Saturday, November 1, 2014

Portugal part 2: Bustards, Skuas and an Owl

I started writing about my families trip to Portugal here in my previous post.  That post recalled the guided birding that I did Saturday morning with a local guide, Georg Schreier. Without getting too far from Faro we were able to see 83 species, 37 of those being Lifers for me.
Just after noon we stopped by the beach for some pizza and coffee.  While sitting there we were able to watch Northern Gannets diving just off the coast.  And then I spotted a pod of dolphins swimming by just off the coast. We had 2 choices for the afternoon, head West to the Cape of St. Vincent, the most Southwesterly spot in all of Europe, or north into the steppe of Alantejo.  At the Cape we could see raptors and maybe vultures on migration, while up north Bustards and Sand Grouse.  The Great Bustard is the heaviest flying bird on the planet and a species that I was eager to see if I could.  Georg checked in with a friend at the cape and the word was that it was a very slow day, so we decided to head north.
After almost an hour of driving, some on the motorway and some through some small towns, we arrived at open farmland.  Just before we got to the area where Great Bustards might be spotted, we stopped along the road so that we could get our binoculars on and other gear situated and stretch our legs a bit.  There were also Southern Grey Shrikes sitting on wires, another lifer for me.  I turned back towards the car and saw a large pair of wings just behind Georg, I yelled for him to turn around thinking that it was a Buzzard. But it wasn't, it was a Great Bustard.

Great Bustard
Great Bustard - Alantejo Portugal
I had read how skittish and hard to see they were.  That if I were lucky, I'd see one a few hundred meters away through a scope.  Well here was one about 70 meters away, and then we saw a second one with it, a smaller female.  Great Bustard males may be the heaviest flying birds with wingspans near 8 feet, but the females were typically only a third of that size.

Great Bustards
Great Bustards - Alantejo, Portugal
As they walked off and over a nearby hill, I spotted a corvid sitting out on a post, a Carrion Crow and my 3rd lifer in just a few minutes.

Carrion Crow
Carrion Crow - Alantejo, Portugal
We continued on our way to where we expected to see Great Bustards and maybe some Sand Grouse if we were really lucky.  My hired car was a Nissan SUV, who's name I won't even try to spell, and had the clearance to check some areas that Georg had a difficult time getting to.  We drove through a gate after talking to a friendly farmer and spotted more than a few Northern Lapwings.  And then we saw a small bird sitting on a post.  Georg asked me if I recognized it and I did immediately, although  had never seen one before.

Northern Wheatear
Northern Wheatear - Alantejo, Portugal
I had been looking for this bird all over Ireland with no luck.  There was also a rare one in New Mexico right after I left.  Friends of mine had seen them in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but I couldn't see them where they bred, it was my recent Nemesis bird.  But here in the middle of nowhere was a Northern Wheatear.  And as this things usually go, I'd see a few more after seeing my first.

Northern Wheatear
Northern Wheatear - Alantejo, Portugal
We stopped again a short while later to scan the fields for any more Bustards and spotted another pair far off.

Great Bustards
Great Bustards - Alantejo, Portugal
They flew off a bit further and were soon joined by another pair.  And then another pair.  Georg suggested that we sneak up to some rocks and see if any more where still there.

Great Bustard
Great Bustard - Alantejo, Portugal
Great Bustard
Great Bustard - Alantejo, Portugal
What beautiful birds.  Sort of like a miniature Ostrich or maybe a land-goose. I managed to get a few more shots before they flew off, and it was as great to see them fly as I thought that it would be.


Great Bustards in Flight
Great Bustards - Alantejo, Portugal
We saw some raptors out there in the Steppe too.  Some Red Kites, Black-Shouldered Kites, Kestrels and some Common Buzzards, including this one, which is my first good photo of one.

Common Buzzard
Common Buzzard - Alantejo, Portugal
We never saw Sand Grouse, but we did manage to see almost 20 Great Bustards, more than I had hoped to see.  I drove us back south towards Faro and then Georg and I parted ways.  What an amazing day.  I know that if I would have gone out by myself that I would not have nearly the day that we did, 90 birds and 42 lifers.


I was up early the next morning and my wife and kids were still sleeping, so I decided to walk around the hotel grounds and see what I could see.  I was watching some Sardinian Warblers on the other side of the fence from the pool area and trying to get a photo of one, but they were flying around way too fast.  But I noticed a bird fly up and land on the cliffs below me and land.  It was a Kestrel out hunting along the cliffs.
Eurasian Kestrel
Eurasian Kestrel - Albufiera, Portugal 
After everyone else woke up and we had breakfast, we went out to see some non-bird sights.  We visited some Roman ruins from the 3rd century and saw some really amazing mosaics that have held up fairly well.  Then after lunch we were scheduled for a boat tour along the coast. My wife really wanted to see some dolphins while we were there and this was our best chance.  
Once we were out on the water I pointed out some Northern Gannets that were diving into the water.  My daughter was watching them and then we started cheering every time they made a splash, and soon I had the entire upper deck of the boat watching and cheering too.  There were quite a few Gannets around, including some immature ones.
Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet - Algarve, Portugal
But I was looking for something else.  I knew that we weren't going out far enough for anything too amazing, but I was watching every bird that I could see.  Finally I saw a dark shape, that looked like a gull on steroids. Through the binoculars I could see a brown bird with tell-tale white edges to the wings and I actually let out a loud cheer, it was a Great Skua.  Another bird that I had always wanted to see.

Great Skua
Great Skua - Algarve, Portugal
I would end up seeing 3 or 4 others on the trip along with lots of gulls, Yellow-Legged and Black-Headed in the majority, along with a Mediterranean sprinkled in.
Here's a view of the coast from our boat, what a great time.

Albufiera
Albufeira from the sea - Algarve, Portugal
Once the boat returned to port I was done birding for the next day and a half.  We decided to not go north to Setubal and stay an extra day and a half in Algarve and then go to Lisbon the day before our flight and visit the large aquarium there.  We also planned to stop at the Sado Estuary on the way to try and again see dolphins, there is pod which lives there year round. But we ended up missing our exit and turning around would have added too much time to our trip.  Instead, we decided to stop by the Tejo Estuary just East of Lisbon.  Little did we know that it is really far into rice fields on dirt roads.  But we did make some nice discoveries.
I saw my first Great Egrets in Europe in what may have been a union meeting for waders, or maybe a birthday party.  But a sizable group of Grey Herons, Great Egrets and Little Egrets were in the same spot.

Great Egrets, Grey Heron, Cattle Egrets
Great Egrets, Little Egrets and Grey Herons - Tejo Estuary, Portugal
There were many raptors about too. I saw Merlins, Buzzards, Osprey, another Black-Shouldered Kite that dove down right next to our car, and Kestrels, including this female sitting on a fence post.

Eurasian Kestrel - Female
Eurasian Kestrel - Tejo Estuary, Portugal
We eventually discovered a large building in the middle of the fields, the EVOA center. The center consisted of a visitor's center and snack shop, as well as a series of ponds and hides.  Admission came with a guide to take you all the way out to the estuary proper.  Due to a time constraint, my wife and I were the only ones to go out for a walk while my kids and our friend ate lunch inside. The majority of the birds were Wigeons and lots and lots of Lapwings with some Little Grebes and Black-Winged Stilts around too.

Black-Winged Stilts and Lapwings
EVOA Wetlands - Tejo Estuary, Portugal
Apparently we had missed the Avocets and Purple Herons which had already left for the season. I also didn't get to see any of themany Bluethroats that were ringed there.  But the best animal that we saw wasn't a bird at all, but a mammal.

Egyptian Mongooses
Egyptian Mongooses - Tejo Estuary, Portugal
My wife and I came around a bend in the trail and saw 3 animals wrestling around. I had no idea what they were. They saw us and took off into the brush.  But it wasn't until later that we discovered that they were Egyptian Mongooses!  An animal that is found only in certain locations in Europe.
We finally met up with our guide just as we had to turn around.  He was very informative, but mainly had bad news in the way that the birds I most wanted to see were already gone.  But he did tell me where I could find Little Owls.  Apparently it was odd that we didn't see it on the way in.  But he described where to look on our way to Lisbon.  We said our goodbyes and set off to the Oceanarium in Lisbon.
We found the location where the Owls were supposed to be and stopped to look around.  They were supposed to be standing on buildings or fence posts, but I din't see anything anywhere.  But then I saw some eyes looking out at me from under a roof. 
Little Owl
Little Owl - Tejo Estuary, Portugal
I was immediately reminded of Burrowing Owls from back home.  But these live in nooks and crannies instead of holes in the ground.  My guide from earlier in the trip said that they liked to nest in piles of rocks in farmer's fields, stacks made when the fields are cleared. Unfortunately, I was the only one in the car who spotted this guy, because as soon as we backed up and my wife and daughter got out of the car, a truck full of farmers drove up and scared the owl away. At least I got one photo before that happened.

All in all it was a great trip.  I'd like to go back in the summer next year to see the birds that I missed, and to explore the great history of the country.  Plus I never got a hat made out of cork.  But in basically 2 days worth of birding I managed to see 99 species and get 44 lifers, including most of the species that I wanted to go there and see, Flamingo, Hoopoe, Great Bustard and Little Owl, with Great Skua being a very pleasant surprise.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Portugal part 1: Faro

My daughter's school was having their mid-term break and we wanted to visit someplace sunny before winter really set in.  We were looking at various places when I saw a post on Portugal from the Birdchick's blog. That pretty much made the choice for me and I told my wife to book it.  Doing a little more research online I found the website for a local guide, Georg Schreier, and booked a day of guided birding. This would be my first paid for birding trip and I was really looking forward to utilizing my one day of the holiday set aside for birding.
Saturday morning came and I drove from our hotel in Albufiero west towards Faro before dawn. Georg and I had a funny moment when we were both in a filling station drinking coffees side by side while waiting for the other to show up. It was 5 minutes before we said something to one another.
Something else interesting about Portugal was that everyone drank shots of espresso, almost all of the time.  And the tiny filling station served coffee in ceramic cups and food on real plates with real silverware, not a very busy culture.
Our first stop was some very fragrant sewage ponds for waders and whatever else we could see.  First we saw some Spotless Starlings and heard some Common Waxbills and then saw a Marsh Harrier circling out over the fields around the ponds. When we finally reached the ponds I saw lifer Black-Winged Stilts and Glossy Ibis. And then a small, pale bird. It was a lonely Sanderling, and another lifer for me.

Sanderling and Common Sandpiper
Sanderling (L) and Common Sandpiper (R) - Faro, Portugal
We would see some White Wagtails and even a Yellow Wagtail, both different from the Pied and Grey Wagtails of Ireland.

White Wagtails
White Wagtails - Faro, Portugal
We also spotted some rare for the area Wood and Green Sandpipers along with Ruff and Common Sandpipers. Small birds were all around too, Water Pipits, Black Redstarts, Crested Larks, Zitting Cisticolas, Sardinian and Cetti's warblers, plus some others common to Ireland.  A Spoonbill made an appearance too.  We saw a brown shape with black and white wings fly by us and land behind some reeds, it could only have been a Hoopoe!  A bird that I really wanted to see on this trip. Unfortunately for me, I never saw it again for a photo and I wouldn't see another while in Portugal.
We left the ponds with a list of 44 species and 18 lifers in less than an hour of birding.  

Our next spot was closer to Faro and the Aeroport. A mixed forest which led to some salt ponds, a golf course and finally sand dunes, lagoons and the ocean. 
We walked through some trees to a spot over-looking a wide forest valley.  Our targets here were raptors.  It started off quiet.  A solitary Booted Eagle was roosting in a tree, which my guide somehow spotted.  And then a white bird in a tree turned out to be a Black-Shouldered Kite through the scope.  And then far off in another tree was a grey bird, a surprise Northern Goshawk.  All too far or any sort of photo, but great spots.  And then three Booted Eagles were in the air at one time and one of them came close enough for a good shot.
Booted Eagle
Booted Eagle - Faro, Portugal
Having spotted the targets, with a bonus Goshawk, we went to drive along the salt ponds.  These were rectangular ponds where seawater was held until it evaporated and the remaining salt collected into giant piles. Here we saw more waders, some sandpipers and plovers.

Kentish and Ringed Plovers
Kentish and Ringed Plovers - Faro, Portugal
We spotted our first Kentish Plovers, a local specialty, along with some Ringed Plovers and a few Little Stints, a bird that I had just missed seeing in Ireland.
Another of the birds that I really wanted to see were all around, Flamingos.  We had seen some in Lisbon while driving down in the car, but I wasn't keeping track and was driving instead.  But now they were everywhere, at least 30 were on both sides of the road.


Flamingos
Flamingos - Faro, Portugal
It was amazing to see them in the wild and not in a zoo for once.  There were still other sandpipers and ducks around too, mainly Eurasian Wigeons and the usual Mallards.
We left the last of the salt ponds and parked the car near the San Lorenzo Golf Course and continued on foot.  Another bird to see in Portugal is the Iberian Magpie, a much more colorful cousin to the, mainly, black and white magpies that I have seen before.  We were able to see a few along the fairways.

Iberian Magpie
Iberian Magpie - Faro, Portugal
We also saw lots of songbirds about.  Goldfinches, more Sardinian Warblers and we added tiny Serin to the list, although more heard than seen.
We eventually arrived at a 2-story hide overlooking some impressive wetlands alongside the course.
Wetlands at San Lorenzo Golf Course
Wetlands at San Lorenzo Golf Course - Faro, Portugal
 Immediately Goerg noticed the white rump of a Ferruginous Duck among more Wigeons and now Shovelers too.

Ferruginous Duck
Ferruginous Duck - Faro, Portugal
And nearby was another odd duck, a female Garganey.

Garganey - Female
Garganey - Faro, Portugal
You can see the small size when compared to the Shoveler in the background, and the bill is fairly distinct.  An unexpected find.
The target birds for the marsh were Purple Swamphens, Kingfishers and maybe a Little Bittern. Purple Swamphens where plentiful, with 5 or 6 at various places on the wetlands.

Purple Swamphen
Purple Swamphen - Faro, Portugal
A few Kingfishers were darting about, and I was somehow able to get a shot of this one.

Kingfisher
Kingfisher - Faro, Portugal
Although we didn't see or hear any Bitterns, we did spot this Snipe doing it's best to not be seen.

Common Snipe and Coot
Common Snipe and Coot - Faro, Portugal
A few Little Grebes were also swimming in front of the hide, including this one.

Little Grebe
Little Grebe - Faro, Portugal
We finally left the wetlands and the green of the Golf Course to take a look at some saltwater lagoons behind some sand dunes.  We spotted a Plover that looked a bit off.  Georg felt that it might have been an American Golden Plover. But after observing it for 10 minutes or so, we decided that it was a Grey Plover (aka Black-Bellied) who looked a bit off.

Grey (Black-Bellied) Plover
Grey Plover - Faro, Portugal
I was also able to get a better look at a Kentish Plover.  They lack the full rings of a Ringed Plover and instead have a bit of a horseshoe shaped ring around the neck.

Kentish Plover
Kentish Plover - Faro, Portugal
Not seeing anything else interesting, we turned back towards our car.  But before we got too far, we saw some large birds flying overhead, some White Storks.
White Stork
White Stork - Faro, Portugal
I had seen some really large nests on the drive down to Algarve from Portugal and found out that they were Stork nests, but this was the first time seeing some.

It was time for lunch and to decide what we were going to do with the second half of our day.  Either head west to the Southwestern tip of Europe or north looking for the heaviest flying bird on Earth.  But by lunch we had already seen 83 species and 37 lifers, what a great day.

I'll conclude the trip with another post,

Thanks for making it this far,

Cheers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

County Wicklow Trip

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day and I got to spend it in County Wicklow with a brilliant local birder and photographer, Brian Carruthers. We started at the East Coast Nature Reserve near the coast.
On the walk to one of the fabulous hides that they have here in Ireland, we passed lots of songbirds, the usual Tits, Robins, Wrens, Bullfinches, Chaffinches and Stonechats. The usual winter visitors weren't there yet and only some Mallards were on the water in front of the hide. But we were soon treated to a flock of a dozen or so Common Sandpipers that made a few laps around the refuge.  They never landed where we could see them, but we got some good looks as the passed in front of the hide. And then another bird flew in front of us and Brian said "Snipe!" A lone Common Snipe was spooked by something and circled a few times before flying off. This was a lifer for me.  And was later joined by a second one, also flying off for some unseen reason.
There was a steady stream of gulls and corvids flying over during this time too, but a group of swans caught our eye and we ran out to follow them as they flew behind us towards the north.

Whooper Swans in Flight
Whooper Swans - ECNR Co. Wicklow, Ireland
They were early Whooper Swans and some more lifers for me, but I'll come back to them later.
After a spell in the hide we decided to walk around and warm up a bit.  We visited another hide without much going on, but saw a Jay flying over on our way out, which was another lifer for me. I learned that a white-patch on the rump is diagnostic for Jays in flight.  We walked along some boardwalks and saw Stonechats everywhere.

Stonechat
Stonechat - ECNR Co. Wicklow, Ireland
We left the refuge proper and continued to see passerines flitting around the trees around us and made our way to a stretch of land between railroad tracks and a small airport along the coast. There was a small stream beside us, what I would call an irrigation ditch in New Mexico, that was part of the tidal flow.  Brian saw a blue flash and we crept up to the water's edge and saw a pair of Common Kingfishers a bit further upstream.

Kingfisher
Kingfisher - ECNR Co. Wicklow, Ireland
They quickly flew off and we never located them again.  But we continued on our way and saw loads of Meadow Pipits and Linnets sitting along a fence which ran along the rail-line. There were still plenty of Stonechats around too.
Ireland
The view from our walk - Co. Wicklow, Ireland
We eventually reached the Breech, which was where the ocean flowed in forming a small estuary.  We arrived just at low-tide and got to see some Common Redshanks and a pair of Ringed-Plovers among a hundred or so dozing Gulls, mainly Black-Headed with a few Herring and Lesser-Black Backed mixed in.  We were up on a bridge looking inland at some ponds when we spotted some swans way out in the distance.  We managed to set up my scope on a too-narrow strip of concrete on a railroad bridge.  Brian shortly got excited because he ID'd them as an early-season Whooper Swan. Which turned into 2 Whoopers, and then a third.  They moved out of sight and we decided to turn back to go looking for Red Kites.  But before we got too far we saw more swans and they were all Whoopers, seven in all.

Whooper Swans
Whooper Swans and Coot - Co. Wicklow, Ireland
Zooming in shows their diagnostic yellow and black bills.  There was a lone Mute Swan nearby, but I didn't get a photo of it.  But Mute Swans have a black bill near the base with a bulb near the head.
Whooper Swans
Whooper Swans - Co. Wicklow, Ireland
We trekked back to the car and swung back through the refuge again.  Just before we left we heard a pheasant call very close by and spotted it in some very thick brush.  We thought that it was a regular Ring-Necked type, but it was actually a blue variety.  Unfortunately, it never gave us a good photo.

Our next stop was the small Irish village of Avoca. Apparently some TV show was filmed there ages ago, but not one that I was familiar with. But our target were Red Kites. Red Kites became extinct in Ireland in the 19th century, and almost in the UK too. But some work was done to let the species recover, and a scheme to reintroduce them to Ireland was started a few years ago with a number of Welsh Kites released in Co. Wicklow.
We parked near a stone bridge in the middle of town and walked out onto it.  Brian said that we'd wait for a half hour and see if we could see some Kites.  It wasn't more than 5 minutes when we spotted our first one.  We were following a Raven when we spotted a Kite shape even further off cruising by off towards the coast.  We waited a bit more and spotted another one in the opposite direction passing behind a tree line and doing some slow circles.  Still too far to really see.  And then behind where we were looking we saw one, and then two.  One chased the other off and then circled our way.  We both had our cameras firing away while it got closer and closer, finally passing about 30-meters directly over our heads, it was awesome.

Red Kite
Red Kite - Avoca, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

Red Kite
Red Kite - Avoca, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
Tearing our eyes off of the Kite we saw a third one, so our count was three for sure, with maybe five total, all within 20 minutes of standing on the bridge. Having seen my 4th lifer for the day we left to head back towards Dublin and a quick stop to see some Jays.  And would you believe it, we saw another Red Kite from the car while driving on the carriage-way.
We wound up near the Powerscourt Waterfall at a stand of oak trees where he had seen Jays collecting acorns the previous day.  We saw a few flying over the car before we got there, but only one in the oak trees.  We waited and it finally flew into view before flying off to some pine trees where they were roosting.

Jay
Jay - Co. Wicklow, Ireland
Shortly after we parted ways and concluded a very good day of birding.  We got 50 species with 4 lifers for me. Plus I got to see some parts of Ireland that I would't have seen otherwise.  I plan on visiting the East Coast Nature Reserve again, especially once the geese show up.  But it would be a great place to take my kids to.
I'd like to thank Brian one more time and I'm looking forward to more trips.  Maybe I'll even learn to understand the Dub accent.

I'm not sure if I'll get out again birding in the next week, but the family is going to Portugal in two weeks for mid-term break and a bit of Sun.  But hopefully we get to see some wild Flamingos and Hoopoes too. 

Cheers and thanks for making it this far. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Summer in Ireland

Let me start off by apologizing for not posting more often.  The reasons are a mix of not getting out birding as often as I'd like and also some dissatisfaction with the quality of my photos.  I really miss my DSLR and long lenses, something that I hope to fix in 2015.
But I have been out a few times these last months.  I'm going to post some of the better photos, or better birds, that I've seen.


Yellowhammer
Yellowhammer - Co. Fingal, Ireland

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler - Carton Ave, Maynooth, Ireland

Blackcap
Browncap - Carton Ave, Maynooth, Ireland


Dipper
Dipper - Rye Water, Leixlip, Ireland

Robin
Robin - Leixlip, Ireland

Swallows
Swallows - Cork, Ireland


Black-Tailed Godwit
Black-Tailed Godwit - Cork, Ireland

Little Grebe and Eggs
Little Grebe and nest - Castletown Demesne, Ireland

Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone - Sandycove, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Eurasian Oystercatcher
Eurasian Oystercatcher - Sandycove, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Dunlin - Juvenile
Dunlin - Merrion Strand, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Sandwich Terns, Black-Headed Gulls, Oystercatchers, Greater and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls
Sandwich Terns - Merrion Strand, Co. Dublin, Ireland


Ringed Plovers and
Ringed Plover and Oystercatches - Merrion Strand, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Black Swan and Trumpeter Swan
Escapee Black Swan and Mute Swan - Swords Estuary, Ireland


Meadow Pipit
Meadow Pipit - Rogerstown Estuary, Co. Fingal, Ireland

Common Tern
Common Tern, Pre-dive - Rogerstown Estuary, Co. Fingal, Ireland

Reed Bunting
Reed Bunting (female) - Rogerstown Estuary, Co. Fingal, Ireland

Stonechat
Stonechat - Rogerstown Estuary, Co. Fingal, Ireland
Hopefully I can get better camera gear by next summer and get some better quality photos to post. Winter migration is well underway and the wintering ducks and geese should be showing up soon, I've already seen a Brent Goose.  And I've been trying to see a Northern Wheatear before they leave, but they have been my nemesis bird this Summer.  I've dipped on them at least 10 times.

I have other photos up on my Flickr Page, feel free to head over and see what else I've seen and some non-bird photos of Ireland.

Cheers,

Steve