Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Swift trip to S.W.Spain

After a hectic week back in the U.K., I arrived in Spain on Wednesday evening (17th May 2017), to be asked by a birding friend if I’d fancy the weekend in Tarifa!  Those that know me will know that I didn’t take much persuading, so at 6 o’clock on Friday morning, we were en route.

We had a particularly clear run, and even with a coffee stop, we got down into Tarifa town by 12 midday.

Calling in at the ‘Colectivo Ornitologico Cigueña Negra’ (Black Stork) office, we got the latest gen, which wasn’t particularly inspiring.  Apparently there would be easterlies in the afternoon picking up in strength, to be strong winds for the rest of the weekend, dropping slightly on Monday!  There was just the possibility of some raptors coming over from Morocco (mainly Honey Buzzards) in the afternoon, but very little after for the rest of the weekend.

Well, first things first, my companion (Kuco) had never seen the Bulbuls that have taken up residence in the town, so off we went to the Pensioners Club and only pay carpark in the town, to see if there were any around. It took us about half an hour, not being helped by a couple of Nightingales singing from the fenced-off eucalyptus trees.  Eventually we found one, which then showed itself clearly for a couple of minutes by standing on a cluster of spotlights in the middle of the carpark.

 Bulbul, in a eucalyptus at the edge of the carpark ...

... which then came out to perch under a spotlight cluster, giving us clear views

Bumping into Sarry from Cigueña Negra, he told us that there was a raptor passage beginning, and the best place to watch was at Punto Camorra to the east of Tarifa itself.  We made our way there and were rewarded, just as we arrived, by seeing a group of Honey Buzzards slightly above eye-level which had just come in having crossed the Straits.

We remained there for about an hour and a half, and in the end had quite a good movement of raptors, counting 33 Griffon Vultures, about 100 Honey Buzzards, 10 Short-toed Eagles, 7 Booted Eagles, 1 Black Kite, a Sparrowhawk, Hobby and 2 Kestrel.

 Honey Buzzard

 Honey Buzzard

 Griffon Vulture

 Griffon Vulture

 Short-toed Eagle

Booted Eagle (pale morph)

This was my first visit to Tarifa in the Spring, and I now understand why people rave about the Spring passage. In the Autumn, you see the numbers of raptors, but as they are crossing north to south, they tend to be high up and going higher still, to be able to cross over.  But in the Spring, there may be less, but they are high up on the other side.  By the time they get to the Spanish coast they have dropped right down, and you get a chance to see them face to face, or even from above!

As we were staying in Barbate, we finished raptor watching at about 15:30 and made our way over to La Janda.  We wanted to have a quick look there, even though we had been told it was very quiet as everywhere was so dry.  We took the normal track, but in the end had to stop and turn around as the ruts in the track were so big they could have done damage to the car.  We saw quite a few birds there but nothing too out of the ordinary (in fact for me, the best birds were probably Woodchat, Turtle Dove and Pheasant).

 The commonest bird in La Janda, Cattle Egret

 Not a difficult bird to see, Purple Swamphen

Finally, to end our day we thought we’d have a look at the Sierra de la Plata.  But we were going there from memory, and in the end even though we got onto the Sierra, we’d entered from the wrong side and ended up at an urbanization and the lighthouse.  But little did we know, this did us a favour, as looking at the hirundines flying around in a small group, there were House Martins, Red-rumped Swallows, a single Alpine Swift up high, 15 or so Common Swift, and what was that with a white rump - a White-rumped Swift!  My first one ever.  They were all moving around quite a bit so we tried to gain some height to see them all better, but in the end lost sight of them all.  Still, a few seconds view of White-rumped Swift is better than no view at all.  And now we’d both had a lifer each, so it was time to go into town and celebrate!

Saturday morning the promised winds had arrived, so there was no point in going back to Tarifa, so we thought we’d go for another of the area specialities, Bald Ibis at Barca de Vejer.  This was easy enough (once we knew where to look), and we were soon watching a pair with 2 young in their cave.  The number is well down on previous years due apparently to the activity of a Polecat! Other birds seen in the area were White Stork, Raven, Jackdaw, Crag Martin and Cetti’s Warbler.

 White Stork

Bald Ibis with young
On our way back towards Barbate, we decided to call in once again at La Janda, this time from the western end.  Here some of the rice paddies had been prepared and some even had some water in.  Where there is water there is birdlife, and here we had Black Kites, Glossy Ibises, Black-winged Stilts, White Storks, Kestrels, Booted Eagle and of course, the Cattle Egrets (which were the commonest birds in La Janda).

As we were a bit tight for time, we didn’t stay too long in La Janda, preferring instead to try Sierra de la Plata once again - this time from the other side.  We stayed here for about an hour, where we saw about 15 distant Honey Buzzards (and a couple of close ones), 5 Kestrel, 4 Griffon Vultures, 1 Black Kite and about 20 Swift/Pallid Swift, but none with the white rumps!

 View from La Cueva del Moro over Bolonia
Griffon Vulture from the lookout point

By now it was getting on for lunchtime, which we spent at a beautiful out of the way place (well worth a visit) called Palomar de La Breña (which apart from the landscape, has breeding Lesser Kestrels in the roof).  On our way there, we almost bumped into a baby Hoopoe obviously very recently out of the nest.  The rest of the afternoon was taken up with non-birding activities!

 Juvenile Hoopoe, blocking our way to lunch!

Palomar de La Breña

On the Sunday, with the wind still blowing, and our chances of any decent sightings being limited, we decided to go for one last look at La Janda, and then work our way up to Chipiona for lunch, and hopefully another new species for me, Little Swift (having missed them on several occasions in Tarifa).

This time at La Janda we managed to get as far as the Pheasant farm and to the ‘dehesa’ area round the back, and so had some different birds than before, but even so, things were pretty quiet.  We had Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, Black Kites, a couple of Honey Buzzards struggling against the wind, Griffon Vulture, Bee-eaters, Corn Buntings and Stonechats, but by far the most numerous birds were the Cattle Egrets, which were nesting at the side of the track.

 Cattle Egrets at the side of the track

 Black Kite


From La Janda we made our way via Medina (where we had our one and only Egyptian Vulture) and Jerez de la Frontera (Black-eared Wheatear, 7 Montagu’s Harriers in a field, and 15 Gull-billed Terns) arriving at Chipiona mid-afternoon. 

 Making our way to Chipiona, this Egyptian Vulture flew over us at Medina

Our first action was to grab some lunch while the street restaurants were still open, and then we went in search of the Swifts.
From our restaurant we walked along the seafront south to the lighthouse, and then east, but somehow it didn’t feel right - we weren’t seeing hardly any hirundines or swifts at all.  So we retraced our steps and headed north from the lighthouse, into town.  Here we had some luck in that there were large groups of house martins and swifts racing around, and it wasn’t long before we saw our first ones with white rumps and ‘flat’ tails.  Wanting to get better views, we wandered over quite a bit of the town, but it wasn’t until we decided to come back to the port that we finally found them and in numbers.  Up to 15 of them, they appeared to be nesting in the eaves of the fish market on the port, and we spent a good hour watching and me photographing them (but typical swifts, out of several hundred photos taken, there were only about 10 that I was pleased with).

 Chipiona fish market - with Little Swifts

 Little Swifts

And that was it - now just a matter of a 6 hour drive home (but at least the roads were clear as it was the final day of ‘La Liga’ so everyone was glued to a TV!).

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A day in Suffolk

Last Thursday I got a call to say that some friends were heading off birding to Suffolk for the day, calling in 'en route' at Viking Optics in Halesworth hopefully for some repairs to a 'scope, and did I want to come. Well apart from the birding, I think I've dropped my 'scope just once too often, as there is a metal rectangle with a large hole in it, moving around just below the eyepiece but actually in the 'scope itself. Not impossible to see through the 'scope, but very irritating and wearing on the eye. So my answer was a resounding YES!

So 6 o'clock saw us setting off. Our first stop was to have been at Iken to search for a Cattle Egret that's been there for some time now, but as we approached the village of Melton, I mentioned to the other lads in the car to keep an eye out for Waxwings as some had been seen there the previous day. And a couple of minutes later, what should we see - but a flock of 16 Waxwings in the top of a tree at the side of the road. A rapid stop was in order while we took in what is quite likely to be our last sighting of this exquisite bird for this winter at least. Shame the weather wasn't better as it was cloudy with a chill NE breeze blowing.

Waxwings at Melton (nr. Martlesham), Suffolk

We were soon back on the road, and about 15 minutes later at the aforementioned Iken village. One of our carload had seen the Cattle Egret here before, and knew exactly where to look, and there it was - viewed from the car about 15 metres away! And with a Little Egret in the same field, should any comparison be required. (I feel I should explain here, for any of my Spanish readers, that Cattle Egret here in the UK is still a rarity, although with a total of about 200 in the country in a census about 2 weeks ago, surely won't remain as such for long - I still remember my first one in the UK, twitching all the way to Anglesey to see one back in the 70's or 80's).

Cattle Egret at Iken, Suffolk

Anyhow, that was the second of our targeted species done - and now onto the third. This one a little more tricky, but would be my third species of Grey Shrike in a month - a Great Grey Shrike! We got to the general area and set about looking for it, and after about 15 minutes it was found, although I must admit not by us but by a local birder onsite - hunting from fence posts in a clear area surrounded by pine forest. And whilst there we had Woodlark, Yellowhammer, Coal Tit and Songthrush singing (all of which appear to be declining species), and a brief sighting of Dartford Warbler, plus Peregrine and Common Buzzard overhead.
What an excellent start to the day, and it was still only 9:45!

 Great Grey Shrike at Upper Hollesley Common, Suffolk

Our next stop was the business in Halesworth at Viking Optics. Here I must explain that normally I wouldn't include any business interests/details in a blog, but the help we got in there was so good that I feel it is the least I can do. In the end, I couldn't get my scope repaired, and the trip worked out quite expensive as I ended up buying a 'new' (second hand) 'scope, but that was perfect as it was a lot cheaper than a 'new new' one would cost, and an option I had been considering anyway (keeping one in Spain - that way I wouldn't need to keep losing half my luggage allowance to a scope when I go back and forth).

Optical business over, and having seen all our target birds, we decided that on our way back south we would call in at RSPB Minsmere just for a general look around. We took a slow amble around the reserve (something I've not done for many a year as normally when I go, it's to twitch something and so the place is full). This time there was plenty of room in all the hides for us to look at our leisure. We did the circuit from the North hide, south down the beach to the Sluice and back, and then on to the Island Mere hide.
 Wandering around the reserve, we had the typical birds....

.... and mammals

And if we thought we'd done well before, it was here that our day was totally blown away. When we arrived at Island Mere hide, we were told that one of the Bitterns had been poking its head out of the reeds on the right side of the hide. And so we waited....and waited.... and eventually we could make out the Bittern just inside the edge of the reeds.

Bittern slowly emerging from the reedbed
And as we waited, it eventually showed itself fully - not for long, but long enough, only about 10 metres from the hide. And then having done so once, it did a repeat performance, but this time showing itself for a good 5 minutes out in the open, as it hunted for food. Meanwhile, another bird showed itself about 30 metres away from the front of the hide. What a luxury - having a choice of Bitterns to watch! I think everyone in the hide was of the same opinion - best ever views of Bittern!

 Best sightings ever of Bitterns, from Island hide

And some of the other class birds seen from the hide, in this case redhead Goosanders

So, all in all, an excellent day out - even the sky cleared, although the NE breeze was certainly chill. Some excellent birds seen, but without the hassle of any 'must see' birds. Most enjoyable!!