Monday, 16 January 2012

A cold and frosty morning

I was in a pensive mood as I walked to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve this morning. Mostly I was thinking, 'Gordon Bennett, it's cold!'. But the sky was clear and it looked like it was going to be a lovely crisp winter's day. I missed some good birds at the reserve while we were away, including Pintail and White-fronted Goose. Today was quiet, but I did get a patch tick...

Only the corner of the East Lake was frozen. I walked down to Tyler hide and surveyed the scene. Numerous Lapwings were clustered on the frost-crusted islands, with Teals on the water, a smallish roost of gulls and the usual scattering of Cormorants here and there. One small and well-vegetated island was crammed with Snipes, there must have been a dozen of them.

This female Blackbird sat patiently on a stump by the path to the hide, while I walked around her looking for the best angle for a photo. You wouldn't catch a Spanish Blackbird being that co-operative.

As usual I checked the tall trees along the path for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and didn't see one. I did manage a consolation Treecreeper, plus a Great Spot that flew away, and plenty of Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits.

The lake in front of Willow Hide was mostly frozen over, with all the waterfowl packed into the still liquid bit around the island. I looked for the Bittern for a while without success, photographed this Grey Heron, then moved on towards Long Lake.

Absurdly approachable Robin on the way to Long Lake. As I watched, he sang a bit and had a scratch, but the nicest photo I managed is this one, where he's just being beautiful.

Lovely though this all was, it was a little disappointing not to have encountered anything more exciting. I didn't even hear a Siskin until I reached the (frozen) Long Lake, but then found one demolishing an alder cone in photographable range.

Carrying on towards the field, I noted a Goldcrest which I tried and failed to turn into a Firecrest, and then heard a distinctive two-note tit call which made me think 'Marsh Tit?'. But I decided it couldn't be, because I've never seen a Marsh Tit here. I was leaning on the gate by the field when another birder arrived and asked excitedly if I'd seen the Marsh Tit... So that's my patch tick, but sadly just a 'heard' record as I couldn't refind it, and I'm a little bit annoyed with myself for dismissing the possibility.

I headed back towards Willow hide, noting a nice surprise on the way - female Bullfinch, who dodged my camera with uncanny timing. Thinking there must be a male around somewhere I had a good look and listen but to no avail.

I spent a little longer in Willow hide this time, watching the Coots, Gadwalls and Wigeons milling around. This female Gadwall was really hassling a feeding Coot, doing her utmost to pinch his breakfast. This did not go down well with the Coot.

Some of the Coots were walking, running and skidding about on the ice. This was most entertaining, and caused me to almost miss a low-flying Sparrowhawk which might have made a good photo - oh well. Sometimes comedy is better than drama.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Sierra de Andujar

Besides the Iberian Lynxes, this part of Spain has plenty to offer. Even in January there are great birds to enjoy, and in spring it must be spectacular. The weather when we were there was great, sunshine almost all the time and reaching about 20 degrees C in the afternoon, but dropping to 4 or 5 at night.

This is another of the special local mammals - Mouflon. Impressive horns on these bad boys! We only had the one sighting, of this flock on a steep hillside track.

Red Deer are very common in the park, and often quite confiding. They have a much sleeker look than the shaggy British specimens I've seen in Scotland.

Other mammals we saw were Roe Deer, Rabbits and a couple of HUGE bats, which I've yet to identify.

Griffon Vultures are common around the park, although they are late risers. These photos were taken when we took a long rough road to the town of La Carolina - they were passing quite low overhead on their way to a nearby thermal.

Black Vulture. Scarcer than the Griffon but still quite easy to find.

There are three species of eagles in the park in winter and we saw two of them, though the pics of Spanish Imperial Eagle are horribly distant. Views through binoculars were IDable though, with the white shoulders really catching the light as the bird turned. Almost as distant was this subadult Bonelli's Eagle. We also saw Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Sparrowhawk.

A trio of larks. From the top... I think this is Thekla rather than Crested Lark, going by bill shape, but would welcome anyone's thoughts. Below is a definite Crested, and at the bottom a lovely Woodlark. All three were seen on the aforementioned La Carolina road.

We saw maybe half a dozen Hoopoes, they seem pretty common and widespread. This one's wing feather damage looks a bit fishy to me, I hope it's not been shot at.

We encountered Azure-winged Magpies all over the place, invariably in small flocks and sometimes rubbing shoulders with ordinary Magpies. Noisy, colourful, beautiful, incredibly suspicious of anyone with a camera.

This Hawfinch was down by the river Jandula, but we also saw a few at La Lancha. They seemed a bit more confiding than the Hawfinches of Blighty.

One of the commonest small birds around was Chiffchaff. By the river, while waiting for lynxes, we watched half a dozen of them flycatching over the water. The flight shot was a not very successful manual focus experiment.

More birds from the river area. A juvvie Night Heron, and a Kingfisher. Also around here were many Grey Herons and Cormorants, with Sardinian Warbler and Cirl Bunting camera-dodging in the riverside trees. I saw a Sympetrum dragonfly here too but didn't manage a photo.

Warblers are thin on the ground this time of year, in terms of variety at least, but we did see a few Sardinians and Dartfords, as well as a single Blackcap.

We spent two afternoons at La Lancha, and on both occasions we saw Crag Martins between 4-5pm. These hirundines don't migrate, and so have the skies and what aerial insects are around pretty much to themselves through winter.

A lovely Southern Grey Shrike. We saw a few of these, including a singing bird at La Lancha, which we saw very well through a kind lynx-watcher's scope. The song is remarkably strange and varied.

A common bird of the rocky landscapes, the Black Redstart was one of the commonest insect-eaters around...

... but Robins were ubiquitous, though not many were as willing to be admired as this one.

Long-tailed Tits were also very common. I was keen to get a photo of the dark ibericus subspecies, but this was the best I managed. Other common species included Blackbird, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Blue and Great Tits and Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

I'll round this off with a view of the Embalse de Jandular that lies just beyond the La Lancha viewpoint, and a nice sunset :)


So, our five days of lynx-searching in Sierra de Andujar went pretty well.

We arrived at Malaga at about lunchtime on Sunday, tracked down our hire car after much shenanigans and headed north to Cordoba then east to Andujar, and finally north again to the place where we were staying - a casa rural called Villa Matilde, on the edge of the Sierra de Andujar natural park. We only had time for a short walk that day but found Crested Tits in the casa grounds, plus swarms of Azure-winged Magpies everywhere.

On Monday morning we headed for La Lancha, probably the best site to look for Iberian Lynx. The area has a population of more than 200, in other words more than 80% of the total world population. Intensive conservation efforts have seen lynx numbers here double in about five years, although of course it is still extremely vulnerable (Critically Endangered by IUCN Red List criteria). Despite its extreme rarity it is relatively easy to see (for a wild cat) as its habitat is quite open and it is active on and off in the daytime.

 Here's part of the view at La Lancha. The dusty little road sweeps around the edge of a huge bowl of land, full of undulations, ridges, stream valleys and hillocks, and colourful with shrubs, small trees and lichen-crusted boulders. The view is daunting - there is so much to scan and so many places where a lynx could lose itself. We didn't even have a scope. When we arrived there was just one other person at the point we picked (though we could seee other cars further around). Clearly a dedicated lynx-watcher, this Spanish fellow was equipped with scope, folding chair and walkie-talkie. 

I sat on one of the concrete bollards and Rob stood nearby. We'd been there for 15 minutes, and the Spanish guy had wandered some distance along the road. I took a break from scanning the most distant hillsides for movement and glanced down the road. Standing there, about five metres from me and regarding me with mild curiosity was a lynx, backlit but absolutely unmistakeable. 

I turned immediately to Rob behind me, who was looking the wrong way. I hissed his name, saw him turn and see, and looked back at the lynx, who had lost interest in me and was strolling towards the fence. With shaking hands I fired off about half a dozen clumsy shots before it reached the fence, climbed through a gap in the wire and slipped away through the bushes and rocks below, giving us just a glimpse of spotted coat as it went.

About 10 minutes later, after we'd celebrated with hushed yelps of joy and our heart rates had begun to slow, Rob spotted a second lynx, this one a youngster about half the size of the first. If it had crossed the road we missed it, but it was heading down the slopes close to us.
It's a boy! He took a different path to lynx no. 1, walking across our line of sight and pausing in the shade of a bush before walking across a gap where we got some clear-ish shots, though not in good light.
The Spanish guy returned some time after this second lynx had disappeared. Owing to lack of Spanish and reluctance to grip him off we didn't mention the sightings. Then he found a third lynx, this one way off in the middle distance. I didn't manage any photos at all but Rob did.

This, apparently, is a more typical view than our previous two!

Over the rest of the week, we visited La Lancha several more times and also a few other spots apparently good for lynxes but drew a complete blank, missing another close sighting by half an hour on Thursday. We're not complaining though, that first sighting alone was the most wonderful moment. And the other wildlife around was excellent too. I'll do a part 2 for other mammals and birds :)

Friday, 6 January 2012

January bird race

Today, we met up with members of Team Helm past and present, for the regular New Year's big day along the East Sussex and Kent coast. Becca came down yesterday and stayed over so she could join us on the race. I should mention that she and I did a little birding yesterday despite scarily blowy conditions, and on a short visit to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in the afternoon we had nice though distant views of a Bittern, and a breathtaking close encounter with a Sparrowhawk that nearly joined us in Grebe hide. But back to today, which dawned bright, sunny, fairly still and unseasonably mild, and stayed that way all day.

We met as usual at Nigel's house and had a one-hour vigil in his back room, watching the garden and feeders while Nige provided tea and breakfast like a superstar. Besides the commoner garden birds we added Nuthatch, Marsh Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker, but failed to find Treecreeper or Goldcrest. While waiting for Jim to show up, we walked down the lanes to have a look at the fields, and added Redwing.

Then it was on to Fairlight. An uneventful drive saw one of our three cars add Jay. We walked to the cliff and noted (with some alarm in my case) that quite a large chunk of it had fallen down since the last time we were here, though our 'viewing platform' remained intact. This is big enough to accommodate the eight of us (just about) and we scanned the sea and cliffs. It was veeeeeeeery quiet. The usual rafts of Great Crested Grebes were on the sea, with one or two Red-throated Divers, and a lone Guillemot showed briefly before diving and apparently never surfacing again. We also had some distant Fulmars, plus Oystercatchers on the beach.

It's always exciting waiting here as you never know what will appear around the corner of the cliffs. We have had good views of Peregrine and Raven here in the past, and after connecting with both just a couple of miles away on the same cliffs in Hastings, I was hopeful. But it was not to be. This male Kestrel appeared on the fallen-down bit of cliff and munched some prey, giving nice scope views but terrible photos.

On to Pett Pools, and we passed a 'herd' of Curlews on the way, before stopping just short of the first pool to examine some geese.

Sorry for the distant and badly composed photo, but it shows the four species that were present - White-front, Pinkfoot, Brent and Canada. In all there were 12 Whitefronts, four Pinkfeet, just the one Brent and plenty of Canadas. A few Greylags were feeding even further away.

A male Marsh Harrier was drifting about miles away across the fields, while this female gave us slightly closer views.

We went onto the beach, where the tide was well in and there was little to see, but further down the beach we could see what appeared to be a sizeable flock of small waders flying in anxious circles near the shore. We decided we'd try to get closer, and returned to the car to drive along to the furthest pool.

On this pool were armies of Wigeons, phalanxes of Teals, and platoons of Mallards. More unexpected were a distant quartet of Ruddy Ducks, and a Snipe (or maybe several Snipes) played hide-and-seek with us in a nearby ditch.

We went back onto the beach and to our joy found the waders, now settled and sleeping while they waited for the tide to go out. The flock was mainly of Knots and Dunlins, with a sprinkling of Grey Plovers, a Turnstone and a few Oystercatchers. We thought that was it, but looking at my pics I think the little fellow in the centre of this one looks very Sanderlingy.

On to Scotney, the massive gravel pit on the coast road through Camber. On the shore by our pull-in spot was a flock of some 50 Barnacle Geese (of feral origin), and among them one or two Emperor Geese (of very feral origin). Also a solitary male Pintail, but nothing else that was new.

We decided to stay out while the weather remained lovely, and went on to Dungeness, with a trip down the Dengemarsh road for starters. We paused en route to scrutinise the flocks of swans in the fields, but found only Mutes. However, we did score a pair of Red-legged Partridges.

Next stop was the ARC bit of the reserve, where we negotiated our way through a packed hide and found a pair of Smews, which almost immediately flew away. We tried not to take it personally. Somehow I fluked a sort-of in-focus pic of them as they left.

One photo, six species. (I think. Let me know if you can see more.) Also present in the duck department were Goldeneye and Shoveler.

From the ARC car park, on Mike's recommendation we crossed the road for a furtive look into the warden's garden, where we saw lots of Tree Sparrows in terrible light. There are four of them in this photo.

We went to the beach next, pausing on the way to pick up a distant Great White Egret on the new diggings, and had a look for the Glaucous Gull that we failed to see last time. It's been there for more than a year now, and I've looked for it several times and not seen it. Today was a repeat performance - in fact we didn't even manage to find a gull flock in which to fail to find it. We did have a few Gannets offshore though. From here we phoned through our lunch orders to the Pilot, even though it was about twenty past three.

We ate our lunch while the light slowly faded outside, and debated what, if anything, to do next. Nigel added up the list and found it was a reasonable 86, not nearly as bad as it had seemed, to be honest. But by the time we finished lunch it was getting rather dark. We went onto the beach - a bit further down than before but still no gulls. Then on to the reserve, where the board told us there was a Long-tailed Duck, but it was too dark by this point to make out much of anything. So we called it a day - but a really good day :)

Monday, 2 January 2012

Hooray for bank holidays...

... because New Year's Day itself was rainy and horrible. Today, though, was a beautiful sunny one, though there was a chill in the wind, especially in the wide open spaces of Sheppey which was where we went for a few hours this afternoon. It wasn't a stellar day for photos, so apologies in advance for that.

Last year I posted my very first photo of the year even though it was rubbish. This year's first is even worse, but it's always good to press that shutter button for the first time in a new year, and while the photo may not be much good the bird is lovely. Marsh Harrier through the car windscreen at the start of the Elmley access track.

The harrier did come a bit closer. In fact it was the closest bird we saw along the track. There was other stuff about but it was all distant.

Some of the other stuff. A mixture of Curlews, Lapwings and Starlings, all put up by something or someone but we didn't see what (or who).

When we reached the car park, we noticed four or five people scoping something off to the left, which turned out to be a flock of Fieldfares coming down to drink and bathe in a puddle on a track to one of the houses.

Being short of time (and lazy) we didn't go into the reserve but went back, to look in at a few more Sheppey spots before it got dark.

On the return trip along the track we found some slightly closer Curlews to admire.

We went down towards Leysdown then took the turn-off for the raptor viewpoint. We crawled down the lanes, noting Corn Buntings and Red-legged Partridges, more Marsh Harriers, and stopped to photograph two different Kestrels.

At the raptor viewpoint, the Great White Egret that has been hanging around the area showed briefly over the reedy ditch, and on the other side of the road a distant Hen Harrier bobbed up into view for a moment.

 We carried on towards the Harty Ferry Inn, turned round and pootled back again. On the way we saw a flock of some 20 Corn Buntings on an overhead wire, and watched another Marsh Harrier spooking a flock of Teals from the broad ditch on the west side of the road.

We went on to Leysdown, and paused briefly (it would have been longer if it had been up to me) to watch gulls at the sea wall, coming to hoover up some bread crusts being lobbed their way.

Although most of the gulls coming to this bready bounty were Black-headeds, there were a fair few Commons among them.

On the fields on the other side of the road, a flock of a couple of hundred Brent Geese were munching on some well-watered grass.

We finished the day at Shellness. We'd left things a bit late for much of a walk here, but we headed south for a little while, scanning the fields (in vain) for raptors. The beach was busy with waders though, with plenty of Oystercatchers, Curlews, Knots, Grey Plovers, Ringed Plovers and Dunlins all out on the mud (high tide not til 6pm, alas).

 A couple of distant long-necked things were dismissed by Rob as Cormorants but when I bothered to lift my lens I saw they were geese. However, I didn't realise they were White-fronts til I blew up the photo massively - pity we didn't get a better view.

I couldn't see a way to get closer to the waders feeding on the shore without spooking them, so contented myself with a long-range shot of a lot of Dunlins.

This lone Turnstone was on the path we were walking, both on the way out and back, scampering ahead of us but not by very far. It was too late now for anything but a super-noisy photo. Although many of the Oystercatchers we saw had lost their white winter 'collars' the Turnstone was still in winter attire, but you can see hints of chestnutty summer plumage beginning to appear.