Thursday, 29 October 2009

Egyptian Vultures and Hunting Dogs

Egyptian Vultures
(Neophron percnopterus)
I've been trying to catch up with photos I took this summer including shots of one of our local Egyptian Vultures.
I am out and about most days with my trusty (now getting a bit 'dinged' and worn...) Canon 400L f5.6 lens. The Canon 50D body is fairly new but like a lot of my photo gear, suffers terribly from fine dust particles in our particularly dry environment. I never change lenses and keep one lens permanently attached to one body. I use a one-to one macro for insect and other close work on my older Canon 30D and have a D60, the forerunner to the 20D with another smaller lens that Lucia, our daughter uses when she comes out with me. (We just spend a few hours locally). She's a fast learner and now during my quieter times we'll both sit down and do some basic photoshop work on the mac at home.

I took these shots in June when out with David and Dee, friends of ours from Ireland. We came across an adult Egyptian Vulture at a sheep carcass that was just out of sight from the road. Waiting until the bird rose from the ground, I managed to rattle off quite a few flight shots of this endangered raptor species

Taking any shots in the middle of the day in Summer can be just a bit too bright in SW Spain, and flight shots with harsh light and no subject control is especially tricky. The bird was flying fast and away from us but we did have a slightly raised position as it flew past.
I spoke with the sheep farmer last week and showed him some of these photos that I printed off for him to keep. We spent some time talking about the local birds and agreed that dead lambs or sheep would be left out in a safe place for the Egyptian, Griffon and the scarce Rüppell's Vultures to supplement their meagre diet.

Spanish Egyptian vulture populations experienced a sharp decline (around 25%) during the last two decades. It seems that the combined effects of human persecution and the recent large scale territory expansion by Man explains this near extinction of this an of course many other species.
I can't see any other 'animal' being responsible, can you?

An article entitled "Poison-related mortality effects in the endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) population in Spain" – published online here - suggests that poisoning is probably one of the main causes of Egyptian vulture mortality in Spain. The eradication of the illegal use of poisoning and supplementary feeding in specific territories to provide safe food seems priority for its conservation.

These beautiful, white, well-feathered birds have an average wing span of 5.5 feet and are found in southern Europe, northern Africa, and western and southern Asia. They use tools, dropping rocks onto ostrich eggs to crack the shell. Their thin beaks and long necks let them get carrion larger birds can't reach. However, birds on the Indian sub-continent are being poisoned by Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used on domesticated animals and their numbers have crashed dramatically. Here, on the Iberian peninsular, baited poisoning still continues with an landowner near Facians, Tarifa being found guilty of baiting meat with strong poison that passed on through the food-chain killing dogs, foxes and was even proved by the local environmental officers to have killed insects at the scenes of the poisonings. The effects on small mammals and passerines was not discovered but you can imaging the knock-on effect of such action where their bodies are eaten. The landowner was fined a total of €60,000 and his hunting licence revoked for five years.

Facinas seems a strange place to me. There is a tradition of shooting any stray dogs in the area around the open areas. I have found lots of dead dogs that have died as a result of shotgun or high calibre rifle wounds.
During and after the hunting season (this morning seemed like WWIII had started around our house!), the area is a dumping ground where hunters unsatisfied of their current season's dogs performance, simply abandon the animals. This behaviour goes on throughout Spain and Portugal. At this time of the year you'll see lots of abandoned lurchers, greyhounds, and terriers running loose, looking frightened and hungry. Many are hit by cars on the main roads, others poisoned or shot. Many hunters have told me that dogs have no emotions and feel no pain - something quite incomprehensible for me.

Our local Egyptian Vultures have left for their Winter in Africa. I really hope that indiscriminate poisoning and of course shooting that happens in so many countries and on so many continents will spare them during this hazardous time and that the two juvenile birds that fledged in our immidiate area return to Andalucia safely in March

Egyptian Vultures will take 'road-kill' during the breeding season. I have seen them taking snakes, rats and other chunks of animal off local roads.

An adult bird returns back to it's nest and the waiting chick
The Egyptian Vulture nests on rock ledges, and hunts in open country, in lowlands and mountains. Summers in the southern Europe along the Mediterranean, including the Camargue.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Salt, Mud and Birds

I spent Monday and Tuesday with Douglas and Janet from Leicester in the UK this week. Despite changing weather with some torrential downpours we carefully managed to circumnavigate the worst of the heavy rain and get to where the rarer birds were.
Our first day was spent locally around the La Janda area where the Short-eared Owl from the previous posting on this blog, was one of the highlights. Black-winged Kite, Glossy Ibis and at least ten raptor species added to a most respectable number of of species seen as well as plants, butterflies and other wildlife.
The beautifully lit Pied Avocets in flight against a menacing sky, just made this photo above. I can't help photographing these stunning birds. Yesterday at the Bonanza salinas, we counted over 300!

The Pied Avocet, Recurvirostra avosetta, is a large black and white wader in the avocet and stilt family, Recurvirostridae. They breed in temperate Europe and western and Central Asia. It is a migratory species and most winter in Africa or southern Asia. Some remain to winter in the mildest parts of their range, for example in southern Spain and southern England.

More shots of the Pied Avocets - and what you probably didn't know was that this particular species gets its English and scientific names from its black cap, as once worn by European advocates or lawyers. There you go....

The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is the most widespread species of the flamingo family. It is found in parts of Africa, southern Asia (coastal regions of Pakistan and India) and southern Europe (including Spain, Sardinia, Albania, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, and the Camargue region of France). Some populations are short distance migrants, and records north of the breeding range are relatively frequent; however, given the species' popularity in captivity whether these are truly wild individuals is a matter of some debate. A single bird was seen on North Keeling Island (Cocos (Keeling) Islands) in 1988. Greater flamingo is the state bird of Gujarat, India.

This is the largest species of flamingo, averaging 110-150 cm (43-60 in) tall and weighing 2–4 kg (4.4-8.8 lbs). The largest male flamingoes have been recorded at up to 187 cm (74 in) tall and 4.5 kg (10 lbs). It is closely related to the American Flamingo and Chilean Flamingo, with which it is has sometimes been considered conspecific, but that treatment is now widely seen (e.g. by the American and British Ornithologists' Union) as incorrect and based on a lack of evidence.

Like all flamingos, this species lays a single chalky-white egg on a mud mound.Most of theplumage is pinkish-white, but the wing coverts are red and the primary and secondary flight feathers are black.The bill is pink with a restricted black tip, and the legs are entirely pink. The call is a goose-like honking.

Greater Flamingoes are another species that have a grace and elegance all of their own. There are a few thousand of them around the Bay off Cadiz, Guadalquivir and Doñana areas. It's not until they take to the air that their wonderfully colourful wings can be fully appreciated.

The Slender-billed Gull, Chroicocephalus genei, is a mid-sized gull which breeds very locally around the Mediterranean and the north of the western Indian Ocean (e.g. Pakistan) on islands and coastal lagoons. Most of the population is somewhat migratory, wintering further south to north Africa and India, and a few birds have wandered to western Europe. A stray individual was reportedly seen on Antigua, April 24, 1976 (AOU, 2000), but I didn't see one there when I visited the island in July this year!

This species is 37-40 cm long with a 90-102 cm wingspan. It is therefore slightly larger than the Black-headed Gull, which it resembles, although it does not have a black hood in summer. The head and dark red bill have an elongated tapering appearance, and this bird also appears long-necked. The legs are dark red, and the iris is yellow. In summer, the breast has a pink colouration. This bird takes two years to reach maturity, as usual in gulls. First year birds have a black terminal tail band, and dark areas in the wings. The scientific name of this bird commemorates the Italian naturalist Giuseppe Gené.

This rather uncommon gull breeds in colonies, nesting on the ground and laying up to three eggs. Like most gulls, it is gregarious in winter, both when feeding or in evening roosts. It is not a pelagic species, and is rarely seen at sea far from coasts. It is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

You Just Need to Know Where to Look

The first Short-eared Owl was seen today in the La Janda area

It was a fairly dull day and the military were overhead in two F18 jets, going around the area close to the military zone for what seemed like ages. Finally, and thank goodness, their tanks must have been getting low, and off they went heading North, leaving the many birds and a few birders some peace and quiet.

Short-eared Owls arrive about this time to winter or pass on to Morocco where temperatures are higher and food plentiful.

Hundreds of White Storks line up at the rice harvest and there is plenty of food for them to find at this time. Most will stay on through the winter.

Meadow Pipits have been arriving in greater numbers this week.

Hundreds of Northern Lapwings, Common Snipe and other waders are now here for the winter.

Willow Warblers, one of the commonest but most delightful to watch are still around and will probably passs through heading South into Africa very soon.

An unfortunate Scorpion (Buthus occidentalis) fell into our pool the other day.

More Great Egrets are turning up each year and this lovely adult bird came quite close!

Each Winter juvenile Bonelli's Eagles descend to lower, warmer levels to winter. Some are persecuted by gamekeepers and hunters as they take partridge, pheasant and duck. They are of course protected by law but enforcement is a logistical problem in such a huge country.
According to the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies, gun ownership in Spain is 11% of the Spanish population. With 4,500,000 small arms, Spain is 19th in the world in gun numbers in real terms. The vast majority of these arms are held as hunting weapons with over one million hunting permits issued.

Black-winged Kites are still increasing and can be seen fairly easily if you know where to look.

Monday, 12 October 2009

More Rüppell's Vulture Photographs

There are estimated to be at least seven juvenile Rüppell's Vultures aound Spanish side of The Strait of Gibraltar area.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Avian Traffic Still Heads South

A Short-toed Eagle turns after takeoff

Rüppells Vultures continue to be seen on a regular basis around the Southern fringes of the Alcornocales Parque Natural with singles seen most days.
The constant stream of Short-toed and Booted Eagles is slowing up this week with lower numbers. As we progress into October the quantity is reduced day by day but the quality is excellent with some outstanding views and perfect photographic opportunities.
Each build up of migrating birds, mainly caused by strong Easterlies or Levante winds fills the Southern tip of the Spanish mainland with many raptors just waiting for the opportunity to cross The Strait of Gibraltar under favourable flying conditions. When there is a break or change with wind strength or wind direction, then they are off, depleting the viewable pile-up that was in the area. We then await more arrivals from migrating birds from the North and depending on weather, can either build up as before or soer, flap or glide across the narrow strip that separates the two continents.
Birds that have already made the crossing to Morocco will join up with others to make the journey South for Winter. Juvenile raptors can be often exhibit impatient or extremely bold behaviour, and dash across The Strait in high winds only to be forced back and return exhausted These birds are in need of watching and learning methods employed by experienced elder birds take the better and often more patient approach to the crossing. At present the trail of migrating birds in Morocco extends throughout the entire country and way South to Western Africa but nowhere in SW Europe is the build up of migrating raptors so stunning a sight to witness!

Here's looking at you

Most of the juvenile Montagu's Harriers seem to have gone across to Morocco leaving one late bird in La Janda that appeared to have sustained shotgun damage to a large part of it's the feathers in the wing but was coping alone. Pot-shots continue to be much more in evidence this season and of course it's impossible to say where the incidents took place. It could have happened in many W European countries. I suppose shots are fired at large birds like Storks or Short-toed Eagles simply because of their target size. The trigger-happy idiots that have fun with guns and protected species will not learn and I firmly believe that they cannot be educated. Find them, fine them heavily and confiscate their weapons and ban them for life from holding any weapons certificate.

Waders (shorebirds) are plentiful on the coastal mudflats and inland tidal tributaries. Thousands of Godwits (both Black and scarcer Bar-tailed) are here, Dunlins (some still in Summer plumage), Sanderlings, Curlew Sandpipers, Little and Temmink's Stints, Avocets, Black-tailed Stilts, Greenshanks, Whimbrels, Grey Plovers, Kentish and Greater Ringed Plover as well as lots of Gulls including Herring and Lesser-Black Backed from the North. Lapwings are also showing up in greater numbers on the agricultural areas.

Little Owl - Yes, despite all this activity, We The Little Owls are still here!

Marsh Harrier - head down quartering another field

Thousands of Duck have arrived in our area with Pintail, Pochard and the delightful Red-crested Pochard, Teal, Garganey and Gadwall being some of the less common. A few Marbled and Feruginous Ducks have also appeared. Black-necked Grebes and hundreds of White-headed Ducks are now back in force and thousands of Marsh Harriers can be seen all though Southern Iberia, quartering any suitable habitat with those extremely long legs!

Hen Harriers are now replacing the Africa bound Monty's and the many have been seen this week with some lovely adult males showing themselves.

Lesser Short-toed Larks feeding

Lesser-Short-toed Lark singing

Larks are abundant but finding flocks can be tricky. Calandras are moving about in medium-sized flocks and other smaller groups can be listened for in the stubble fields. Greater Short-toed Larks move around a lot but the Southern birds remain faithful to their own 'patches'. Younger birds of most species explore and disperse.
We found a nice group of Lesser Short-toed Larks the other day.

A Iberian Hare makes a run for it as my Land Rover comes around a hedge

Dangers from wind turbines and from hunters alike. Black Stork migration id fraught with hazzards

One of our local Cirl Buntings

Juvenile Red-rumped Swallows stopping off for a feed and a preen

Hirundines still pour through with Sand Martins, House Martins, Barn Swallows and Red-rumped Swallows feeding as they pass in huge numbers. Sightings of Swifts are low with small, passing groups of Alpines only. Little Swifts have again been seen this week along the coastal areas but not the rarer White-rumped Swifts. Crag Martins have taken up winter residence Zahara de Los Atunes, no doubt keeping an eye on the Northern Bald Ibis colony!

Only a few Northern Lapwings breed down this way

A Booted Eagle flaps and glides over Cazalla Migration Observation point

The main migrant passerine seems to be the abundant Willow Warbler which is still a common sight. A few rare or record individuals turn up at this time of year with an Arctic Warbler being seen this time last year and a Skulking Grasshopper Warbler being seen along the Mediterranean coast by my friend Andy Patterson. A single Spotted Flycatcher was seen last week, which is pretty late as was the Pied we saw. The last of the Collared Pratincole juveniles have left and more Terns are arriving. Hopefully the Slender-billed will move in soon. Bluethroats have 'thinned out' and I'm just awaiting more from the North.

Black Storks with Griffon Vulture escort

A Black Stork juvenile stops off at La Janda to feed during this years very early rice harvest

Black-necked Grebes. Lots of juvenile birds 'rafting' together on the freshwater lagunas.