Pyrenean stars

12 06 2015

“I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward”

– David Livingstone

Probably the best way to escape Barcelona’s crazy hot temperatures is going to the Pyrenees and, among all the nice Pyrenean areas, the best is probably Val d’Aran, the only Catalan region in the north face of the cordillera. Apart from exclusive species (not only birds) restricted to this area, to be in the north face has of course advantages and disadvantages: in one hand, the weather: it’s fresh and nice and you don’t sweat as in Barcelona’s underground. In the other hand, the weather: it can start raining at any time and the fog can turn up surprisingly quick.

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During the last three days, Martí and I have got both feelings, but all in all we’ve managed to have a good time. Maybe for the first time, we had 2 main targets: the first visit to our UTM square for the new Catalan Breeding Bird Atlas and a new search for the Black hairstreak Satyrium pruni, a new butterfly for Catalonia we found last year.

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We started with the UTM. As usual in early summer, the track was still full of snow, so we had to walk all the way up to Liat Mines. Snowfields, showers and a hole in my boots made it hard, but an unexpected prize awaited in the top. Almost the first bird we saw in our square, however, was a nice adult Lammergeier flying over.

gypaetus

Apart from that, the area was packed with Water pipits and Northern wheatears, but nothing else. We had just sit and were taking a breathe when a lizard showed up nearby. We had found a still unidentified dead lizard some metres away and we knew we were in the exact location where Aran rock lizard occurs. Therefore, we were already paying attention to the rocks. And yeah, there it was. To be honest, we didn’t know how to identify it. Martí was sure it didn’t look like anything we regularly see. I agreed, but, despite I was not updated in terms of lizard taxonomy, I knew there had been several changes, with some new species described.

iberolacerta aranica1

This species is restricted to the Mauberme massif, right in the Spanish and French borders. It was not until 1993 that it was formally described, together with its close relative Aurelio rock lizard, which inhabits similar habitats 100km east.

iberolacerta aranica2

After such an unexpected lifer, we came down to Bagergue to take the car and spend the afternoon looking for butterflies. Sadly, it was cloudy and raining at any time so we ended up having nothing to do. After a couple of cups of coffee (each) that brought us back to life, we decided to visit the area where a Brown bear is usually seen. It spends the early summer there, and goes into the beech forest when it gets too hot. In the area, we came across Marc Gálvez, nice chat while waiting for the Bear. However, time went on and the sun suddenly showed up. Martí and I were already considering to actually look for some butterflies in our way to have a proper dinner in a bar when I spotted the Bear sat on a rock, apparently sleeping.

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After a while, it woke up and started feeding on plants, branches and all sort of vegetables. I’ve been asked if I was not scared while looking at the bear. The ones who have seen one know this is just a very stupid question.

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The same meadow from which we were looking at the bear was full of orchids, mainly pink morph Elder-flowered orchid Orchis sambucina. While looking at their refined dessign, I saw an ant whatching out for a spider. I’m new in the “macro world”, but it looks like I’ll spend some hours sat on the ground in a nearby future… No clue about the name of the ant or the spider [yet]

dactylorhiza majalis

It was sunny in the morning so, after a walk through the last 1×1 UTM square we had to check, we finally looked for butterflies. Despite the usual high diversity in most of flowered Val d’Aran meadows, we didn’t manage to find the hairstreak. However, we found a surprisingly high density of both Sooty Lycaena tityrus and Purple-edged Lycaena hippothoe coppers instead.

lycaena hippothoe

And a Sombre goldenring Cordulegaster bidentata was hunting in the edge of the meadow. Another nice life of a dragonfly only found in the high Pyrenees.

cordulegaster bidentata

Time to come back home, to the hot and sweaty Barcelona, but it’s only a month until we’ll be back in Val d’Aran to the second round of the breeding bird survey. What a nice excuse for another 3 days in paradise.





El Hierro, El Hierro, El Hierro…

7 06 2015

“Is that a seagull?”

– Crístel Reyes

To find a rarity at sea is always something strange, especially when you are not even looking for birds. We know the habitat it’s not the same all over the sea, since the currents and the shape of the depths can make some areas better than others, but, at a glance, the sea looks just like an infinite flat blue plain. You can’t search because you can’t get out of the boat you are in, you don’t depend on your call recognition skills (despite some terns are easier to spot this way)… You just sit and wait.

Maybe this is why you feel especially lucky when a rarity shows up out in the sea. It’s usually not a prize for your id skills but for the number of boring hours you’ve been there, waiting for such an improbable event. As in ringing, from a taxonomic point of view, everywhere there is an interesting common species to look at while waiting for the actual prize: Band-rumped storm-petrel in La Concepción Bank, Cory’s shearwaters at El Hierro, Yelkouans and Balearics in the Mediterranean.

This time the unexpected emerged in the shape of a Red-footed booby, the third to be seen in Spain. We were taking photos of a pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins feeding with Yellow-finned tuna and Cory’s shearwaters when Crístel said “is that a seagull?” I took a look and immediately said “No, it’s a 3rd summer Gannet”. The bird was flying towards us and I had seen black secondaries. It was not until I got profile views of it that I saw a “Sula face” and a long-tailed bird. Without direct comparison, the size and structure wasn’t particularly striking, what makes me think they can get surprisingly easily overlooked. To be honest, if the sighting had only lasted 30 seconds, I would had not identified it.

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Fortunately, the bird flew over the top predator feast we were photographing and gave close views of both underwing and upperwing patterns. At a glance, I thought it had to be an adult, but the bare parts of the face were not as brightly colored as I had seen in some photos. Moreover, when it flew over us, I noticed some dirty spots in the underwing. Because of embarrassing freaky reasons not worth-mentioning, I had brought my copy of Pyle to a Beaked whale survey in El Hierro. What seemed to be a stupid idea keeping in mind Ryanair’s strict baggage policies, become suddenly useful and, in a village with just a slow wi-fi connection in the local “zumería” (juice bar), I was still able to get some information about the age of the bird.

However, I was not fully satisfied with the information comprised in my otherwise beloved Pyle. According to this author, they can only be aged up to 2nd cycle, since after the 2nd pre-basic, they already show the definite plumage: all white underparts and upperwing coverts, dark eye and brightly colored bare parts. However, 2nd cycle birds are meant to show a dusky tip to the bill. This bird showed an adult pattern in its bare parts, just less colored. The plumage was not adult, but obviously closer to that than what I’d expect for a 2nd summer.

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (213)b

So I followed the natural sequence of references and checked Howell’s Rare Birds of North America. This time, however, my freakiness had not reached that far and I had to wait until I was back in Barcelona to read what it’s said there. After some minutes admiring Lewington’s wonderful plates, I focused on the aging section. Surprise! Seemingly, some birds can be aged up to 4th cycle, mainly on the basis of remaining brown areas. According to Howell, 3rd cycle birds still can show extensive brown areas in the rump, back, scapulars, inner lesser coverts, axillaries, and underwing secondary coverts. All those areas become white as 3rd pre-basic moult goes on.

El Hierro bird showed all-white upperwing and body and the brown feathers were restricted to lesser under-secondary coverts. It would had fitted therefore with an advanced 3rd cycle if it had not shown an incipient primary moult. The bird is indeed growing P4, what makes me think it’s more likely an early 4th cycle. I’m not sure however if it could had already lost most of the brown areas during the moult of this 3 and a half primaries, what would make it a 3rd cycle. It would be interesting to know (if possible) what is more common: a 3rd cycle with an early stage of primary moult with almost all-white adult plumage or a 4th cycle with remaining brown in the underwing. Comments are welcome!

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (209)b

Finally, there was still the origin issue to be discussed. The variation in the species is huge, but not all the authors agree to classify it in terms of subspecies. There are 2 morphs: brown and white, and both show 2 “sub-morphs”: white-tailed and dark-tailed. Seemingly, all possibilities can occur everywhere, but in different proportions. The Caribbean and Atlantic population (what would be more likely) belong mainly to the white morph or white-tailed brown morph, whereas 85% of birds from Hawai show a dark tail. As usual, it seems that, in this case, the most-likely explanation seems to be the good one.

It feels like the number of sightings of Red-footed booby in this side of the North Atlantic is increasing, with some recent records in the Iberian Peninsula, France, Canary Islands and especially Cape Verde. Red-footed booby, the next species to start breeding in the WP?





What the hell is going on?

27 05 2015

“I’m an agent of chaos.”

– The Joker

We all have played the game consisting in trying to guess what will be the next “first-for” species to be seen in our countries and, most of the times, we all have failed. You have to wait quite long to see a longly-awaited species and, in the meanwhile, some other unexpected rarities are added to the country list.

These crazy sightings, like the French Kurdish wheatear, can be attributed just to freaky birds, while some others, like spring Collared flycatchers or Pallid harriers in the Iberian Mediterranean coast, come with strong easterlies, especially when the low pressures are placed over the Messina Strait. However, some of the most stunning influxes are hard to explain and we should probably look for answers at a worldwide scale.

This spring, the business is in the big numbers of Red-footed falcons and Icterine warblers almost all over the Iberian Peninsula, even inland, where these species are usually extremely rare. There are hundreds of them currently in Catalonia, where they are not rare but scarce (some years really scarce). This time, however, they don’t seem to follow the typical occurrence patterns. Easterly winds have not been that strong and the same species have appeared almost at the same time in both the Canary Islands and the NE Iberian coast. It seems therefore that they’ve chosen a more westerly route, probably crossing the Sahara through Mauritania and Morocco instead of the Nile valley.

El Hierro 1487

I’m sure this phenomenon has fulfilled several birder’s bar conversations but, since I’m surveying beaked whales at El Hierro (Canary Islands), I had to discuss the event with my friends through WhatsApp. Not a bad thing, since I re-read the conversation a couple of times while trying to find out what the hell is going on. Martí cleverly pointed out that both Icterine warbler and Red-footed falcon winter south of Zambia and both migrate N almost at the same time. Is it anything going on down there? And, if so, what could it be? An extremely tentative theory is an eastern galore in this southern wintering range. Keeping in mind the triangular shape of Africa, it could perfectly be that a difference of 50 km in a W-E axis in South Africa makes the difference between choosing the west of the Sahara route instead of the east.

El Hierro 1359

El Hierro 1053

I had 5 Red-footed falcons at El Hierro, maybe one of the westernmost localities they’ve reached, in what represents the second record for the island. There are dozens in the Eastern islands, together with the firsts Icterine warblers and Collared flycatchers ever found in the Canaries. Obviously not an anecdotal phenomenon, but a huge event that means something big has happened somewhere. It feels like two different phenomenon are implicated: “something” in the south of Africa that pushed them to the west and a hot haze in the Sahara that pushed them into the Atlantic Ocean.

El Hierro 1635

El Hierro 1633

Some of these birds are doing well here in the Canaries. They are busy preying on the African locusts that also came with the African haze. The grassy meadows are full of them and the falcons seem to spend the whole day catching them.

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However, some others died in Tenerife airport because they were hunting in the take-off lanes. Keeping in mind that probably several others just died in the middle of the ocean, the Red-footed falcon population could had suffered a strong decrease this spring. It would be interesting to research the causes of such a strange spring for this species and if it could be related to the western spread of some eastern species meant to be already happening.





Vocalisations vs. Appearence in a tricky Leaf warbler

29 04 2015

“If it has more than three chords, it’s Jazz”

– Lou Reed

It was a boring spring. Despite the good numbers of Pallid harrier and Great snipe registered mainly in the Northeastern Catalan coast, the best I had seen in Barcelona area was a “Mediterranean” spotted flycatcher Muscicapa s. balearica/tyrrhenica. Sadly, the bird went away without me being able to take a photo of the underwing.

belearica

Yesterday felt just like another random day: some Willow warblers, some Pied flycatchers, a sudden Redstart… nothing too exciting until I got a text from Manolo saying he had found a Yellow-browed warbler in Montjuïc mountain, right in the middle of Barcelona. The bird seemed to be ringed in one of the record shots Lucy managed to take, so we decided to come back late in the afternoon to try to take better photos. Things went actually interesting when Manolo pointed out that he had not heard it a single time giving the typical Yellow-browed call but some Hume’s-like sounds instead. The bird was not cooperative and they had only got poor views and breif vocalisations, but he already got the feeling of a grey bird.

After having seen some Yellow-broweds this spring in the Canary Islands (like the one below), I was aware of how grey they can get when worn, so we both knew we had to focus on sound recordings in order to clarify the identification of the bird.

yellow browed

There were quite a lot of birds in the area, including some nice migrants for  the patch, such as Turtle dove and Golden oriole, but after a couple of hours without relocating the bird, we were sitting in the grass, just chilling, waiting for the other to say we should leave. Suddenly, the bird called behind us, almost in the same tree Manolo had found it in the morning. This time, the call sounded just like a Hume’s leaf warbler! After some search that produced some new birds (at least 2 Western Bonelli’s warblers, either they were not there or it’s incredible how many birds do we miss despite intensive search), we located the bird and managed to take decent photos.

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Apart from what looks like an extensively black bill, the rest of the bird looked like what I’d expect from a Yellow-browed by this time of the year: pure white wing bar in the GCs, green tones in scapulars and mantle, well-defined facial marks and a still visible 2nd wing bar in the MCs. However, we both agreed we had heard a Hume’s.

To get a sound recording suddenly turned out to be critical, so we just followed the bird with my cell phone pointing towards it, until it eventually happened. Again, as in the previous 3 times we had heard it, the call was not that of a Yellow-browed and reminded more of a Hume’s. This time, however, we had a recording for a later analyse.

sonogram inor_humei2

As can be seen in the comparison with Hume’s and Yellow-browed (taken from Xeno-canto), it definetely looks (sounds) like Hume’s. After having checked almost all the recordings in this website, I’ve not been able to find a single Yellow-browed with a decrecent end. In the other hand, and despite the high variability described for this species, all the Hume’s end with this downward inflection. To summarize the variation, the standard Yellow-browed call looks, in sonograms, like a V; the standard Hume’s looks like an upside-down W, with the angle of the first V more acute.

So, as Manolo said, “why it’s never easy?” It’s true, we never find a Pelican, we usually have to deal with shy uniform warblers and when they are a nice and barred species, there’s a conflict between call and appearence. Since our experience with Hume’s leaf warbler is low (none in my case!), comments on the bird are more than welcome. In the meanwhile, we’ll wait for the pelican.

PS: Many many thanks to Manolo for cheering up the spring :)





Some nice photos

12 03 2015

“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed: by doing nothing.”

Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

It’s been a busy winter. It’s not that I’ve not had the time to post something on the blog, the problem is that there has been so much stuff going on that I’ve not been able to sum it up. It’s quite easy actually: Borolo’s sheawater things in the Canary Islands and twitching in Catalonia.

The project with the shearwaters is going well and the first two birds have been successfully tagged, both reporting data about their unknown foraging range. Since all the information about this is already in the project’ blog post, I’ll focus on some other experiences. First of all, while trying to mistnet shearwaters, we caught several Grant’s storm-petrels. This species is not formally described yet and… oh wait, Stephen already spoke about that too!

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Canarias 360

Should I write about the twitching then? Much ink has been already spilled about the Brown shrike at Ebro Delta, the Isabelline shrike at Marjal d’Almenara, the Pygmy cormorant and the Ring-necked duck at exactly the same locality in Aiguamolls de l’Empordà and the local megas (almost first twitchable ever) Rock pipit and Purple sandpiper (both at Ebro Delta and surrounding areas).

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Delta de l'Ebre 147

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So, what’s left? 3 months without posting and you end up showing some lichen photos to add some freshness. Here they go, Lepraria sp. and Xanthoria sp.:

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Canarias 109

Both photos were taken at Fuerteventura. The Eastern Islands are bright like I had never seen them before, both full of flowers that create a stunning carpet. Keeping in mind most of these plants are endemic, the ecological benefits of this year’s rain are invaluable. The photo shows the currently violet surroundings of El Golfo village, due to the flowered Echium lancerottense.

Echium lancerottense4

Echium lancerottense B

Echium lancerottense3

Fuerteventura shows a similar aspect, but what always impresses me the most are the sharp colors of the spurges Euphorbia canariensis. While Stephen was chasing some stonechats, I was taking photos of the scene.

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Canarias 138

So this has ended up being a crappy post with no information and just some nice photos. Trust me, it’s not been that bad…





Enjoying bird counts

4 11 2014

“I’m not counting any chickens.”

– Jeff Bridges

It’s not easy to enjoy birding when you have to count >4000 wigeons and >5000 barnacle geese under bad weather conditions, but when the weather is nice and the birds seem to cooperate, our weekly resting bird count becomes a very nice birding time around Knösen. After the whole season having seen almost nothing up there, the good vibrations started a couple of weeks ago, with a Gyr falcon flying over the meadows with a prey on its claws. Sadly, despite we saw the bird landing in the western meadows, it was impossible to relocate. However, notable numbers of White-fronted goose and Bewick’s swans were present, together with scattered Brent goose and Rough-legged buzzards.

albifrons

bernicla

The week after, when it was time to count again, our expectations were much higher than usual. Encouraged by the previous week birds and the good visible migration early in the morning, we departed ready to actually enjoy the birding. When I think about “the attraction law”, I remove the magic component some people keenly adds and turn it into something empirical: when you are in a good mood, you find more interesting birds. This was probably what happened that day  from the beginning. Probably due to this excitement, our first stop was to check a flock of Jackdaws (yes, Jackdaws). Instead of our desired Daurian, we saw an interesting bird with a strikingly white a broad white collar and a light grey nape.

russian jackdaw2

 

My only contact with soemmerringii was in Turkey, already some years ago, and, to be honest, I don’t remember how did the underparts look like. However, it’s quite easy to find photos of Russian (here) or Turkish (here) birds with such pale and mottled underparts and after a quick check of photos of birds breeding in the Iberian Peninsula showing pale and mottled underparts strongly contrasting with the black wings (here and here), I don’t think this feature (described, for instance, in Offerein’s Dutch Birding paper) is as useful as it seemed. The collar, in the other hand, strikes me as being missing in the spermologus I’m used to, but of course present to some extent in nominate monedula. If we, therefore, are left with collar size and shape to tell them apart, what’s the minimum size for a nominate to become spermologus? What’s the maximum size to become soemmerringii?

russian jackdaw

As usual in this kind of widespread taxa, while trying to dig into the subject, we end up hitting a wall in the shape of an east-west gradient and the conclusion usually is that only the extremes can be safely identified. However, when facing  a bird that is obviously not local, we can still try to guess the origine, looking for photos that allow us to draw the boundaries of the its kind’s range. After a [too] exhaustive search in the web, my conclusion is that this bird came from Western Russia, what Offerein calls “western soemmerringii“. Swedish breeding birds don’t show the broad white collar and Turkish soemmerringii seem to be darker in the underparts. I’ve not been able to find a photo of a Romanian bird (meant to be integrade) that striking, despite the variation covered in Chris Gibbins post. Interestingly, the bird was in a flock with two nominate monedula that are probably in the extreme of the species, not usual in Falsterbo breeding birds neither.

intermediates

Since these taxa are meant to be migratory, what are the wintering grounds? According to Giroud, they are wintering in notable numbers in France and there are evidences of them wintering also in Italy, so they must be overlooked in the Iberian Peninsula. Definetely something to look at!

After an interesting bird (the kind of stuff that makes you read what’s been published as soon as you arrive home), it was nice to see something a bit more cracking. This was an adult Red-breasted goose among thousands of Barnacles. The bird was still present yesterday, when we managed to get even better views.

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The species is surprisingly criptic among Barnacles, especially in dark ligth conditions, but still one of the most beautiful wildfowl of our region.

ruficollis

 

The icing on the cake was the counting from the tip of Knösen. A flock of 70 scaups, more than 100 goldeneyes and dozens of Bewick’s swans together with thousands of wigeons. The sound of the birds without any wind at all, rather than the picture, was unforgettable.

 





Goldcrest + Siberian bonanza

14 10 2014

“Even in Siberia there is happiness.”

– Anton Chekhov

Huge numbers of birds are right now migrating over Falsterbo, some of them landing in both our garden and the Lighthouse garden for the delight of the ringers and the impressive number of birders around. Despite the cloudy days, everytime we look up, there’s flocks of geese, cranes, wood pigeons or common buzzards facing south or going back north in case bad wheather conditions makes the Öresund strait look like an impassable barrier.

cranes

pigeons

But not only the big birds are on the move. Passerine’ migration is also at its peak and so hundreds of thousands of finches, tits, larks and thrushes are filling the sky with an incessant flight call concert. Good training for our ears, since among the Common crossbills one can already spot some Parrot and among the Reed buntings, some Lapland buntings are also passing through. The ringing is being great, almost too much! Last saturday we ringed 2531 birds. Now that I’m writting it, it sounds just like a number, but all those birds went with a ring after having been aged and sexed. Most of them (1853) were goldcrests. We are having a very good goldcrest season, already the 6th best ever and there’s thousands everywhere in the Peninsula. These wickey beauties are foraging in trees, bushes and even on the ground. While ringing our goldcrest number 1100 (around) of the day, Kaj asked me “can you imagine how many spiders are eaten in these days in the Lighthouse garden?” I’m tempted to answer “all of them”.

regulus

regulus2

But let’s start talking about the good stuff, but let’s leave the best for the end. The list of scarcities we’ve caught these days it’s quite nice. It was mainly the Swedish gang who got excited by the Firecrests, but it’s impossible not to be aware that they actually are nice birds. This adult male represented the record bird for an autumn season at the Lighthouse garden.

firecrest

Both the Swedish and the foreigners enjoyed an adult male Ring ouzel, the first of the nominate race I handle and the second to be ringed this season (two busy with goldcrests to enjoy the first one on Saturday).

torquatus

torquatus2

And it was mainly the SW ringers celebrating this kind of late adult female Red-breasted flycatcher, also a season record bird.

parva

And coming from Siberia straight to Flommen reedbed, a couple of Yellow-browed warblers that cheered us up in the last days of another hard-work Flommen season. What looked promising in the beginning with plenty of both Marsh and Reed warblers, ended up being a season with more than one thousand birds below the average. We should be worried about the current status of Reed warbler…

inornatus2

inornatus

Goldcrests are called kingbirds in several languages (for instance, Kungsfågel in Swedish, Reietó [little king] in Catalan) so with them it came the king of the kings: a 1stW Pallas’s Leaf warbler!

proregulus

And last but not least, the actual crackerjack of the season (so far): this 1stW Radde’s warbler. It was the third to be caught in Falsterbo and a lifer for me. When Carro came into the ringing hut with a Phyllos on her hands and ask me to look at the bird I had expected just a chiffchaff (since she knows I like them…) but then I saw a bird with strikingly huge legs and head, apart from everything else. I should had checked first the smile on her face.

raddes

 

It’s only 14th of October… a lot more to come!








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