Saturday, 21 November 2015

Five days in the French Alps 15th - 19th November

I've visited the Grand Massif area in the French Alps many times over the years primarily in the winter and summer but have never been in the month of November before. Fortunately the weather was fantastic with blue skies everyday and temperatures rising to 17 centigrade.
Each year I have watched the Bearded Vultures which were reintroduced back in to the area in the early 1990's and which have increased in number as the years have passed. A pair nest in Salvagny which is only about 10Km from the village of Morillon where I base myself. The views at Salvagny tend to be rather distant so I decided to try the Col de la Columbiere. This involves more walking up to the Lac de Peyre but the chances of close views are much higher. I watched at least three individuals from some distance before an adult flew directly over me giving amazing views. 

Bearded Vulture - adult ISO 500 1/1250 f7.1 300 f2.8 +2x III
This is also a good spot for Griffon Vultures which turned up about 10 years ago and have also increased in number. Other than Alpine Choughs sharing my lunch there were no other birds or mammals.
Alpine Chough ISO 500 f6.3 1/1250 300 f2.5 +1.4xIII
Whilst in the area I wanted to try for Chamois and Mouflon in the Roc D'Enfer , my brother had seen both the previous weekend so I made the hike from the Col de l'Encrenaz to the Col Ratti. There were around 20 Chamois on view from the col but no sign of any Mouflon. The Mouflon are also seen on the nearby Pointe d'Uble so probably roam quite a wide area.
Chamois ISO 800 f8 1/250 300 f2.8 + 2xIII
Chamois ISO 800 f5.6 1/500 300 f2.8 +2xIII

A Golden Eagle gave brief views but the only other birds were again the Alpine Choughs with a flock of over 100 feeding on rose hips on the upland pasture.
The Dipper is a reasonably common bird of the upland rivers and streams. These birds are of the Central European race aquaticus which has a broad rufous belly which continues to the legs unlike British birds which have a fairly narrow rufous band which shades to black well before the legs.
Dipper Cinclus cinclus aquaticus ISO 800 f5.6 1/500 300 f2.8 +2xIII

Another bird I wanted to photograph was the Crested Tit, I have taken reasonable photos in the past but they have often been spoilt by poor light. Most of the mixed tit flocks comprised of Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits with usually one or two Crested and Goldcrests.
Crested Tit ISO 800 1/1000 f5.6 300 f2.8 + 2xIII
In the end I found a group in a reasonably open group of pines at Samoens 1600 and took plenty of photos, hoping that some would catch the sunlight coming through the trees.

Whilst at Samoens 1600 I photographed the Alpine Coughs, again they were feeding on rose hips, and I presume these most form a significant part of their diet at this time of year. 
Alpine Chough ISO 1000 f7.1 1/1000 300 f2.8 +1.4III
Alpine Chough ISO 1000 f5.6 1/640 300 f2.8 +2xIII

Always difficult getting the light right with the all black chough. I think the Nikon cameras have a much better dynamic range than Canon which is an area they need to improve.
I flew Liverpool to Geneva for £30 each way with EasyJet and hired a small car for £18/day.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Atlantic Salmon - Stainforth

Although I have visited Stainforth Force a couple of times previously I have never seen the run of Atlantic Salmon which attempt to negotiate the falls each Autumn.
Atlantic Salmon - male f8 1/640 ISO 2500

The appearance of the falls depends on the water level and this too is critical for the Salmon run. Each Autumn the Salmon, which spend several years maturing in freshwater, before undergoing physiological changes which enable them to spend most of the remainder of their lives at sea, return to the falls. They return annually as adults to the spawning grounds at the headwaters of the River Ribble and the Salmon must negotiate the falls in order to get there. In order to leap the falls there must be enough water flowing downstream to enable the Salmon to negotiate them, too little water and the Salmon cannot get through the rocky areas, too much water and the flow appears to be too great for them to swim against it.
Stainforth falls - bottom section

The peak time for this migration is October/November, the Autumn rains open up access to the higher areas of the river so the Salmon congregate below these obstacles until the conditions are suitable for their onward passage.
Small numbers of Salmon can be seen attempting to leap the falls at any time during this period, and at other times of the year but the mass run of Salmon coincides with the first suitable conditions during the late Autumn. 
I had been watching the weather and was aware that there had been no significant run of Salmon and with heavy rain forecast overnight on 28th October I decided on an early start on the 29th. It was raining when I arrived but I went over to have a look at the falls at around 8am. There was plenty of water coming over the falls but no sign of any Salmon. I walked back and picked up my gear which included an umbrella, which proved very useful, and returned to the falls. I saw the first Salmon around 09:30 and that marked the start of a steady stream of fish attempting to leap the falls, sometimes there were gaps of several minutes between sightings but it continued until about 13:00. The water level had continued to rise during this time and the metre drop at the downstream end of the falls had all but disappeared due to the volume of water going over it. It may be that there was, by then, too much water flowing for the Salmon to negotiate but for the following hour there was perhaps just one or two Salmon attempting to leap the falls which was a shame as it had rained steadily until 11:00 and didn’t start to brighten up until mid-day.
Atlantic Salmon f6.3 1/800 ISO 4000
Atlantic Salmon f6.3 1/800 ISO 4000
Atlantic Salmon f7.1 1/1000 ISO 2500
Atlantic Salmon uncropped 70mm ISO5000 f8 1/800
In all I estimate that I saw 100 - 150 Salmon attempting to leap the falls. Clearly, many of these could be fish making multiple attempts but there was a big variation in both colour and size indicating that many fish were involved. Salmon could also be seen in the water at the base of the falls so there could have been more in the area that did not attempt to negotiate the obstacle. The lower fall is about 15m wide but the majority of the leaping fish were concentrated between 1m and 7m distance.
I’ve mentioned that the fish varied in both size and colour, the smallest fish leaping were about 15-20cm, most looked around 0.5m but some were significantly bigger than this. The colour ranged from almost black to a pale silver but this varied with the angle the fish was viewed at, a small number of fish were bright orangey/red, presumably these are the breeding males?
Comments on photographing Salmon
Unsurprisingly there were several other photographers around for some of the time I was there. I positioned myself in line with the lower fall, this had the advantage that the fish were more likely to be side on but also gave a good contrast in the background with white water below the falls contrasting with the brown colouration of the water on the falls. I found that the fish stood out most against the white background but the image had more impact and colour if the brown water was also in view. 
There were a mix of people taking photos with and without tripods but, like the umbrella, I think a tripod is essential. With a tripod the general set-up was to have the camera with a short focal length lens of around 70 -100mm pre-focused for the main area where the fish were jumping and an aperture of around f8. I used a 70mm focal length which at f8 focused at say 8m would produce sharp images for any fish jumping from about 6m to 13m. Once the camera is set up it’s just a question of pressing the shutter to capture as many images as possible for the second or so that the fish is out of the water.
Without a tripod you had to hold the camera to your eye for as long as possible waiting for a fish to pass through or raise the camera when you saw a fish, but the fish would be gone in most instances before you had the camera to your eye.
A longer focal length would produce a larger image in the frame but the number of fish crossing the narrower field of view would be reduced, on balance I think 100mm is probably about right.
I aimed for a shutter speed of about 1/1000 but because of the poor light this was a compromise with aperture and ISO setting. I started off at an ISO of 5000 and managed to reduce this to ISO 2500 when the light improved but used a shutter speed as low as 1/500 and aperture of f6.3.
General information
I decided to stay overnight, although the weather forecast was poor and it rained heavily all the following morning.
I stayed at the Knight Stainforth Camping & Caravan Park which was excellent and the site is next to the river and waterfall. 
There is parking for about 4 cars on a very narrow road, by an even narrower bride, which is about 100yds from the falls. Alternatively you can park in Stainforth which is about a 1/4 mile walk. 

Stainforth is close to Hawes so this could be a combined trip for the Red Squirrels at Snaizeholme but I didn’t bother due to the poor weather.

Watching these fish battle against the raging river makes you appreciate what fantastic animals they are. Some of the adults may have made this spawning journey several times, returning back to the sea once the eggs are laid - incredible!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Long-legged Buzzard - Santorini

As noted in the post below I had the opportunity to watch and photograph two Long-legged Buzzards, an adult (or perhaps third year as it still had the iris paler than the pupil) and a juvenile whilst in Santorini. The light was generally excellent although once the sun was high in the sky the birds were generally backlit, although the plumage details are still readily discernible it had a marked effect on the colour of the underparts.
Long-legged Buzzard - adult
Long-legged Buzzard - juvenile

Long-legged Buzzard - juvenile
These birds are of the  nominate eastern race Buteo rufinus rufinus which are found from Eastern Europe across Central Asia. Most winter in the Middle East and North Africa but some are said to winter in southern Greece so I'm not sure whether these birds were local breeding birds, migrants, or birds on their wintering grounds. The migration of Long-legged Buzzard peaks in late October and continues well in to November so these may be local birds.
The birds could be found each day sat on the coastal rocks adjacent to the tip just outside Fira but on most days I was there they spent part of the day hunting over the neighbouring fields.
This involved quartering the fields at around 200m to 500m height with prolonged periods of hovering. I did not see them take any prey but assume this is predominantly Erhard's Wall Lizard when hunting over the fields, as they were very common and there were few other potential food items that I saw.
Adult hovering
Juvenile hovering
I've included a few photos of them hovering and showing the extended head position which is described in field guides and which may help in identification of a lone bird in a difficult plumage. 

Adult stretching neck whilst hunting

The local Hooded Crows were often in attendance when the birds were hunting over the fields which gave a useful size comparison and occasional views of the upper wing.

Adult with Hooded Crow
I did see several Common Buzzards which looked much like UK birds to me but could have been the grey brown morph of Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus.

Common Buzzard
With good flight views, ideally of both upper and underwing the identification of Long-legged Buzzard in Europe is relatively straight forward.
The juvenile is only likely to be confused with Rough-legged Buzzards but their ranges seldom overlap. The absence of a dark tip to the tail separates the two from both above and below.
The adult (or 3cy bird) is only likely to be confused with the 'fox-red' morph of Steppe Buzzard but Long-legged is a larger bird with a more powerful flight action but the pale, gingery tail, black carpal patch and generally plain underwing coverts are helpful characteristics.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Santorini 11th - 18th October

Santorini is never going to feature on a list of top birding destinations in Greece. It has no wetland areas so offers no real attraction to migrant birds, that said it is a beautiful island with iconic white cliff top villages and blue roofed churches, and has some interesting birds and other wildlife.
I stayed in Fira the main town. The island is small so it doesn't make too much difference where you stay, no where is very far away. 
Car hire cost €35/day for a Nissan Micra which is fine for the short distances and narrow roads.
The weather was hot and sunny most days with just some light cloud. It can be very windy however.
I started off on the outskirts of Fira, there is a large tip which attracts hundreds of Yellow-legged Gulls along with many Hooded Crow and around a dozen Raven. The area above the tip also proved the most productive for migrants so I made several visits. On my first day a juvenile Peregrine was hunting over the area and stooped at three distant egrets which looked like Cattle Egret.
Peregrine Falcon

At least two Long-legged Buzzards frequented the tip but views tended to be fairly distant as there was no easy access, however they also hunted over the fields on the south of the town and came right over the hotel. I also saw several Common Buzzard, looking much like UK birds so don't assume that all buzzards are Long-legged.
Blue Rock Thrush could be heard singing on the cliff faces and, with patience could be seen. I had at least three Short-toed Lark in the scrubby field above the tip.There was evidence of bird trapping in this area but the trap looked like it had not been used for some time, presumably since the spring. Traps were also seen on the west coast at Koloumpos.
Long-legged Buzzard adult
Long-legged Buzzard juvenile

The commonest bird of the scrubby fields was the Crested Lark and House Sparrows are common in the towns along with Collared Doves.
I was interested in the butterflies and reptiles and soon located the very common Erhard's Wall Lizard but only saw a single Green Lizard and it took quite a bit of searching to find Turkish Gecko, one of three gecko's on the island.
In the autumn there are not many butterflies but Painted Lady was seen several times as was Red Admiral and Wall Brown with a single Swallow-tail. In the hotel gardens I found several Geranium Bronze and at Kamari Beach which was a surprise, I was aware that they had spread in to Europe from Spain but didn't realise they were in Greece. 
Geranium Bronze
There were several Lang's Short-tailed Blue at Kamari Beach and could be seen chasing at the top of the tamarisk bushes. It was a little harder to find them nearer the ground but came across several on flowers bordering the crazy golf pitch at the southern end of the town.
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
I also had Long-tailed Blue in the hotel gardens.
Long-tailed Blue

Chukar were seen several times around the tip and also in the south near Akrotiri, they tended to feed on the slopes leading down to the cliff faces.

I had hoped to see Eleonora's Falcons and did come across at least three birds hunting offshore at Kamari Beach when it was very windy. They were circling high over the sea then stooping to sea level and I assumed they were probably hunting dragonflies. After a couple of days of strong wind there were many Red-veined Darter on the island and were in evidence in all the scrubby areas.
Migrant birds were not much in evidence but the number of Chiffchaff seen varied from day to day with 20-30 some days indicating that birds were moving through. I had a couple of Spotted Flycatcher, Black Redstart and single Hoopoe. Hirundines were seen everyday, mainly Swallows but also House Martin and I had a group of about 30 Alpine Swifts over Firostefani.
Alpine Swift
In the scrub above Fira tip there were a couple of Whinchat one day and there were Stonechat on the coast at Koloumpos.

The only gulls seen were yellow-legged, I've mentioned the numbers at the Fira tip but they could be seen up close at Vlihada Marina.
Yellow-legged Gull - adult

Yellow-legged Gull - 2nd winter

Yellow-legged Gull - 1st winter
So, whilst Santorini may not be the first choice for an autumn break in Greece there is plenty of interest for a weeks break and the views and weather were fantastic.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A possible record of Icelandic Redwing Turdus iliacus coburni in Derbyshire

Frost & Shaw document a single county record of the Icelandic race of Redwing T.i.coburni in the The Birds of Derbyshire referring to the first publication of Birds of Derbyshire by Frost. The bird was ringed at Hackenthorpe in 1972, although the location no longer falls within the Derbyshire County boundary and is now in South Yorkshire.
The first local autumn records of both Redwing and Fieldfare are awaited with anticipation and so a call from Ken Smith on the morning of 4th October to report having seen both Fieldfare and Redwing on Flash Lane, Beeley Moor with a large group of Mistle Thrush was of local interest. I was in the area so decided to see if I could see the birds.
The Mistle Thrush flock was easily located and numbered between 40-50 birds which was an interesting record in any case. Unfortunately they were very distant in tall trees about 300m from the road. I decided to wait close to one of few grassy fields in the area, a horse paddock, and gradually the flock started to move closer to feed on Rowan berries. I quickly located the associated Redwing and counted 10 to 15 birds loosely moving with the Mistle Thrush flock. 
Eventually the birds came in to the trees at the back of the paddock and started to drop down in the grass at the back of the field.I was immediately struck by how dark the Redwing were, the ear coverts and breast streaking looking almost black at the viewing distance of about 130m. I took some photos, concentrating on the nearest birds, there were perhaps half a dozen Redwing on the ground but most were partially obscured by the field falling away towards the back.
The flock were then disturbed and flew to neighbouring trees and I left them. I didn't give much thought to the race of Redwing I had observed until I got home. I had recently purchased Martin Garner's Birding Frontiers Challenge Series for Winter and recalled that Icelandic Redwing was one of the birds featured. Looking at the illustration on p77 this looked very similar to the bird I had photographed, particularly in relation to the extent and colour of the breast streaking and the way it combined to form solid lines rather than discrete streaks. I also compared the photos with my own of nominate Redwing and obtained photos of Icelandic birds taken by Ken Smith, some of which are reproduced below.
Redwing possibly of Icelandic race coburni Beeley Moor 04.10.15 © Andy Butler
Redwing possibly of Icelandic race coburni Beeley Moor 04.10.15 © Andy Butler

The views and photos were not sufficiently good enough to age the birds and it should be noted that the photos of Icelandic birds were all adults taken in June.
Redwing T.i.coburni Iceland June © Ken Smith
Redwing T.i.coburni Iceland June © Ken Smith

Redwing T.i.iliacus Derbyshire December © Andy Butler
Redwing T.i.iliacus Derbyshire December © Andy Butler
Without trapping these birds it may not be possible to claim with certainty that it is an Icelandic Redwing but it certainly showed characteristics of that race.
Of note is the fact that there had been no arrival of Redwing on the east coast prior to the occurrence of these birds. At Spurn the daily log recorded just 13 birds in the recording area on the 3rd October. Is it possible therefore that these birds arrived from the NW rather than the east as the autumn arrivals locally usually tie in with an influx in the east coast?
The purpose of this note was firstly to document the details and secondly to bring the possibility of coburni occurring in Derbyshire to other observers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Five days at Spurn - day 5 Sunday 27th September

With expectations high with the wind in the SE there was a thick mist extending inland from Easington as far as Doncaster but Spurn was again in sunshine. I walked Beacon Lane after another unsuccessful search for Jack Snipe at the Canal Scrape. There was no indications of any fresh migrants until a Firecrest popped out in front of me towards the end of the lane. I circulated the news and headed back to Westmere for breakfast. On the way I met Roger who had had Grasshopper Warbler by the Humber and a Hen Harrier which flew down the peninsula. 
Another Yellow-browed was reported from the canal then 2 at the Warren followed by Barred Warbler at Sammy's Point along with 2 more Yellow-browed. Then Red-breasted Flycatcher at Canal Scrape, by early afternoon around a dozen Yellow-browed had been reported with at least two together opposite Driftwood Caravan site. I had record views of the Red-breasted Flycatcher and headed for the Yellow-browed at Driftwood, I'd been watching these which had increased to three for about 20 minutes when Johnny ran round from the back of the caravan site shouting Arctic Warbler. I went to the back of the house to see it fly over my head looking to land in the bushes I had just been watching. I quickly moved back and it wasn't long before it reappeared giving excellent views.

Arctic Warbler ISO 800 1/1250 f9
A Hawfinch flew north and the three Yellow-browed remained in the area, there was a steady increase in the number of observers as birdwatchers who had been dispersed over the area congregated at Driftwood.

Yellow-browed Warbler ISO 800 1/1250 f9
 It was certainly an eventful few days. A total of 19 Yellow-browed Warblers went in to the Spurn log.
Thanks to Vaughan, Richard, Paul, Roger and Johnny for their company and birding skills.
Sue and Andrew Wells at Westmere Farm Guest House for the accommodation and delicious breakfast.
Paul Collins for the excellent Kew Caravan Site and for all the observatory work, and for quickly processing my Friends of Spurn application.