on the move, seen coming in off the sea or migrating through the hills, with one or two lingering around the wetland sites near Akrotiri. We also came across a single female Hen Harrier near Phassouri reedbeds.

6O0A2125Pallid Harrier – a stunning grey male

A Black Kite passing over the hills above Polis was a bit of a surprise. It is rather early for this species on Cyprus and this was possibly the first seen on the island this year.

6O0A3670Black Kite – an early migrant above Polis

Resident raptors include Bonelli’s Eagle, which we ran into at three sites, two pairs and a single bird. The only Long-legged Buzzard we found was at Theletra, but we had great views of it as it circled overhead. A single Common Buzzard early in the morning near the Baths of Aphrodite was possibly waiting for the day to warm up before flying off north.

6O0A3591Long-legged Buzzard – circled overhead at Theletra

The commonest raptor on Cyprus is Common Kestrel. However, there are also Lesser Kestrels to be found at certain sites. These are summer visitors, but fortunately several were already in. We found seven at Anarita Park on our visit. As well as the smart males, it was good to get a chance to study the more subtle females too.

6O0A2725Lesser Kestrel – a male at Anarita Park

Crakes are passing through Cyprus at the moment. There are no good wetland sites in the SW of the island these days (most of the pools have dried up), so to see them we had to venture further east. Unfortunately, we were unable to engineer our visits to be there for early morning or late afternoon, when the crakes are most active. But we did get lucky with a female Little Crake which came out to bathe in the middle of the afternoon after a rain shower. We watched it for over 15 minutes right below the hide at Zakaki, preening and then creeping around in the vegetation feeding. Stunning views!

6O0A3058Little Crake – this female spent over 15 mins preening & feeding in front of the hide

Waders were similarly thinly distributed in the west, the only exception being the striking Spur-winged Lapwing, which we found feeding in fields at a couple of sites and even on the rocks around the headland at Paphos. Stone Curlews were heard calling every night from our villa and we found at least four out in the open in an olive grove at Lower Esouzas one morning. We did also find three Green Sandpipers on the river around the ford at Nata. On two mornings we came across flocks of Black-winged Stilts flying west past Paphos early on.

6O0A2642Spur-winged Lapwing – found at several sites, often away from wetlands

However, particularly near Larnaca we found a much better selection of waders. The most productive site we found was Meneou pools. The highlight here was a Red-necked Phalarope which we found, a scarce migrant through Cyprus and the first this year. However, at the same site we counted 22 Marsh Sandpipers, plus 5 Kentish Plover, good numbers of Little Stint, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Black-winged Stilts and 7 Stone Curlew. There were also five Slender-billed Gulls here too, the only place we saw this species. Oroklini held several Wood Sandpipers and two more Little Stints, as well as lots of Black-winged Stilt and a few Spur-winged Lapwing. We added Common Sandpiper to the trip list with three at Larnaca Sewage Works.

The area around Akrotiri was a little disappointing in comparison. Phassouri Reedbeds produced several Wood Sandpiper, lots of Ruff and a few Common Snipe. A group of six Little Ringed Plover which dropped down by a puddle next to the road at Zakaki were probably migrants and moved on quickly. We managed to find 2 Marsh Sandpipers and a Little Stint at Lady’s Mile eventually, but otherwise¬† it was mainly Ruff and Black-winged Stilt here.

The Greater Flamingoes around Akrotiri were a nice addition to the trip list. There were still lots out on the salt lake – with 1,000+ counted in recent days – but we got closer views at Lady’s Mile and Meneou.

6O0A2916Greater Flamingo – still 1,000+ around Akrotiri during our stay

With relatively few hirundines in UK at this time of year, it was nice to see good numbers on migration through Cyprus. Swallows and House Martins were both common and we also saw a small number of Sand Martins. Red-rumped Swallows were both migrating through – we saw several obvious migrants around the coast – and inland they were getting ready to breed. On our way up into the Troodos Mountains, we stopped by a roadside puddle to watch a little group of House Martins and a pair of Red-rumped Swallows coming down to collect mud for their nests.

6O0A3162Red-rumped Swallow – coming down to collect mud for nest building

Lots of Common Swifts were seen, particularly around the coast, but there were comparatively few Pallid Swifts to be found. One over Oroklini with Common Swifts was presumably a migrant, but a pair of Pallid Swifts over Troodos were possibly breeding birds back on territory.

The shrikes we encountered were similarly made up of both migrants and breeding birds. Masked Shrike is the key species we wanted to see here, and we found both birds passing through on the coast and singing birds, holding territory inland. We also saw a smaller number of Woodchat Shrikes on our travels.

6O0A1696Masked Shrike – both migrants passing through and birds holding territory inland

While those were some of the notable birds we came across, we also saw many more species and there were several non-avian highlights too. As well as many lizards, we came across one snake when my son, Luke, nearly trod on a Blunt-nosed Viper which was playing dead on a patch of waste ground. This is the most venomous snake on Cyprus, so it was lucky he spotted it in time! Thankfully, bites are rare and it appeared to be just a small one.

6O0A1284Blunt-nosed Viper – Cyprus’ most venomous snake

We encountered a nice selection of butterflies – including amongst others Swallowtail, Eastern Festoon, Clouded Yellow, Cyprus Meadow Brown and Mallow Skipper. As well as a few Common Blue, we also found several of the endemic Paphos Blue.

Paphos Blue Cyprus Peyia 2017-03-29_1Paphos Blue – showing the distinctive underwing pattern

The spring flowers are amazing at this time of year, and we came across three different orchids on our travels. Several Bug Orchids were in flower down at Akrotiri, but on our way up into the Troodos we found a small group of Naked Man Orchid and Giant Orchids by the side of the road. Very smart flowers!

Naked Man Orchid Orchis italica Cyrpus Troodos 2017-04-03_1Naked Man Orchid – by the roadside on the way up to Troodos

It was certainly a very exciting week we spent in Cyprus – from the large flocks of commoner migrants, to the rarer visitors and the local specialities. It is a lovely place to go birding at this time of year and we will certainly go back in the future. Hopefully it will not be another 30 years! We can definitely recommend it.

10th-17th July 2016 – Corsica

Corsica is a popular holiday destination, but it is also a great place to go birding. As with so many other islands, it has developed some of its own unique species through long periods of geographic isolation. Several birds are found only on Corsica or on neighbouring islands in the Mediterranean, which makes it an essential place to visit in order to catch up with some of these species. We spent a week exploring the north of the island between 10th and 17th July. Some of the photographic highlights are shown below.

6O0A5033Corsican Nuthatch

Corsican Nuthatch is the main target when birding in Corsica, as it is only the only species which is endemic to just this island. It is found found in the mature Corsican Pine forests on the slopes of the mountains, typically between 1000-1500m above sea level. We found Corsican Nuthatches comparatively easily in the right habitat.

Interestingly, the first Corsican Nuthatch we found (photo above) was much lower down than we were expecting, at just 795m. In BWP Vol VII (Cramp et al, 1993) gives the “extremes for sighting being 800-1800m”, which suggests that this Corsican Nuthatch had not read the book!

6O0A5362Corsican Finch

6O0A5250Corsican Finch juvenile

Corsican Finch was historically considered a race of Citril Finch, but differs particularly in its brown back streaked with black and brighter yellow face and underparts. It has since been separated out as a species in its own right. It is only found on Corsica and neighbouring Sardinia. We saw fewer Corsican Finches that we might have expected, although we did manage to find family parties of them on a couple of days in the right habitat, in open sunny clearings in the pine forest. An interesting bird to see, particularly having seen Citril Finch not so long ago!

6O0A6023

6O0A5902Marmora’s Warbler

Marmora’s Warbler is another species which has recently been split, in this case from the very similar Balearic Warbler which, as its name suggests, is found on the Balearic Islands. What is now known as Marmora’s Warbler is found only on Corsica and Sardinia plus some smaller islands of western Italy.

Marmora’s Warblers favour hillsides covered in low scrub, maquis and garrigue, from the coast up into the mountains, but appear to be rather localised to areas with the correct habitat. The rather similar Dartford Warbler can be found in many of the same places which can invite confusion, but if seen well the adults are noticeably different, Marmora’s being plain grey above and below, amongst other things. The call is also very different. Many warblers can be hard to see well in the height of summer, when they are not singing, but we were lucky to get fantastic views of Marmora’s Warblers on Corsica.

6O0A5096Lammergeier

6O0A5128Lammergeier dwarfing a nearby Red Kite

Although it is not an endemic, Lammergeier (or perhaps more appropriately called ‘Bearded Vulture’) is a spectacular bird and much sought after on Corsica. In Europe, it is perhaps only really found now in the Pyrenees, in the Alps where it has been reintroduced, on Corsica and on Crete. It is a species which has been declining throughout much of its range, and the population in Corsica perhaps now numbers fewer than 20 individuals.

As a consequence, we considered ourselves very privileged to see a Lammergeier on Corsica (although we did benefit from a tip off about a good place to look!). Even better, we saw it dropping down from the ridge beyond and circling overhead for about 10 minutes, in the company of about 15 Red Kites. A stunning bird in a spectacular setting!

6O0A5516-001Woodchat Shrike – of the subspecies badius

It is not just about endemic species. Many islands are also home to unique subspecies, some of which are perhaps candidates for future upgrades to full species status. Woodchat Shrike is a widely distributed bird found around the Mediterranean, but the form which occurs on Corsica is (predominantly?) the subspecies badius. Sometimes known as ‘Balearic’ Woodchat Shrike, it should perhaps be renamed as it occurs on Corsica and Sardinia as well as the Balearic Islands. This form differs from the nominate race of Woodchat Shrike by, amongst other things, the absence of white patch at the base of the primaries.

6O0A6172Woodchat Shrike – this bird showed more white in the wing than a typical badius

We found several Woodchat Shrikes as we drove around the island, including a couple of family parties. Interestingly one bird which we came across (photo above) appeared to show rather more white in the wing than is generally associated with badius, though not as much as is typically shown in the nominate race. Is this perhaps just within a wider range of variation? We also found several Red-backed Shrikes on our travels around the island, which were great to see.

6O0A5744Spotted Flycatcher

The Spotted Flycatchers on Corsica are also considered to be a separate subspecies (tyrrhenica) from the ones we get here (striata). Thankfully they are still common on the island, in contrast to the situation here where they have declined quite dramatically in recent years and are now getting quite scarce. The subspecies tyrrhenica is supposed to be less streaked below, although we found quite a bit of variation in appearance of the birds which we saw.

6O0A5542

6O0A5556Italian Sparrows

One of the other highlights of a visit to Corsica is the Italian Sparrows, which are also found quite commonly around the island. Traditionally thought to be a stable hybrid ‘swarm’ between House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, they are now generally treated as a full species. There is quite a bit of variation in appearance around the Mediterranean, but the birds on Corsica are quite consistent and conform nicely to what might be considered a ‘typical’ Italian Sparrow. Interestingly, the birds on neighbouring Sardinia are considered to be Spanish Sparrows and those on Sicily appear to be a variety of intermediates!

6O0A5650Audouin’s Gull

When not looking for endemic species or subspecies, there are lots of regular Mediterranean birds to be enjoyed. A few other photographic highlights from out trip are shown below. Audouin’s Gulls can be found along the coast, particularly in the east – always a delight to see!

6O0A6085Tawny Pipit

Tawny Pipits appear to be rather localised but we had driven past what looked like a good site a couple of times, and a bit of exploration on our last day produced the goods.

6O0A5445Rock Sparrow

We were pleased to come across a group of Rock Sparrows feeding in some overgrown fields in the foothills, another rather localised species which can be hard to tie down.

6O0A5373Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting is another species which is still reasonably common in Corsica, in contrast to the situation here. It was really nice to see them, and particularly to hear them singing.

6O0A5741Hooded Crow

Hooded Crows are common on Corsica, particularly around built up areas. This one was relaxing on a sun lounger by the beach! They are replaced by Ravens at higher altitudes.

It is not just the birding that is worth visiting Corsica for, the scenery is pretty good too!

IMG_5100Haut Asco

IMG_5132Fortin de Pasciolo

IMG_5176Occi ruins

IMG_5155Etang de Biguglia

For a relaxed birding holiday in beautiful surroundings, with some great – and unique – birds to see, Corsica is a prefect place to visit. It comes heartily recommended!

July 2015 – Birding Mallorca

I have not been to Mallorca for almost 35 years so this year seemed like an appropriate time for a return visit. The Balearic Islands have a number of birds for which they are well known and a lot more is known about the taxonomy of the forms in the region now. Some birds which breed there have been elevated to full species in the intervening period, whereas others remain interesting subspecies – for now at least. Either way, there were quite a number of birds I was very keen to catch up with again.

Mallorca is also a great place to see a variety of the more regular southern European birds. While July is not the ideal time for a visit, as it can get very hot during the day, we still had a very successful trip. We saw just under 100 species in total during the week we were there, and all the main ones we had wanted to see. The photos below show a few of the highlights – I can thoroughly recommend a birding trip to the island.

P1050024P1040238Balearic Warbler – a recent split from Marmora’s Warbler, this species is one of the main targets, normally to be found skulking in coastal garrigue

P1050327P1050314Moltoni’s Warbler – another very recent split (from Subalpine Warbler), found on mountain hillsides, the distinctive Wren-like call gives it away – this female (above) was feeding a couple of juveniles (below)

P1040999P1040805Moustached Warbler – found sparsely but widely around the Mediterranean and S Europe, s’Albufera on Mallorca is one of the best places to see this secretive reedbed-dwelling species

P1040768P1040765Eleonora’s Falcon – found on rocky islands and coastal cliffs around the Mediterranean, Mallorca is a great place to watch this species in action

P1040580P1040658Balearic Woodchat Shrike – currently still treated as a subspecies (badius) this form lacks the white primary patch of the other Woodchat Shrikes

P1040698Spotted Flycatcher – the local race, balearica, is noticeably paler and less streaked than the ones we see in UK

P1040710P1040727Crossbill – likewise, the local balearica race of Crossbill has noticeably different calls to the ones we see here

P1040530P1040584Red-knobbed Coot – also known as Crested Coot, this species was extinct on Mallorca but has been reintroduced and now appears to be doing well – it is easy to see around the reserve at s’Albufera

P1040577Purple Swamphen – also reintroduced to s’Albufera and also seemingly now doing very well

P1040472P1040499Little Bittern – s’Albufera reserve provides fantastic opportunities to observe this typically secretive species, the female (immediately above) was watched for hours feeding quietly along a reed-fringed ditch

P1040600Little Bittern – this female clamboured up into the top of a large clump of reeds and perched, neck outstretched, for a couple of minutes while we stood and admired it

As well as the Little Bitterns, s’Albufera reserve has a wide variety of other egrets and herons, which can all be watched at close quarters, particularly flying in and out of the nesting colonies.

P1040974Squacco Heron

P1040587Night Heron

P1040960Cattle Egret

P1050005Purple Heron

P1040440Great White Egret – a more recent arrival, a couple were seen feeding around the scrapes

P1050201Greater Flamingo – mostly a winter visitor, a few seem to remain for the summer around the saltpans in the south

P1040880P1050182Black-winged Stilt – easy to see at all the main wetlands, and always a pleasure

P1040451Kentish Plover – also a common bird at the main wetland sites, but particularly accommodating at s’Albufera, a great place to study the species up close

P1040183Stone Curlew – still a fairly common bird of farmland on the island, more often heard in the evening than seen during the day

P1050115Audouin’s Gull – previously rather difficult to see here, this bird is now common and often to be found scavenging around beaches in the late afternoon when the crowds have gone

P1050344Black (Cinereous) Vulture – not hard to find in the Tramuntana Mountains in the north of the island, though Griffon Vultures have colonised in recent years and are now also to be found in many of the same places

P1050057Booted Eagle – not as common as in S Spain, for example, but still can be seen regularly in the mountains, this one a pale adult

P1050253Thekla Lark – the only Galerida lark on the island, hence avoiding the risk of confusion with the very similar Crested Lark of the mainland, the birds here have a straighter lower mandible than those elsewhere

P1050328Tawny Pipit – not uncommon in the right habitat, but not a particularly easy bird to find, this one a juvenile

P1040876Sardinian Warbler – one of the commonest birds on the island, but often skulking in the undergrowth, this female fed out in the open on the ground wrestling with a large winged insect

P1040194Bee-eater – found widely across southern Europe but always a delight to see, we watched this pair visiting their nest burrow in a sandy cliff face

15th-20th April 2015 – Bird Migration in Sicily

There have been no blog posts for the last week, not because I haven’t been out and about, but because of where I have been. The island of Sicily, positioned as it is in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, is a great place to witness migration in action, as birds coming north from Africa stop off to feed on their way. It was a fantastic place to visit and I saw some great birds as well as some magical places.

P1000038Pantano Longarini – looking beautiful in the early morning sunlight

On the first day, I headed down to the marshes of Cuba and Longarini. Right from the outset it was clear that migrants had arrived overnight. Lots of Tree Pipits buzzed overhead and there were large numbers of Whinchat and Northern Wheatear in the fields. A careful look through them revealed the first Eastern Black-eared Wheatear of the trip – by the end of my visit I had found at least six, at various sites, all females.

IMG_4138Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – a female

The waterbirds were the main reason for the visit here, and I particularly wanted to spend some time watching Ferruginous Ducks. I was not disappointed – at least 20 were on Pantano Cuba, which afforded the best views, with more distant birds also on Longarini and another three on Pantano Bruno. I saw them most days and was lucky to be able to watch them displaying on several occasions.

IMG_4141Ferruginous Duck – a smart chestnut drake

There were lots of Garganey out on the water too, and a smattering of other ducks. A couple of pairs of Black-necked Grebe eventually showed themselves, amongst the more common Great Crested and Little Grebes. The Purple Swamphen were hard to see amongst the reeds, but the Purple Herons were more obliging. One of the highlights of the morning was seeing a flock of 9 Purple Herons, presumably migrants, fly in to Pantano Cuba. A flock of 19 Gull-billed Terns overhead was also quite a sight!

P1000091Purple Heron – this one was trying to hide amongst the vegetation

On day 2, I headed over to the marshes at Vendicari early in the morning. The Greater Flamingos were the first things to catch the eye – at least 150 of them from the first hide overlooking the largest of the marshes. There were also lots of Spoonbills feeding, plus a few Squacco Herons and a single Black-crowned Night Heron standing on the mud.

P1000098Greater Flamingo – always a spectacular bird to see

There has been lots of rain in Sicily this last winter, and the water levels at Cuba and Longarini were high – great for the ducks. In the shallower water at Vendicari, there were lots more waders. As well as plenty of Black-winged Stilts, there were several Marsh Sandpiper, lots of Wood Sandpiper including a flock of 10 which flew in over the beach, many Little Stints running around on the mud and a few moulting adult Curlew Sandpiper with them, to name but a few.

IMG_4147Marsh Sandpiper – there were several of this charming wader at Vendicari

Vendicari is a very popular reserve for tourists and school groups so, as the number of people increased, I headed off north. Close to Siracusa, the headland of Capo Murro di Porco is renowned as one of the best places to find rare migrants in Sicily. A flock of 11 Bee-eaters was resting on the wires as I arrived, occasionally swooping out after flying insects. There were also lots of Tree Pipits amongst the low Mediterranean garrigue, but few signs of other migrants. However, the highlight was a single young (2nd cal year) Pallid Harrier which swept across the headland and away to the north. I was pleased to see this but little did I know what was to come tomorrow!

In the afternoon, I headed for Portopalo, the town at the south-east corner of Sicily. Down at the port, I spent some time watching the Audouin’s Gulls circling round amongst the fishing boats. Nearby, a couple of Slender-billed Gulls and a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull were standing on the beach with a Gull-billed Tern. Around onto the headland nearby and a few Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters were lingering offshore – they were seen off most coastal headlands visited.

P1000163Audouin’s Gull – several were hanging around each of the fishing ports

An early start on day 3 saw me heading up into the hills. Cava Grande de Casabile is a spectacular limestone gorge, and a popular tourist destination, but it can also be good for birds. I had particularly wanted to see the local race, cantillans, of Eastern Subalpine Warbler and here I managed to catch up with several of them, calling and singing. There were also lots of lovely hillside birds to look at, such as Rock Sparrows and Cirl Bunting. Despite this, it was a frustrating morning. A male Semi-collared Flycatcher hovered briefly by the entrance to the car park, but then was gone. After a thorough search, I briefly caught sight of it perched before it flew into the gardens and did not reappear. Eventually, I gave up and moved on.

It was still early so, on a whim, I decided to have another look at Capo Murro di Porco. It seemed even quieter than yesterday when I arrived. Then, around 11am, it all changed. A harrier appeared and, as it worked its way past really close, it was clear that it was a Pallid Harrier. Then another Pallid Harrier came past – at first, I wasn’t sure whether I might have been double counting. That marked the opening of the floodgates and, over the next 90 minutes it rained harriers. At least 35 Marsh Harriers and 20 ringtail harriers passed overhead – it was hard to keep count. Amongst the latter, Pallid seemed to significantly outnumber Montagu’s Harrier, but all of them appeared to be young (2nd calendar year) birds. Many of them continued out to the end of the headland and were watched disappearing out to see to the east.

P1000185Pallid Harrier – one of many through Murro di Porco

Harriers were not the only birds passing through. At least 25 Red-footed Falcons went past in the same time period, including a little flock of 9 birds which passed just overhead. There were also a couple of Lesser Kestrels and a Hobby. Hirundine migration had also picked up and there were lots of House and Sand Martins in the move. Swift migration had also started in earnest and amongst the hundreds of Common Swifts, I could pick out a small number of Alpine Swifts. It was a truly amazing sight to stand there and watch all these migrating birds streaming through. Then, just as quickly as it had started, it all dried up and the birds stopped coming.

That should have been enough for one day, but there was more to come. Late afternoon, I headed down to Portopalo harbour again. Out on the headland there was one small fenced off area amongst the low Mediterranean vegetation. There were no birds anywhere else but the fence was alive – with flycatchers the key feature. Amongst the Spotted & Pied Flycatchers was a cracking male Collared Flycatcher.

IMG_4193Collared Flycatcher – this very smart male was with Pied Flys at Portopalo

I finished the day back at Pantano Cuba, where two stunning White-winged Black Terns were hawking over the lake. A flock of at least 28 Blue-headed Wagtails dropped in to feed before heading off into the reeds to look for a roost site. A Red-throated Pipit flew over calling. What an awesome day, one I will never forget.

The following morning, there was no sign of any flycatchers at the site where they had been the day before near Portopalo – but they had obviously moved straight through. However, over at Pantano Cuba, there was more to see. A tight group of 13 Wood Sandpipers and 6 Greenshank were present, though struggled to find anywhere to land. We eventually found a handful of flycatchers as well, mostly Pied but also one Spotted Flycatcher. With them were a couple of smart Wood Warblers.

In the afternoon, I was very privileged to be taken to the site of a Lanner nest. For the first couple of hours, it was very quiet. Just a couple of Buzzards and a pair of Ravens up overhead. Then finally the male appeared, though strangely on closer inspection he appeared to be a young bird, born last year. The female appeared by the nest shortly afterwards. We watched them on and off for an hour or so, but their behaviour was confusing and suggested they may not be breeding this year. If the young male was the new other half of the pair, he may have been too young to breed successfully this year.

IMG_4214Lanner – unfortunately perched up against the light

On my final morning, I got up early and went for a quick look around Cuba and Longarini again. The Ferruginous Ducks put on an especially good show for me, just before I had to leave. While I was standing there, I could hear a Penduline Tit flying overhead calling but unfortunately I couldn’t get to see it.

I still had time to call in briefly at Capo Murro di Porco on my way to the airport and well worthwhile it was too! Another couple of Pallid Harriers passed overhead and out over the sea.¬† Out by the old lighthouse, a small party of wheatears included two Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. Then a walk round one of the damper areas produced a couple of Tawny Pipits and a small flock of flava Wagtails. The latter included a single Black-headed Wagtail. The walk back to the car finally flushed a couple of Richard’s Pipits.

IMG_4218Tawny Pipit – this one appears to be covered in yellow pollen

P1000154‘Sicilian’ Sparrows are a confusing mix of Italian & Spanish types

That is simply a few edited highlights of my trip. There were so many magic moments and I really cannot recommend it enough for a spring visit.

July – Canary Islands endemics

In early July, I travelled to Tenerife in the Canary Islands to look for some of the endemic birds on the island and to spend some time seawatching. The Atlantic islands are interesting because years of isolation have resulted in a number of species which are found nowhere else in the world. Even some of the birds more familiar to us have local subspecies, some of which are more distinct than others. Several of these could even arguably be candidates for full species in their own right – where the dividing line lies is somewhat arbitrary. A chance to look at speciation in action!

A few of the highlights are below:

Atlantic Canary Tenerife 2014-07_1

Atlantic Canary – the name says it all, endemic to Canary Islands and Madeira

Blue Chaffinch Tenerife 2014-07_1

Blue Chaffinch – another endemic, breeding in pine forests at higher altitude. Stunning birds!

Canary Islands Chaffinch tintillon male Tenerife 2014-07_2

Chaffinch – at lower altitudes in the laurel forest, the Blue Chaffinch is replaced by the local subspecies tintillon of Common Chaffinch. It looks and sounds rather different to our birds so perhaps a future candidate for full species rank?

Laurel Pigeons Tenerife 2014-07_1

Laurel Pigeons – the other key endemics to see are the two species of pigeon, Bolle’s and Laurel, both residents of the native laurel forest. Easy enough to find, but hard to see well in the dense trees

Canary Islands Chiffchaff Tenerife 2014-07_1

Canary Islands Chiffchaff – this one has recently been given full species status by many authorities. Rather short-winged compared to our Chiffchaff, and vocally very different

Tenerife Goldcrest 2014-07_1

Tenerife Goldcrest – the black band across the fore-crown distinguishes it from ours. Another subspecies which could be upgraded in the future, and already has by some

Canary Islands Great Spotted Woodpecker Tenerife 2014-07_1

Great Spotted Woodpecker – the local race canariensis, only found on Tenerife, looks and sounds similar to ours

The real highlight of the trip for me was the seawatching. I had particularly wanted to see Barolo (Little) Shearwaters but the population has crashed over the last 10-15 years and they are now very hard to see (some commentators have even suggested they may be on course for extinction in the not too distant future). Historically best seen from the short ferry crossing over to the island of La Gomera, they are not seen with any regularity there any more (we tried without success). However, we were staying on the coast on the north of the island, overlooking the sea, and while seawatching from the balcony on our first afternoon, I was amazed to pick up a Barolo Shearwater feeding offshore. On subsequent afternoons, I saw at least 3 birds feeding and more moving west with the Cory’s Shearwaters in the late evening. It was a real privilege to be able to watch them at length, and the series of sightings is significant enough to be of interest to researchers studying the species.

Cory's Shearwater Tenerife 2014-07_10

Cory’s Shearwater

As well as the Barolo Shearwaters, there were hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters and smaller numbers of Bulwer’s Petrels (my maximum count was 13 on one evening). The latter is also surprisingly seldom recorded from land-based seawatching on Tenerife, but I found them relatively easy to see in the evening, presumably as they returned towards their breeding colonies.

All in all, it was a very rewarding trip and I would heartily recommend it as a fascinating birdwatching destination.