Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Great Spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandarius), Críalo Europeo - and other News

Early migrant Great Spotted Cuckoos seen on the 31st Jan!

The two birds were seen north of La Janda late in the afternoon after I took a long drive into the hinterlands behind La Janda. As I was watching a distant Bonelli's Eagle over the treeline, I noticed a light form of what seemed to be a bird hiding in a far off acebuche or wild olive tree. Quickly organising my scope from the back of the mini-bus, I found to my delight that the bird in question was a Great Spotted Cuckoo and another one was lower down near the base of the tree.

This was not the earliest time I'd seen these spectacular birds come back across The Strait but it was unusual to see two together.

One of the birds took off and I managed to get some flight shots. It's always been a bit of a jinx bird with me to get decent shots of it in the air.

We've been having really cold nights this week and crisp sunny days giving us fantastic views across The Strait to the Riff Mountains in Morocco. If the cuckoos travelled this route they would have experienced very cold temperatures and snow, so the warmer lower areas around La Janda would feel quite welcoming to early migrating birds.
We had some more Barn Swallows and the Little Swifts are still around in the Chipiona area and the mouth of the Guadalquivir River at Sanlucar de Barrameda.

One of our local Eagle Owls was watched at one of the roosts close to our home. Always a great bird to see and I'm fortunate that I have permission to go onto this private estate to show people this lovely creature.

Our Jackdaws were again mobbing some Short-eared Owls at different roosts and I was able to take some more shots of these lovely birds. The sad thing is that Eagle Owls hunt them as well...

Yellow eyes and broadly banded tail with less streaking on the flanks compared to that of Long-eared.

It was a case of driving in the wrong direction that I took this photo. Going the only way home along the track parallel to the main collector canal, I spotted this Short-eared Owl on a post, lit up brilliantly from behind by the setting sun. Inching at a snail's pace forward in the car, then switching off the engine and steadily raising the camera on the owl, I waited for the sun to drop to give me a less dazzling angle. If you know the area and the width of the track there isn't much room for manoeuvre and to go past the bird would have meant flushing it.
I could see that the owl was becoming less interested in me and started listening again to voles running along their grassy tunnels in the open grazing land between the track and the canal. The sun was getting lower but as the bird was becoming more interested in food, I took my chance with the sun and clicked off a few shots. The owl's head flicked round towards me directing it's eyes and ears straight in my direction, focusing with that wonderfu disc shaped face that always has an expression of astonishment, then dived right along the grass and into the blaze of golden light from the descending sun. This photo was the result!

Looking across Las Lomas towards the hillside of Vejer and the plateau of La Muela.

I've always considered Black-winged Kites more like owls and you see them content to share the voles with the Short-eared Owls and come to think of it, both are true nomads, heading off wherever they find a good supply of voles or other small rodents, never sticking to one area, just going with the flow.

One last shot of my sun-lit owl.

Lots of fishermen hate cormorants but I find them really attractive birds with that wonderful iridescence on their plumage and bright green eyes.

Corn Buntings are plentiful and it's always lovely to hear their 'jangling keys' call.

There has been a Southern Grey Shrike arond the north side of the La Janda area most of the winter. It seems to disappear for a few weeks then comes back again. When I do see it, it's always on the same bush, facing the same direction. It then flies off to another bush, the same one it always flies on to!

Black Storks at Brazo del Este on the Guadalquivir River

Lesser Kestrels pairing up and feeling cozy in the morning sun

There are less Marsh Harriers around the rice-field areas

But more Ospeys are to be seen which shows how rich and diverse this area is.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Overlooking Long-eared Owls - (Asio otus), Búho Chico

A Long-eared Owl leaves the roost at dusk

Finding Long-eared Owls has always been difficult for me in Cadiz province. Not just because they are nocturnal but they are quite scarce breeding birds here.
It now seems clear that they may have been overlooked by myself and others during our winters when Short-eared Owls roost together here in the south. The other day I spotted some owls which I though were all the same species, namely Short-eared, but there amongst them were three Long-eared Owls in the same tree. I've seen Long-eared Owls in winter in Northern Europe roosting together and always thought that different species of owl wouldn't mix in a roost. How wrong I was...

Here's a photo of a Long-eared Owl above and a Short-eared below

Perched owls (when you can see something of them) are fairly straightforward to identify especially with those ear-tufts of the Long-eared Owl compared to the very slight tufts and chubbier faced Short-eared Owls. Confusion often arises with owls of the same size and structure in flight which is clearly the case with Short and Long-eared Owls. Thier flight, profile and general structure in the air are almost identical.
Outside of the breeding season there are no calls to listen to to separate them and fleeting views of owls in flight, once you get over that 'Wow!' factor, move so silently and quickly that you barely have time to check on identification differences.

Comparison of Long-eared (L) and Short-eared Owl (R) in similar flight pattern. (click to expand)

Here are a few pointers that can help in separating these two beautiful species in flight.

Tail: The Long-eared has much finer barring on the tail compared to the broader bands on the Short-eared. This may be a good one to check first as birds flying away from you are more likely than ones coming straight to you - alas!

Wing - Primaries: Long-eared has finely barred primaries compared to the darker broader band and dark tips of the Short-eared

Wing: This finer barring shows up well on the upperside, although it's more apparent on the underside. *The underside will have better background contrast, especially at dusk, against a wooded area with lots of shadows.
(The light was starting to fade and using my set up of Canon 7D with 400 f/5.6, auto ISO, 2,000sec with central point focusing, hand held - was indeed stretching the equipment to it's max...)

Wing - upperside: There is also less lighter spotting on the wing coverts than in the Short-eared.
The Long-eared Owl doesn't show a white trailing edge to the wing as with Short-eared Owls

Eye Colour: You can't always see the eye colour but here the iris is a deep orange whereas in the Short-eared Owl the iris is bright yellow.

Body Markings: Here the neck, breast and flanks of the Long-eared Owl are much more boldly marked with 'fish-bone' streaking. The Short-eared Owl has less streaking to the lower body with much plainer streaks

This rear view shows the flank and tail - something to concentrate on for ID purposes if you only manage a fleeting glimpse

Both species have very similar structures and of course in flight, those ear tufts of the Long-eared Owl are invisible

From now on I'll be looking more closely at roosts and trying to get an idea of numbers of wintering Long-eared Owls.
If you'd like to watch a good little film about this topic then click here. It's worth it...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) Búho Campestre

The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is one of my favourite winter birds in Spain. The Short-eared Owl breeds across much of Eurasia, North America and its also is resident on Cuba and Hispaniola, as well as parts of South America with all northern populations generally regarded as migratory. Their life span is around 5 years.
Although not normally covering huge migratory distances in Europe, they move south in winter from France and Germany. It could be that wintering birds could come from further afield but as yet I haven't been able to find any information on this It would be interesting to know more about them and I do try and check through any photos I've taken for rings or tags, but as yet I've had no joy. It's also really difficult to see their legs for rings, both perched or in flight.
A lot of studies have been done in North America on Short-eared Owls and there is some information on UK owls and migration on the BTO website but the papers published have to be bought. Here's a really good little film of a North American Short-eared Owl hunting beside a busy road on some marshland.

On the side of the main collector canal at La Janda the open grassed areas are thriving with colonies of small rodents and an ideal wintering area not only for the owls but for other birds such as the large influx of Black-winged Kites (Elanus caeruleus) that are with us right now. The kites have been nesting here in very good numbers over the last few years, although when there is a decline in rodent populations the kites will leave the area, often travelling a thousand kilometers or more to an area where they can find food and breed. Their nomadic behaviour would account for their success and spread into Southern Europe.
Black-winged Kites physical structure, nocturnal looking eyes, flight and hunting techniques are more like owls than any other raptor I can think of in the Western Palearctic.

You can trawl though the web and find information on a fair bit of research that has been done throughout Europe but particularly in North America, that investigates the effects on vole population dynamics. You can see a clear link between predators and specialised alterations in rodent breeding behaviour and their seasons. This seems to be apparent during some years, when Short-eared Owls and of course other raptors too, leave their wintering areas like La Janda, to return to northern areas to breed, thus allowing the Black-winged Kite population to profit by the Short-eared Owl's absence and coinciding with the prenuptual period of the kite's breeding season in the south.

Short-eared owls seek out and inhabit areas where small mammals, especially meadow voles are abundant. Effective food sourcing dominates their breeding sites, the number of wintering birds, the number of nesting pairs, and the number of eggs they lay and of course this affects the number of young they have. All of these factors can change from year to year based purely on food supply.
Breeding begins in March when both sexes begin defending territories and courting that involves elaborate flight displays, include wing-clapping, exaggerated wing-beats, and skirmishing.
Birds nest on the ground where the female creates a cup shape and lines it with grasses and her own down. Four to nine eggs are typical, but clutches as large as fourteen have been reported in years of peak small mammal abundance. Incubation, which is done by the female alone, lasts about a month. The eggs hatch asynchronously and fledging occurs about a month later.

Here are a sequence of photos I took this week of a Short-eared Owl hunting rodents. It was just getting dark as we watched the birds coming towards us, rising up and catching the last glimmers of sunlight and falling back into the shadows.

We came upon a roost of thirteen birds in a wild olive tree a few days ago. This was the largest number I have seen roosting together of this species.
I co-led a winter tour to Holland with Arnoud van den Berg a few winter's years ago and saw how the Long-eared Owls (Asio otus) roosted together in trees within villages in the colder north. Roosting together like this offers protection against predators such as Goshawk. Long-eared Owls are great birds to see at any time, but with up to a dozen or more birds in village front gardens in winter, was quite a sight to see!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Red-footed Falcon - Falco vespertinus and Pallid Harrier - Circus macrourus

Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus), another rarity on The Strait of Gibraltar
Happy New Year everyone!

It's good to be back home and out birding after our family holiday. I've been trying to catch up on a lot of work although the good weather we've been enjoying has helped keep the rarer wintering birds to stay with us and not head south. The warm days are particularly good for hunting with the Pallid Harriers and the other birds of prey finding plenty of food and I have been out catching up on what's around as well as taking some photos.

I received a text message on the 6th of January from Stephen Knapp, alerting me that he'd seen a male Red-footed Falcon close to where he lives between La Muela and Patria (Vejer area). I was down on the other side of The Strait at the time and came back up for a search of the area.
I've seen the closest groups to us of Red-footed Falcons in Hungary and Austria as well as the eastern birds out in Turkey and Greece but have never seen one in Spain before.

I searched the power lines and cables, knowing that Red-foots like to perch on such. I took my time and searched slowly around the open meadowland wooded dehesas of the Patria plateau and down through the undulating valleys, checking bare tree-tops and any likely flying bird. I did come across the local Common and Lesser Kestrels hovering as Red-foots often do. There were also two Black-winged Kites hunting in the area, always lovely birds to watch. It wasn't too long before I spotted the bird, a fine male with distinctive red-orange legs and vent. Just as expected, the falcon was sitting on a wire.

As was normal on the country roads there was no place to stop but I quickly reversed back and parked at an entrance to a field and went on foot. I managed to get some shots of the bird on the wire before a group of kids on bikes came past and scared the bird off. Yesterday was a fiesta of the epiphany here in Spain and there was a lot of traffic and people heading for lunch.

I did managed to get some flight shots and you can see from these more clearly that this young male, probably a bird that fledged in 2009, is retaining some juvenile primary and secondary flight feathers and other plumage.

In the photos you can see that the bird has been ringed on the left leg with what seems to be a normal metal band. I could not see any other signs that this could be an escapee from a private collection somewhere but still have a nagging doubt about an near adult bird turning up so late in the south. Juvenile birds would be more likely, but then perhaps I'm just being cautious as it's my first one in Spain and can't believe what a cracker that's flying around here!

The answer for such a bird turning up here in SW Spain may be that as Red-footed Falcons expand their range in central Europe westwards, there could be a more westerly migration movement with Austrian, Slovenian and (Western) Hungarian birds moving south in autumn through Germany and France, then on down through the Iberian peninsula.
The presence of Pallid Harriers (scroll down below) now wintering in Cadiz province Andalucia does show that this western trend could lead to other species becoming more common on the Iberian peninsula but probably more apparent down on The Strait of Gibraltar where there is an abundance of food, particularly with the enormous numbers of Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails and other wintering passerines. The sightings of Great Egrets in Spain ten years ago was considered quite rare. Now they are increasing in larger numbers and in fact breeding here and many other western European countries. Rose-coloured Starlings could be down in the south with us too amongst the millions of Common Starlings that winter here. I thought I saw one juvenile Rose-coloured Starling last year, a bird with a really pale rump and back, much lighter over all than juv Common Starling, but by the time I put down my bins to pick up my camera rattle off a few photo shots that I could later have a good look at back on my computer, the flock took off, spooked by a peregrine!
The few birders that are down this way, few that is compared to the UK or The Netherlands, will be keeping their eyes busy and keenly focused on any other rarities as well as noting what trends occur with the overall migration patterns and our wintering birds activity and numbers.

Eastern migratory birds usually make their way along the Danube River to the Black Sea, heading for Turkey and down through the Middle East. Red-footed Falcons have been massacred on migration in Cyprus and other Mediterranean countries and this is a particularly vulnerable raptor that needs all the protection and breeding help Man can give. Perhaps the on-going projects in Hungary and protection of new breeding sites in Slovakia and Austria will help populations that may eventually migrate through or winter in SW Spain.

Red- footed Falcon
Ricard Gutiérrez (Rare Birds Spain & Birds Spain Blogspot) has since written an interesting article outlining Red-footed Falcon records in Spain. The article also shows detailed maps indicating where the bird was ringed and the distance it's flown from Hungary to Andalucía.
You can read about it here

There are an incredible amount of birds feeding at La Janda this winter. More Common Cranes have been moving back and forth across the site of the ancient laguna at La Janda as well as a few Eurasian Bitterns present although getting decent photos is a challenge or a matter of being in the right place at the right time as you pass the rice-fields, the remnants of last year's harvest are being turned to mud as the tractors flail the remaining stalks and let them rot. The remaining stalks were a great place for bitterns to skulk and feed.

Warm weather is just perfect for larger birds of prey like this young Bonell's Eagle, one of at least seven Bonelli's in and around La Janda from Facinas to Los Naveros

Probably the commonest raptor at this time are the wintering Marsh Harriers. This young male takes off from his perch beside the main collector canal. Few trees are in the area and quite often
you can see six or seven such birds having an afternoon preen or nap.

Now for some more Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) photos

I've been spending quite a lot of time watching their behaviour, hunting techniques and flight.

Diving at speed after Serins

Some flight profile shots above and below

Stronger body not so far away from Hen Harrier but with four primary feathers not five as in Hen.

Underwing markings of the adult female Pallid

Deep chest, more prominent than in Montagu's but slighter than with the heavier Hen Harrier

A slight tussle with a young Marsh Harrier and as such air combat, the Pallid is much more nimble leaving the Marsh Harrier behind. A bit like a motorcyclist leaving a Ferrari in town traffic...Hmm..how do I know about that?

Heads down and off hunting again.

A Booted Eagle passes over Barbate Marismas.

In addition to the raptors previously mentioned, the Spanish Imperial Eagles, both from the re-intro programme and 'local' birds can still be seen with a fair degree of regularity, in and around La Janda. Same goes for Golden Eagles. You have to know where they are likely to be and what time to go to these areas as well as calculating previous weather patterns and present hunting conditions.
I had a sighting of a sub-adult Egyptian Vulture last month and there are a few that do stay on here during winter. Black Kites have been crossing back from Morocco seen in increasing numbers with five birds seen on the 4th January.
I found a roost of the Short-eared Owls last week and counted seven birds in two trees with two others flying and being mobbed by Common Magpies, another species on the increase here although the Great spotted Cuckoos do parasitize magpies nests. This could therefore give us an extended viewing season of Great spotted Cuckoos down this way as they normally stop off here to feed before heading where magpie populations and more numerous.

Sunset over Cabo Trafalgar

Sunrise over Cabo Trafalgar

Lesser Kestrels have been starting to flock around Vejer de La Frontera and becoming steadily more vocal especially in the mornings as the sun heats up the town.

More news and updates soon. Happy birding and have a great year!