Thursday, March 26, 2015

Muchas avutardas y dowitcher!

Quick update from Spain - limited internet access here. 
I want to begin with warm congratulations to the winning teams of the Champions of the Flyway race that took place yesterday in Eilat: Cape May Dippers and the JBO Orioles. Well done! I enjoy Spain very much but during the last few days my heart was in Eilat. Next year.

Yesterday I joined the census team working in the northern part of La Serena, near Orellana and Talarrubia. 
We met at Puebla de Alcocer. The old monastery there is an amazing bird hotel, or maybe better described these days as bird brothel. Everyone was having a good time there - huge rooftop orgy of Lesser Kestrels, White Storks and Spotless Starlings.

A spotless kind of love 

The census itself was rather slow with few Great Bustards (about 50) and no Little Bustards at all. I was impressed though by good density of Montagu's Harriers - up to 30 pairs were seen.

Montagu's Harrier - female

After we were done I headed north to Caceres, towards Sierra de Fuentes. Thanks to info from Rare Birds in Spain, I went to look for the Long-billed Dowitcher that had been present at Embalse de Guadiloba, near Caceres for some days. Took me some time to relocate it, but eventually had good scope views of it. Unfortunately, while I was trying to reposition myself all the flock it was in was spooked by a Marsh Harrier. They all came back (Dunlins, Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Redshanks, Greenshanks and a Blackwit) but the dowitcher. I searched for it for some more time but with no success. Anyway, what a cool bird! Certainly not a WP tick I was expecting to encounter here in Extremadura - I was hopimg to see it in Cley or Eilat.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Embalse de Guadiloba

Today I censused in the beautiful plains of Sierra de Fuentes. This is probably the densest site in Extremadura - we had over 550 Great Bustards today, including some impressive flocks. Still very cold and windy today so display is minimal. Little Bustards are doing pretty bad apparently - only about 50 today.

Quite a few vultures feeding on dead cows and sheep scattered on the plains:

Black Vulture

Sierra de Fuentes

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Steady day

Steadier day today after yesterday's extreme. In the first half of the day I worked the fine, rough plateaus N of Castuera, along the EX-103. Until about 10:00 the sun was out, and the weather was lovely. The bustards I saw responded accordingly and were more amorous than yesterday. I had a few leks (all very distant, but thanks to Swarovski Optik for the fab scope) and they had a few females around them, showing interest in the more ambitious display of the males. I also saw some small groups of Little Bustards that were getting into business as well.
 But at 10:00 the sun disappeared, and it became another grey, cold, wet and windy day. Still I had some more birds during the morning. Quite large numbers of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were N of Castuera. Booted and Short-toed Eagles were in some numbers today. A few Montagu's Harriers, Lesser Kestrels, Little Owls, Cuckoos and some other stuff - not bad. Still no sign of migrants on the ground.
Booted Eagle

Montagu's Harrier

In this part of Badajoz there are fences everywhere, so all birds are either on a fence, behind a fence or in front of a fence.
Impressive densities of Calandra Larks on the rough steppes:

Thanks Swarovski Optik! 

Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius m. meridionalis)

On the way back to Castuera almost hit an Egyptian Vulture feeding on a dead rabbit on the road. It sat there and waited for me to disappear.

In the afternoon checked the ridge above Benquerencia de La Serena, about 5km SE of Castuera (thanks Manuel for the tip!). Finally managed to get first views of Black Wheatears (tick). There's a territorial pair on the rocks above the village. They were very mobile and shy. Maybe for them it's easy to fly 500 meters back and forth along the ragged ridge, but I worked hard! And in the end only got this record shot from a mile away. Very cool birds, but I have an unfinished business with them. I will get a proper image of you, I promise!
Black Wheatear

Other typical mountain species there were Rock Buntings, several Blue Rock thrushes, many Crag Martins, and another Egyptian Vulture.

Benquerencia de La Serena

The Giant Transformers

So yesterday was spent in a hide in La Serena, Badajoz, organized by Manuel Calderon / Anser. Manuel brought me to the rough rocky hide before dawn, where I stayed for the next 14 hours. The weather was very bad almost all day. It started off very grey and dark, which was a shame, but at least windless. Later in the morning a fierce, relentless wind built up which didn't aid my situation in the hide, nor did the rain and hail storms that soaked me inside the hide... What happened to spring here?
Anyway, my main reason for getting into this hide is that this was my first opportunity to study my research species, Great Bustard, without time pressure and without having to do anything else: just watch and study. Unfortunately, because of the cold spell in the last couple of weeks, lekking hasn't really picked up and the males I saw were only half-dancing, and as a result no females were attracted to the male groups. I do hope that the weather improves during my stay here, and the birds get the show going.
The morning began with an impressive dawn chorus, mainly of Calandra Larks. When there was light enough, I spotted some small groups of semi-dancing male Great Bustards scattered on some hills around the hide. But still early in the morning, when the light was really shit, a group of 20 males walked past my hide, foraging and occasionally stopping for a quick dance. I assume that these dances are intended more towards cohortees than towards females. One of the males, a really large bull, came really close, perhaps 20 m away from my hide, and stopped. All the following images of him are full-frame.

It amazed me how within seconds, he transformed from a 'normal-looking' bird to an alien-thing. This sequence of four images was taken within about 5 seconds:

I am pretty sure he saw me in the hide - he was looking at the hide constantly.

Mr. Moustache

What a magnificent bird

For some unknown reason, in full frontal view he reminded me of a Russian M35 helicopter:

From Google

Another display of transformation:


Few seconds after

Then the group walked on and stayed the rest of the day on a distant hill, not doing much: foraging, resting, preening and occasionally dancing for fun. During the day I had some other birds in the area, including several flyover groups of both Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Lesser Kestrels, one Montagu's Harrier, and a few other bits and bobs.

In the afternoon another smaller group of males walked past the hide, this time slightly further away:

Some stopping for a quick dance:

I just love this rich rufous colour of the lower breast:

In the late afternoon the sun came out briefly, but sadly no birds were near the hide, so I had to settle for some more atmospheric shots: 

Some of my neighbours for the day:

Calandra Lark

Corn Bunting

I left temporary home after dark, in the rain, total of 14 hours. Not an easy day, all my body was aching and I felt like shit as I am still recovering from a nasty flu I caught before flying over. And also it has been some years since I last had to piss into a bottle... But in conclusion, especially after seeing my images and resting a bit, I can say that it was a great and interesting day.

Castelo Estremoz - from my drive across Portugal on the way here on Sunday:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spain: bustard appetizer

Arrived yesterday back in Portugal, and drove straight through to La Serena in Badajoz, Spain. Today I had a very long in a hide organized by Manuel Calderon / ANSER. I am dead now and need to go to sleep, so here's just a quick appetizer. More to come tomorrow:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March Nostalgia

Since I moved to the UK my life has changed dramatically in many aspects. One major change was in my annual birding cycle. Back in Israel, my work was mainly field-based, and my annual cycle correlated with the annual cycle of bird life in Israel - breeding surveys, migration surveys etc. I had much more time for birding, many more opportunities for quick birding escapes (heavy traffic heading into Tel Aviv? No problem, I can check Ashdod or Bet Kama fields or wherever). And as much as I like the UK, what can I say, birding in Israel is so much better.
Here in the UK my work is mainly office-based. I have some fieldwork, but only a couple of weeks a year. 'Recreational' birding here is much more difficult for me, because of time constraints. During weekends I try to stay at home with the family, so there is little time left for birding.

Back in Israel, March was the peak month of my birding year. I will share with you with nostalgia some of the typical experiences I had during recent years.
In March, breeding activity in Israel is already in full swing. In recent years I coordinated several large-scale breeding atlas projects, first in the Arava and Negev, and then in Batha habitats. These surveys took me to some top-quality habitats, and I enjoyed this type of survey work very much:

Thick-billed Lark, Arava, 2010

Arabian Dunn's Lark, Arava, 2010

Hill Sparrow, Nizzana, 2010

Long-billed Pipits, Lahav, 2014

Spectacled Warbler, Yatir, 2013

Every year my survey work was 'interrupted' in late March by the main birding event of the year, Eilat Bird Festival. I was one of the festival leaders, and it was always an amazing experience to take part in such a fantastic event. For the first time this year I am missing out on the action of Eilat, and I miss it a lot.

Caspian Plover, 2009

Basalt Wheatear, 2012

'vittata' Pied Wheatear, 2012

Egyptian Nightjar, 2012

Black Bush Robin, 2012

Pallid Harrier, 2011

That's it, enough reminiscing. In a few days I am going to Spain and Portugal again. Pretty good birding there as well, and this time I expect to spend much time in the field. Stay tuned!