A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Portugal Birding Trip Report (14th February – 16th February 2016) - Species List and Locations

Day 1 – Faro to Aljezur

Iberian Magpie – 14th February – North of Aljezur on the N120, Rua 25 de Abril. (40+ travelling flock moving through the trees. Common and numerous throughout.)

Spanish Sparrow – 14th February – Ria de Alvor, small dirt track (Caminho da Espargueira). (A small number of males interspersed with House Sparrows. Only ones of the trip.)
Iberian Magpie - Portugal

Day 2 – Aljezur, Monchique and Lagos

Bonelli’s Eagle – 15th February – East of Maria Vinagre off the M1002 Estrada do Carrascalinho. (Two seen in total, soaring high)

Black-shouldered Kite – 15th February – South of Mexilhoeira Grande on the Rua 25 de Abril (north of the N125). (Seen well hovering and hunting. Only one of the trip)
Black-shouldered Kite - Portugal

Day 3 – Castro Verde to Faro

Great Bustard – 16th February – Castro Verde, west of Gueirero and east of Alcaria do Coelho, in fields north of the road. (Three individuals seen, though distant. Only birds of the trip.)

Black-headed Weaver – 16th February – Pools at Quinta do Lago at the San Lorenzo Golf Club (off Rua Douro). (Male and several females seen well in the reeds. Male paired up and singing. Only birds of the trip.)
Black-headed Weaver - Quinta do Lago, Portugal

Also of note: Probable Spanish Imperial Eagle - Castro Verde, south of Corte Pequena. Too distant to confirm but pale underside, apparent white rump and dark tips to the wings.

Notable Species:

Cattle Egret
- Frequent all over and very common
White Stork - At many sites and common throughout
Greater Flamingo - Several individuals at Ria de Alvor
Purple Swamphen - Numerous on the golf course at Quinta do Lago
Little Bustard - Large flock seen at Castro Verde, south of Corte Pequena. 
Black-winged Stilt - One seen at Ria de Alvor
Kentish Plover - Three seen on the salt marsh at Quinta do Lago
Audouin’s Gull - One seen on the pool at Quinta do Lago
Black-bellied Sandgrouse - A handful seen in the fields at Castro Verde, north of Sao Marcos da Ataboeira
Pallid Swift - Several individuals flying around the pools at Quinta do Lago
Hoopoe - Several seen throughout the trip
Crested Lark - Numerous and several seen throughout the trip
Crag Martin - Numerous and several seen throughout the trip
Red-rumped Swallow - A couple seen at Castro Verde, north of Navarro
Sardinian Warbler - One seen in the scrub surrounding the fields at Ribeira de Aljezur 
Fan-tailed Warbler - A handful seen throughout the trip. More often heard
Iberian Grey Shrike - Numerous throughout the trip
Spotless Starling - Several seen throughout the trip
Serin - Several seen throughout the trip

Additional species:

Tufted Duck
Red-legged Partridge
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Red Kite
Marsh Harrier
Hen Harrier
Common  Buzzard
Ringed Plover
Golden Plover
Black-headed Gull
Mediterranean Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Rock Dove
Stock Dove
Collared Dove
Common Swift
Great-spotted Woodpecker
Barn Swallow
House Martin
Water Pipit
Meadow Pipit
White Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
Black Redstart
Song Thrush
Dartford Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Carrion Crow
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Portugal Birding - Tuesday 16th February 2016 (Day 3 - Castro Verde and Faro)

With our final day in Portugal dawning and with brilliant blue skies weather-wise, we checked out of our hotel and left Lagos for the last time, making the journey up north to the well-known plains around Castro Verde an hour and a half away. Hoping our toll passes from the hire car company were working as we sped through countless check points, we were soon at our destination to begin the search for one of the species we were both most looking forward to seeing – Great Bustard.
Great Bustard Reserve Gates - Castro Verde, Portugal
The entrance to the Great Bustard Reserve in Castro Verde
Arriving at the gates to the popular Great Bustard reserve at Castro Verde, we were disappointed to find them closed, and without a guide we were sadly unable to enter. However, scanning the surrounding plains the habitat looked ideal, so we took the car down a nearby side-road in an effort to locate any wandering Bustards. Searching the distant fields, I soon locked on to three large birds heading distantly left - surely our target.
Great Bustard Reserve - Castro Verde, Portugal
The fields around the reserve - ideal habitat for Bustards
Being just too far away to confirm and quickly disappearing behind a hill, we decided to try and relocate them in the car, driving around the reserve and following the roads down to Viseus before heading east towards Guerreiro. Expecting dusty and potholed tracks in our hunt for the Bustards, it was a pleasant surprise to be met with road surfaces all in excellent condition even in this remote area – a reoccurring theme we noticed throughout our time in Portugal and putting the British roads to shame! 

As we stopped to scan, the cries of Black-bellied Sandgrouse echoed overhead, and we were treated to several flyover flocks during the morning. Like elsewhere in Portugal, the fields were teaming with bird life, and we encountered masses of larks and Corn Buntings in the lush grasses either side of the road. 
Castro Verde - Portugal
The lush fields of Castro Verde
Iberian Grey Shrikes and Spotless Starlings were a regular sight perched on the wires, while White Stork nests seemed to adorn every other telegraph pole, the huge structures balanced on specially placed platforms. 
White Stork - Portugal
White Stork nest
Raptors were also in abundance here, and we encountered several Common Kestrels, Common Buzzards, Red Kites and even Marsh Harriers – the latter a species I wouldn’t normally associate with this type of habitat. Sadly, the Lesser Kestrels eluded me yet again - something that will have to be put right with a trip to Extremadura in the future!
Marsh Harrier - Portugal
Marsh Harrier - an unexpected sight on the plains of Castro Verde
Approaching the patch of fields the Bustards looked to have flown to, we stopped the car at regular intervals to scan the surrounding plains, the heat haze making viewing somewhat difficult. It wasn’t long before Alex’s eagle eyes spotted one however, and getting me on it, we quickly noticed a further two individuals feeding with the first, gradually moving up the slope. Finally, a long-awaited lifer for both of us in the form of three magnificent Great Bustards.

More than likely the three birds we had spotted flying near the start of the reserve, we watched as they fed in the short grass, an iconic species in these parts and a bird we had both been wanting to see for some time. Despite the distance and heat haze, we managed a few record shots through the scope and admired the sheer size of these incredible birds. 
Great Bustard - Portugal
Extreme record shot of a very distant Great Bustard!
Even though flocks of up to 60 had been reported recently, these three individuals were the only ones of our trip, despite driving the tracks around Castro Verde until well in to the afternoon.

With a whole scattering of Great Bustard records around Castro Verde and the area being a well-known and important site for them, the best thing for anyone looking for them is simply to drive around the area, stopping the car and scanning for any movement on the plains. The fields around the reserve are a particularly good location for sightings if you can’t get on to the reserve itself, and the eBird map below shows the hotspots around Castro Verde.
Great Bustard eBird distribution - Castro Verde, Portugal
Distribution of Great Bustards this year from eBird

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Portugal Birding - Monday 15th February 2016 (Day 2 - Aljezur, Monchique and Lagos)

With the weather forecast to be considerably more promising for our second day in Portugal, we decided to head back up to Aljezur to see if the sun would tempt out the Snowfinch. Arriving back on site early the next morning, the conditions were a huge improvement on the day before – glorious blue skies and puffy white clouds met us as we pulled up at the side of the fields. Several Hoopoes soaked up the sun on the sandy banks lining the road, while the Iberian Grey Shrikes from Sunday again gave excellent views perched out in the open.
Hoopoe - Portugal
Hoopoe - always a welcome sight in the Med
Iberian Grey Shrike - Portugal
Iberian Grey Shrike
Iberian Grey Shrike - Portugal
The increase in bird life from the day before was soon apparent, with a greater number of Crested Larks happily feeding in the short grass at the side of the road, along with the familiar Meadow Pipits and Goldfinches. On closer inspection, we managed to unearth a Thekla Lark amongst them, the white eyering, distinct dark lores, and shorter bill distinguishing it from the similar Cresteds. 
Thekla Lark - Portugal
Thekla Lark - note the clear black lores and distinct eyering
Thekla Lark - Portugal
Several Corn Buntings foraging amongst the straw in one of the fields were also new in from yesterday, offering some hope that the Snowfinch may still make an appearance. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and a rather confiding male Sardinian Warbler was the best new bird we could manage.
Sardinian Warbler - Portugal
Male Sardinian Warbler - one of my favourite Mediterranean warblers
Sardinian Warbler - Portugal
With the Snowfinch having been present for around a week prior to our visit and apparently favouring the field where a large bull had been kept (according to reports it liked to feed in the straw), the fact the bull had now been taken away may have played a factor in the Snowfinch’s untimely departure. Disappointing to say the least, but after searching the entire surrounding area it was clear that the Snowfinch had most definitely moved on.
Ribeira de Aljezur - Portugal
The dreaded Snowfinch fields
With the rain threatening to dampen our day once again and having seen enough of the same patch of daisies to last a lifetime, we decided enough was enough and headed out further in to the Portuguese countryside in an effort to locate some of our other targets for the trip. Travelling east inland towards the Serra de Monchique mountain range, we scanned the wires, fences and trees scattered throughout the lush green farmland in an effort to locate any Black-shouldered Kites, a species I was especially keen to see.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Portugal Birding - Sunday 14th February 2016 (Day 1 - Aljezur and Lagos)

With a Snowfinch present in southern Portugal over the first week of February along with a whole host of Iberian specialities that me and Alex hadn’t managed to catch up with in one of our visits to Spain, we decided to book a last minute break to Portugal in the hopes of catching up with some of our previously missed Mediterranean targets.
A new country for both of us, we touched down at Faro airport late on the Saturday evening ready to hire our car the next morning for a full days’ worth of exploring. Awaking bright and early in our hotel on the Sunday, our first bird of note was a singing Fan-tailed Warbler displaying enthusiastically over the reeds and tall grasses that surrounded our balcony, quickly followed by several House Sparrows chirruping away. Despite a careful search however, no Spanish Sparrows were interspersed amongst them – a key target for me during the trip. Several Barn Swallows and House Martins darted low down below the balcony, skimming the tops of the reeds and being a nice reminder of the spring and summer months still to come back in Britain.

After picking up our hire car we were on the road by 10, travelling along the south coast of Portugal to our first stop at Aljezur to see if the Snowfinch was still present. The 6th record for Portugal and a species that we had missed whilst in the Pyrenees two years ago, this was a bird that we could potentially jam in on out of habitat without having to make a special trip up to the high mountains.
Pyrenees - Northern Spain
The high Pyrenees of Northern Spain where Snowfinches would be more at home!
Hearing that Iberian Magpies (one of our key targets of the trip) were supposedly ridiculously common in this area of Portugal prior to leaving the UK, we were expecting to be inundated with them as we made our way along the roads. Surprisingly this wasn’t the case, and we didn’t encounter any until at least nearly an hour in to our journey as we neared Aljezur. Stopping off at the side of the road to let an impatient driver past, we took the opportunity to scan the surrounding trees for signs of any birds. A female Blackcap darted quickly through the leaves and out of sight, before a large grey bird flying right caught my eye, quickly followed by another, then another, then another! Getting better views, the ID was confirmed - incredibly we had stumbled upon a large travelling party of Iberian Magpies and our first lifer of the trip! Counting up to 40 individuals present from the road, we hurried out of the car and ventured down the adjoining dirt track, in pursuit of what was now a fast flying and very loud flock on the move. 
Iberian Magpie - Aljezur, Portugal
Record shot of our first Iberian Magpies
With some of the flock perched on the nearby branches, we rattled off a few record shots – and then they were off, chattering noisily as they ventured deep in to the impenetrable thicket of trees on the other side of the path. Purely by chance, we had notched up our first new bird and one of our main targets of the trip. 

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Golden Pheasant of the Wolferton Triangle - an update!

It's no secret that I love bright and colourful birds, and the Golden Pheasant at Wolferton Triangle is no exception. Having last seen this magnificent bird over a year ago now back in December 2014, we took the opportunity to revisit the area at the end of 2015 during our trip to Norfolk in an attempt to get further views of this most charismatic of birds.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
Dividing birders opinions, with many regarding him as part of the “Plastic Fantastic” crew, I am firmly in the ‘admirers’ camp, loving the touch of colour and vibrancy that he brings to the woods of Norfolk. Love him or loathe him, there is no denying that with a fiery golden plumage and sporadic sightings, the Golden Pheasant is a very special bird indeed.

Parking up at the favoured spot where he is most often seen (on the northern edge of the triangle just before the ‘Give Way’ sign), we watched and waited for any hint of crimson and gold amongst the thick Rhododendron undergrowth.... 
Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
Waiting for the Golden Pheasant to emerge.....
With mornings being the best time of day to catch a sighting, we were there bright and early, arriving at just after half 8. We didn’t have to wait long – a little before 9am we struck gold – a hint of vibrant yellow and striking red emerging slowly from the hedge line – our Golden Pheasant.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
We watched on as he ventured across the verge and on to the road, stopping to pick at seeds along the roadside edge before crossing over to the other side. Foraging for around 20 minutes, this was our longest encounter by far, and we enjoyed fantastic views as he paraded in front of the car in all his fiery glory, eventually disappearing back in to the undergrowth of his favoured triangle. Always an amazing experience with this bird, it was brilliant to watch him at length, and interestingly, unlike our visit a year earlier, this time we didn't see any Common Pheasants in the area at all.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
With a number of birds once present in this particular location, it is now possible that sadly just one male remains. Comparing my photos from this winter with those taken over a year earlier and studying the head markings, it is clear to see that this is the same individual - the feather patterns on the neck match up perfectly.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
Both photos show the extensive dark patch in the bottom corner of the golden hood.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
Not as easy to see on the bird's left hand side, looking closely, both photos show the same black stripe patterns and gold spacing.
I also took a look at many of the recent photographs of the Wolferton Golden Pheasant taken in the past few months to ascertain whether these too were all of the same individual. Again, looking at the patterns on the neck feathers, the position and thickness of the stripes are identical, indicating that they are indeed all of the same male. In particular, the thick patch of black stripes in the bottom corner of the bird's right hand side can clearly be seen on all photographs.  
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton, Norfolk
Photos kindly supplied by David Johnstone (Top Left), Christopher Teague (Top Middle) Max Hellicar (Bottom Left) and Harry Murphy (Bottom Middle).
Whilst not as obvious, the black stripes and the gold spacing in between are also identical on the bird's left hand side. 
Photos kindly supplied by Steve Gantlett (Top Left) and Harry Murphy (Bottom Right)
Whether there are indeed other individuals present in the triangle remains to be seen - there could well be females remaining undetected in the secrecy of the Rhododendron cover or other males that rarely venture out on to the road, meaning that the same showy male gets repeatedly photographed. However, the fact that each photograph I've found over the past year depicts the same individual indicates it is highly likely that he is indeed the very last Golden Pheasant in the Wolferton Triangle - an extremely sad fact if true. If anyone has any photos that possibly depict a different bird, or if two birds have been seen together, I would be interested to hear. 

One thing is for certain, once this particular male’s time is up and he is no longer found to be strutting proudly around the triangle, it will become much harder to see this elusive species in Britain, and the Wolferton Triangle will most certainly be a lot less colourful as a result.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle, Norfolk
For a further look in to the history behind the Wolferton population and an in depth analysis of the genetics regarding the black throat patch on the birds, check out last year’s blog post here

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Hooded Merganser - Corsham Lake, Wiltshire - will it get accepted on to Category A?

With the Hooded Merganser at Corsham Lake in Wiltshire presenting a tempting opportunity having never seen this species before, even in America, on Saturday I made the 3 hour journey down south so me and Alex could decide for ourselves just how genuine a vagrant this particular individual was.

Having been present at the lake in the grounds of Corsham Court since the Monday, we arrived just after lunch and squelched our way through the mud to the water’s edge. Scanning the lake, we could see several Mallards and 4 Goosanders resting on the opposite bank, as well as numerous other ducks out on the water, but no sign of the Hooded Merganser –  surely we couldn’t dip a potential escapee (the shame!).

Speaking to the birders present with scopes already lined up and cameras poised at the ready, it transpired the bird had simply moved left down a channel behind the reeds and was busy feeding temporarily out of sight. Reassured, we headed that way, and soon managed to lock on to it – constantly diving in the shallow water and taking advantage of the apparent rich source of food amongst the reeds. Success! One Hooded Merganser showing exceptionally well….. perhaps a little too well?!
Hooded Merganser - Corsham Park, Wiltshire
Watching the bird for the next hour, we obtained excellent views as it fished in front of us, at one point coming to within just a few metres. Expertly manoeuvring through the channel, it often came to a patch of open water not obscured by any branches or reeds, offering a great opportunity to really take in the oversized head and fluffy crest during the moments that it surfaced.
Hooded Merganser - Corsham Park, Wiltshire
Hooded Merganser - Corsham Lake, Wiltshire
So, was the Hooded Merganser getting just a little bit too close for comfort? Usually when vagrant wildfowl are extremely confiding it can often be a sign that they have escaped from captivity, in many cases resulting in the individual not getting accepted or instead, getting placed firmly on the dreaded Category E of the British list. Indeed, Cinnamon Teals, Mottled Ducks and even White-headed Ducks have all met this fate in Britain, having never made it on to category A and instead getting resigned to the depths of categories D and E. As captive wildfowl are extremely numerous in Britain with birds often escaping, such records should always be treated with caution.
White-headed Ducks - Spain
White-headed Ducks - sadly resigned to Category E of the British list despite many candidates
Hooded Mergansers have always had a troubled journey when it comes to getting accepted on to Category A of the British list – it wasn’t until 2008 after careful scrutiny and consideration that the first was accepted – a female or immature male present on North Uist from the 23rd October to the 1st November 2000 (a whole 8 years after the sighting). Since then, 7 records in total have been accepted.

In general, certain points always need to be considered when assessing whether a species of bird that is often kept in captivity is indeed a genuinely wild vagrant. As well as the obvious essential features such as being unringed and having unclipped wings, the bird’s wariness of people is a key indicator, as is its behaviour in terms of feeding – natural sources are a yes while coming to bread (in terms of wildfowl) is often seen as a no go. The Corsham Hooded Merganser has been seen to be unringed on both legs, often displaying its legs to observers whilst preening and at some points even coming completely out of the water and on to the bank – clearly displaying a lack of rings. The wings also appear to be unclipped.
Hooded Merganser - Corsham Lake, Wiltshire
No bling!
Its apparent tameness however could prove to be an issue. Whilst the Hooded Merganser was indeed seemingly unperturbed by the 10 or so birders lining the bank, it should be noted that it was extremely focused on hunting for fish and other morsels in the shallows. One interesting theory in particular is that when the Mallards swam close to the bank, they disturbed the sediment in the water and this in turn made it easier for the Hooded Merganser to catch larvae and other invertebrates that were disturbed by the movement.

Another point to consider is that over in America where Hooded Mergansers are native, they often come to within a few feet of people, sometimes even taking bread or other food - as the three videos below demonstrate perfectly. 

The Corsham bird’s apparent tameness is therefore certainly no reason to cast any doubt over its wild credentials. Whilst it has been reported to have been feeding on bread on some occasions, Goosanders have also been observed to do this in the wild, and it would make sense for any wild bird to take advantage of whatever food source is offered.

Other key points that need to be assessed in the case for genuine vagrancy is the bird in question arriving at the right time of year to tie in with natural migration, as well as departing in good time to continue with its journey. Whilst the Radipole male in Dorset apparently arrived during fierce storms that battered the south coast, the fact that it has not moved on since and is still present 8 years later completely destroyed its case as a true vagrant, as did the fact that it arrived in June.

With the Hooded Merganser at Corsham Lake having now departed after a stay of just 6 days (whilst we were there it was constantly diving for food – perhaps feeding up before moving on), this can only strengthen the argument of it being a wild bird.
Hooded  Merganser - Corsham Lake, Wiltshire
Turning up in February is also a positive point for the Corsham bird, as wild Hooded Mergansers in America are very early spring migrants, leaving their wintering grounds in February and March. This winter saw huge Atlantic pressure systems bringing many American wildfowl species across, with numerous Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons, Lesser Scaups and Ring-necked Ducks all present in good numbers in the UK. 
Ring-necked Duck - Priorslee Lake
Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaups all regularly make it over to the UK
Lesser Scaup - Marshside RSPB
With several records of Hooded Mergansers in the Western Pal this winter, including presumed wild individuals in both the Azores and Iceland, as well as other vagrants such as American Coots, it is highly likely that the Corsham bird could have been blown over the Atlantic during the extreme weather conditions seen in November and December when the winds originated strongly from North America, arriving elsewhere on the continent before the urge to move on kicked in.

It's also worth noting that the female reported in Forth in Scotland back on the 2nd February for two days could well be the Corsham bird. First seen on the pond at the Safari Park in Blair Drummond, it is essential however that an escapee from there is eliminated first and foremost. Escapees from any centres nearby to both the Forth site and the site in Wiltshire will then also have to be ruled out for the Corsham bird to have any chance of being accepted.

Whilst the fate of the Corsham Hooded Merganser is uncertain, regardless of whether or not it is accepted it was still a fantastic bird to watch and to get such good views of. I’ll certainly be keeping my fingers crossed that it does indeed tick all the required boxes of being wild and earns a place on to category A.
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