Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spain in 5

Joanna and I just got back from our first trip to Spain. A whirlwind 5-day self-guided birding tour from Malaga to Gibraltar, Seville, Donana National Park, and back to Malaga. When we weren't lost, caught in the rain, or searching desperately for something to eat, the birding was actually pretty good.

The first day of birding got off to a late start due to road closures in Marbella, and when we finally got to our destination we were greeted by gale-force winds and near-freezing temperatures. We did manage to seek out a few species clinging to branches before being hastily blown to the next country! These included Subalpine Warbler, Rock Bunting, Cirl Bunting and Southern Grey Shrike. In the sky overhead we had soaring Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, and Bonelli's Eagle. Later on in the day, in the vicinity of Ronda, we had Woodchat Shrike, Blue Rock-Thrush, Sardinian Warbler, Rock Petronia, and Nightingale. We ended the day near La Linea, just outside of Gibraltar.

Our second day of birding began at Gibraltar, but upon arrival we were notified that the passage of birds was very poor and that the winds were blowing in the wrong direction. Confidently, the banders at the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society station told us there was little chance of any hawk migration. Disappointed, we decided to cut our losses and head north toward Seville. Along the way we picked up numerous Yellow-legged Gulls and White Storks, as well as smaller numbers of Alpine Swift, Pallid Swift, Crested Lark and European Serin. At a small botanical garden we picked up Western Bonelli's Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff, and at a small lagoon we found Great Reed Warbler and Zitting's Cisticola.

After much confusion in figuring out how to get to our next destination, the third day of birding was spent at Brazo Del Este, a series of wetlands interspersed among extensive agricultural fields just west of Dos Hermanas. The birding here was the best so far, and quickly we picked up Little Ringed Plover, Bee-eater, Collared Pratincole, Purple Heron, Penduline Tit, Purple Swamphen, Eurasian Spoonbill, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover and Eurasian Thick-Knee. We ended the day at El Rocio, where despite prior information that the estuary here should not be missed at sunset for its spectacular bird aggregations, it was surprisingly underwhelming. In the far distance we did see about 5,000 Greater Flamingos, but given the distance they could have been plastic dummies on sticks and we'd have been none the wiser.

We began our fourth day of birding in Donana National Park, almost immediately adjacent to El Rocio, on the opposite side of the main road. In just 3 hours we had 46 species, including great looks at 7 lifers: Crested Tit, Squacco Heron, Eurasian Hoopoe, Dartford Warbler, Red-crested Pochard, Azure-winged Magpie, and Red-rumped Swallow. From Donana we made our way toward Punta Umbria near Huelva. On the way we stopped at Marismas Del Odeil, a large estuary and mudflat located between two large spits. Here we located a number of shorebirds, including Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Little Stint, Black-winged Stilt, Common Redshank and Ringed Plover. The highlight was a Montagu's Harrier. At the hotel in Punta Umbria we ended the day watching Northern Gannets plunge for food into the Atlantic.

Our final day of birding in Spain, and it was a long one. We began at Marismas Del Odeil, where in addition to many of the species we found yesterday, we added Southern Grey Shrike, Red-crested Pochard, Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Pied Avocet, Little Tern, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Sandwich Tern, Red Knot and Caspian Tern. From here we headed to Seville to do tourist type things, which in birder terms means no birding. Afterward we continued east to Laguna Dolce where we picked up White-headed Duck, then to Teba Sierra for Red-billed Chough, and Treba Canyon for Black Wheatear and Eurasian Crag-Martin. As the sun set during our descent into Malaga, we reflected on our crazy five days of mayhem. If we were to do this trip again, we would certainly do it differently, and spend more time in one area rather than sprint across the country in a mad dash bird grab.

We departed Malaga the next morning and arrived back in Oxford at about 2pm. For the trip I added 50 new species to my life list. Not a shabby total considering persistent hiccups.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

New Scope

Woo hoo! Today I took the train to Bath and got a new scope; a Swarovski ATM 80 with 20-60x eyepiece. Remarkable just how difficult this was to get. Before leaving for the U.K. I tried getting one from Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, and Seattle, but to no avail. Once in the U.K. I thought for sure I could get one in Oxford, but again I was sorely mistaken. Thankfully I met a couple of birders at Otmoor who suggested I try Ace Camera. After a quick e-mail to the store, the staff confirmed having one in stock; all I needed to do was go and get it.

I caught the train out of Oxford at 9:36am and was in Bath for 11:00am. I spent the first bit of time there picking up some British sweets for family back home, and then went for lunch. Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls were flying around town, and ubiquitous Rock Pigeon's were outside every cafe. By 12:30pm I rolled into the camera store. At no more than 12 feet wide and 30 feet long, this little shop had an impressive collection of high-end optics. After checking over the scope I wanted, including looking at a fake stuffed owl that the camera shop owner had placed high up in a church window, I was pleased with the product and made the purchase. Normally I can't wait to put new toys to good use, but this week I've been down with a horrible cold and feel like crawling under a warm blanket and emerging some time next month!

I'm not sure what my first 'scope' bird will be, but I hope it's a good one. I remember clearly the first bird I saw in my original Nikon scope in 1990 was a Northern Pygmy-Owl; kind of hard to beat that one.

Well, until next time, when hopefully I can report back on the first scope bird, happy birding wherever you may be.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hinksey, Oxford

Joanna and I had quick walk this morning through a small wood at the Hinksey golf club. It was terribly windy and cold, but we did spot a few good birds including Green Woodpecker, Blackcap and several Chiffchaff's. The best bird, and only my second-ever sighting, was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Later on in the day, while visiting family, we also had a good look at a Song Thrush.

Of interest today, I just started reading The Biggest Twitch by Alan Davis and Ruth Miller. The book is written chronologically as the authors describe the unravelling of their great adventure around the world to see the most species in a single year, and to beat the current record of 3,662 species set by Jim Clements. I've only got past the prologue and to the end of January 3rd, but I am utterly hooked. So far it's a great read - if only the publishers had used a slightly larger font though.

Until next time, happy birding.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tufted Duck, finally

Today I saw my first Tufted Duck; specifically two males, and two females. This species has been a bit of a nemesis for me. In Calgary, Alberta, where I began birding in 1986 and continued to do so regularly until 2001, I chased several reports of this accidental migrant with no luck in seeing it. In British Columbia, where I have resided in Victoria and birded throughout the province from 2001 to the present, I still have not been able to locate this casual winter visitor. Even with four visits to the U.K. between 1999 and 2009, I had still failed to see this elusive bird, although admittedly I was never there at the right season. Yesterday I arrived in England to celebrate Easter with my wife's family, and to squeeze in a bit of birding before heading to Spain next week. The first birding opportunity was the morning of Easter Sunday, the day after I arrived. There was a chance that I might suffer from jet lag, but with the best of intentions, I committed to going birding at 6:30am at Otmoor, an RSPB reserve located just north of Oxford. That plan however didn't quite work, as at 6:45am I was reluctant to crawl out from under the warm duvet. By 7:30am Joanna, Amelia and I were ready to go, and with hot cross buns in-hand (fully buttered), we made our way to Otmoor for a bit after 8:00am. Amelia made it very clear that she did not want to walk, and after a 10 minute showdown, she eventually won and ended up being carried along the muddy trails. There was lots of bird activity. In the fields there was Greylag Goose, Carrion Crow and Lapwing. In the shrubs and trees there was Eurasian Goldfinch, Great Tit and Chaffinch. In the sky there was Common Snipe, Eurasian Skylark and Red Kite. Other highlights included Blackcap, Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Golden Plover, Common Redshank and Common Pochard. The bird of the day was Tufted Duck, followed very closely by several good looks at Reed Bunting, and a pair of Red-legged Partridge that walked across the road. In the 1.75 hours of birding we were able to afford, we tallied 37 species. Until next time, happy birding wherever you may be.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Hello, and welcome to my new blog. It will take quite some time to get this thing up and running properly, but the intent is to provide readers with various musings of my experiences with wild birds, and to provide a glimpse into some of my birding adventures.

My life with birds began as a teenager, although my parent's insist that despite my apparent short-term, selective memory, I have had a general interest in wildlife since early childhood. Now, four decades into my life, birds are rooted deeply in my profession as a wildlife biologist.

Birding, and its process and purpose, has been multi-directional for me. At age 16 I had a general interest in learning more about local birds in my home city of Calgary, Alberta. By age 18 I was fully obsessed, and embraced the hobby, sport or obsession, whatever you want to call it, as much as I could. When I wasn't working, I was birding, and when I wasn't working or birding, I was either studying field guides, dialing in to rare bird alerts, or sleeping. I spent several years "chasing" birds, notably those reported to bird hot lines. Along the way I reported several of my own "rare" birds.

My story as a Birder and Biologist appears to be an interesting one. Or at least that's what family members, and a few friends with raised eyebrows, keep telling me. My reasons for writing this blog are two-fold: 1) simply to document my experiences before I become too old to remember, and; 2) to share my stories with like-minded people who may take the occasional pleasure in reading a post, and possibly sharing their comments.

As I stated at the beginning, welcome! Hope you enjoy watching this blog grow. In the meantime, happy birding wherever you may be.