Sunday, 18 April 2010

Volcano Consequences Part 1

Rock Bunting at Monfrague

I've been away leading a tour to the Extremadura and the Coto Doñana last week. This was an eight day tour starting at Madrid where I met a lovely group of clients who had flown from the UK to start their tour. I flew up from Jerez and organised a mini-bus before their arrival. We spent the first four nights near to Trujillo, exploring the rich countryside, finding some excellent species of birds as well as admiring the carpets of wild flowers on the mixed dehesa and steppe countryside.
It wasn't until we had travelled down to the south and into Andalucia that we heard the news of the volcanic eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in South Iceland had disrupted air traffic in northern Europe and resulted in many foreign travelers being stranded in many countries.
Well, you all know the rest of the story and like many other travelers ,delays on the return leg of their holiday would now be inevitable. Just how long would the delay be? Nobody knows the answer to this. It's like the question 'How long is a bit of string?'. After consulting Chris Kightely at Limosa Holidays back in the UK we arranged new flight bookings with Iberia/BA and also booked the group into a good quality hotel in Jerez.
The effect of the cancellation of flights has made life tough for everyone involved in tourism in Europe. Our own client bookings at Hoopoe Cottage, our rental guest house, have been hit as well, with clients stuck in the UK, unable to fly south my day tours during this great migration period have gone flat. On saying that though, I have had a couple of people calling to ask if I was free this week an subsequently am now booked for Wednesday and Thursday. Further complications now kick-in with a planned tour to Corsica on the 24th April (Saturday), looking less promising. I booked a flight to London for Friday, spending the night there before flying from there on the Saturday via Cologne to Bastia. I suppose this week will see increased pressure on government met office staff to start flights as soon as possible. The only pressure that I can see of being any real help to any of us is one that can changthe physical weather pattern over the volcano and northern Europe. We have a slow moving anti-cyclone on the Iberian peninsula that really should be winging its way northwards to dissipate the dust in the atmosphere.

This event in Iceland is still pretty much a medium sized eruption and we all hope that the people of Iceland stay safe from what could be a potential cataclysmic catastrophe. Last year's travels took me to the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. In July 1995, Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano , dormant throughout recorded history, rumbled to life and began an eruption which eventually buried the island's capital, Plymouth, in more than 12 metres (39 ft) of mud, destroyed its airport and docking facilities, and rendered the southern half of the island uninhabitable. Following the destruction of Plymouth, more than half of the population left the island due to the economic disruption and lack of housing. After a period of regular eruptive events during the late 1990s, including one on June 25, 1997 in which 19 people died when they were overtaken by a pyroclastic flow, the volcano's activity in recent years has been confined mostly to infrequent ventings of ash into the uninhabited areas in the south. However, this ash venting does occasionally extend into the populated areas of the northern and western parts of the island. The southern part of the island has been evacuated and visits are severely restricted.
I hope that the Icelanders don't suffer the same fate.

Now let's have a look at the birds from last week...

Red Kite


Great Bustard

Spanish Imperial Eagle


A male Serin almost glows in the sunlight

There is a lot of water in Extremadura this spring

Sand Martins try and see off a melanistic form of this wonderful male Montagu's Harrier

Watching me closely. A female Montagu's Harrier drifts past on the plains around Santa Marta de Magasca in Caceres province, Extremadura, attracting at least fifteen males who chased, displayed and cluthched nesting material to show their suitability to the females. Amazing sights this week and in such a beautiful open steppe setting.

Competitive flights of male Montagu's Harriers aren't supposed to look like formation flying!

Black Storks favour riverine habitat for nesting

Olive grove - Extremadura

Close-up and personal. This low fly-past from an adult Egyptian Vulture was another spectacular highlight of the tour to Extremadura and the Coto Doñana

Wheeling and gliding above us, the mighty Egyptian Vulture. This shot was taken on one of the warmer days at the beginning of last week

Another shot from last week of an adult Bonelli's Eagle and a Griffon Vulture (slightly closer to the camera) for comparison

Bonelli's Eagle

A male Blue Rock Thrush flashes past the group at Peña Falcon a great site within the Parque Nacional de Monfrague

There are good numbers of the larger vulture, the Black Vultures to be seen in Extremadura and the vast flocks of sheep seem to provide Black and the Griffon Vulture species adequate food sources on the steppe. Quite often Ravens and White Storks can also be seen feeding at a carcass site although the Black Vultures are top of the pecking order, closely followed by the Griffons

The mighty Griffon Vulture

A typical Extremaduran steppe scene where man-made water scrapes provide water for animals in the searing summer heat

A Black Vulture casts a wary eye in my direction

More photos to sort out from the Coto D - Back soon, Stephen

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Waves of Warblers

Subalpine Warbler

After a few days of unfavourable wind conditions for assisting the migrating passerine passage northwards across The Strait of Gibraltar, night flights and late evening crossings, where the winds died down, has brought a flood of warblers across to Europe.

Spectacled Warbler

Melodious Warbler

Bonelli's Warbler

Other warblers arriving this week were: Western Orphean Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Willow Warbler as well as loads of Common Whitethroats

This lovely female Northern Wheatear turned up this week. I think many birds were late with the strong winds although some species were luckier and ended up early in their breeding areas.

A record shot of a very nervous male Whinchat this week

Yellow Wagtail males seem to be everywhere as incubation takes place

Calandra Larks are great to watch displaying in the morning light around Barbate

(Greater) Short-toed Lark populations seem to be on the increase within the military areas near Barbate

Nesting Material for this tough little Zitting Cisticola

A Great Tit

With the strong easterlies, the flooded rice-fields in and around La Janda are drying out quickly although some tracks are very difficult to drive on

Pallid Swift nesting at Barbate

One of the local male Montagus' Harriers - with ring and colour band

Portrait of a Monty's in Andalucia

A Common Kestrel prepares to take-off

Leap up into the wind, extend those wings et voila!

No time to look this fascinating beetle-type-thing up yet. Suggestions all of you with time on your hands (please..)
There seemed to be hundreds of Woodchat Shrikes around with Short-toed and Booted Eagles on station watching out for prey as all the creatures of the area get on with life, its richness and the perils of raising young in this wonderful area surrounded by such lush, green, variable habitat.

The view my Egyptian Vultures gaze out on as chick hatching takes place.... More on those lovely creatures later.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Pratincoles and Purple Herons

I spent a lot of time over on the Guadalquivir basin this week. Most of the visible migration on The Strait had slowed down caused by strong NNW winds and wasn't favourable to birds heading north into Europe. There should be a mass invasion on this coastline as soon as we get a change in wind direction. Bee-eates, Swifts and lots of passerines that fly at night were in evidence as new arrivals.
Collared Pratincoles are absolutely cracking birds to watch. They are fast and very nimble fliers catching flying insects in the air. They'll also stop off a pick a few off roadways and are quite tolerant of any slow moving car that approaches. Using the Land Rover as a hide or blind, we moved slowly, inching towards this quite confiding bird and too one or two photos. They really do have lovely facial markings and like most of my birds, I never get tired showing them to people.
In the early part of the spring migration season newly arrived Pratincoles land in specific areas when they hear others calling. Like most animals they have excellent hearing and sound waves travel upwards in the air to a great height. If you've ever been in a hot air ballon drifting over the countryside, you can lean over the basket and listen to individual conversations from people on the ground! It's quite spooky at first but can get quite interesting too! Birds are listening as well and on recognition of similar species contact calls, the descend and meet up. This is where the first stages of introductions to bonding and breeding begin as we witnessed on the flower covered marshland meadows on the Guadalquivir River, where a few hundred Collared Pratincoles, landed, bowed - as they do each time they land, and got to know one another. Just lovely.
Flying quickly across lush flowering camomile, a newly arrive Collared Pratincole checks out the area
A migrant Purple Heron
Red Crested Pochard (male) amongst Common Pochard
Distant Osprey

Looking over the Guadalquivir River to Matalascañas in the distance
Birding on the Guadalquivir with Ole Jørgen, Tone and Mattias Hanssen. Travelling along one of the tracks an almost invisible Kentish Plover walks off her nest in front of us. We stop and find three eggs and after taking some photos we leave to let the bird get back to her incubation

Riders along the wetlands
Squacco Heron
Ther sherry town of Trebujena
Lovely male Subalpine Warbler
Working on the vines
Wild Hyacinth
Lesser Short-toed Lark
(Greater) Short-toed Lark
Mylarbis species of beetle? Any suggestions...
Grom the Guadalquivir looking to the distant peak above Grazelema
Greater Flamingoes feeding
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus have increased dramatically in the last ten years. We all go excited seeing them in the Coto Doñana when there were about ten birds. Now the population is in the thousands with birds spreading throughout Iberia.
'Glossies', as they are affectionately called are the most successful of the ibis species with a large global distribution. It's thought to have originated in Africa as an 'old world' species and spread across from Africa to the Americas and north into Europe and Asia. It's also well established in Australia
Glossies are colonial breeders in large bushes and trees often with egrets. They are specialist wetland feeders seeking out frogs, small fish, and other aquatic creatures. They'll also take water beetles and other insects from the grasses and salt marsh plants
Having a stretch
This is a sequence of shots taken of a flock of over three-hundred and fifty or so Glossy Ibis that rose from the marshlands over on the Guadalquivir. As the birds wheeled around in this huge group, their wing beats making and incredible rushing sound, a passing Short-toed Eagle comes flapping steadily by. Short-toes are no threat to the Ibis, but the Ibis don't know this and scatter in all directions. You can click to enlarge each photo to see a really nonchalant large eagle, by the way a specialist reptile hunter, look bewildered as all hell breaks loose in the skies above us. It was such an amazing spectacle to watch and after a few minutes with the eagle gone, the ibis landed close to us with an incredible rush and drumming of seven-hundred or so beating wings.

Coming in to land again - Phew!
Northern Lapwings eggs. Its good to have some breeding pairs down this way
Iberian Hare are wonderful animals to watch and if you get a chance to study them, then take the opportunity as their subtle colours are such great camouflage against the Andalucian countryside backdrop.
Common Redstart male on spring migrtation
White Wagtail of continental Europe
A male Yellow Wagtail of the Iberian race
A day out on the river - the daily boat trip up the Río Guadalquivir from Bonanza
Black Kite
Black Kite with claimed road-kill gives us an aggressive stare and threatening call
Black-winged Stilts race across the old salt-pans displaying with fast flight and 'piping' calls
Views across the Algaida lagoons
Black Kite turns in the bright light
Black-crowned Night Herons
This week we've heard constant 'churring' of parties of colourful European Bee-eaters heading north, high in the blue, spring skies
One Bee-eater passes low enough for a quick-piccie

Andrew and Bridgit enjoy a lunch with me at Facinas