Monday, 30 March 2015

Odds and Ends

A few pictures of some of the birds we saw on our recent holiday in Lanzarote.

Spanish Sparrow

This chirpy critter started singing at dawn directly outside our room. He kept up his attempts
 to attract a mate all day long. Apparently the prowess of the males is dictated by the extent of
their black see size does count! This particular bird was in pristine breeding garb
 - heavily streaked both along the flanks and all over his back with a bright and bold head pattern.
Hope he was eventually successful.  


This is the bird we tracked as it was fishing along the coast. I think it is
probably a male bird (very little breast marking) which hatched last year
(white flecking in upper wing feathers). Note the moulting
 primary No 4 and the central tail feathers.



Lovely bird. This species over-winters around the Canaries. It can be separated from
the curlew by its smaller size, much shorter beak and crown stripes. This one looks
like it is part way through its moult prior to departing for its northern breeding grounds.


We watched this bird dismember a poor crab it had caught on the rocky shoreline of Fuerteventura

Cory's Shearwater

One of the birds I managed to photograph from the ferry to Fuerteventura.

Cory's Shearwater

The birds nest in the numerous small offshore islands.

Stone Curlew

Just to show how effective their camouflage is.

Stone Curlew

This pair were in the process of selecting a nest site. The female (on the left)
was making a small depression amongst the rocks.

Stone Curlew

The bedraggled male.

Rose-ringed Parakeets

These females were flying from lamp to lamp searching diligently under the metal
overhang presumably for moths and other insects attracted by the light the
previous evening.

Great Grey Shrike

These butcher birds are quite common on the island, but form a separate race koenigi
which is darker and smaller than the nominate race. It also has a pale eyebrow which
can be clearly seen on this individual. 

Short-toed Lark

These cryptically plumaged birds are common all over the island and were breeding
on the hills by our hotel.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Desert Island Risks

Contrary to our expectations, the Canary Isles are not always warm and sunny. The last few days of our stay saw much dark cloud, heavy showers and a chill breeze which meant our jumpers and coats, which we thought redundant for a week, were dragged out of the closet and gratefully employed. 

Between showers a few days back we visited an area of salt pans and a saltwater lagoon known as Salinas de Janubio. The crashing Atlantic breakers provided a quite dramatic backdrop for a brisk walk to the lagoon where we were told several waders could be seen. This kind of habitat is in short supply around the island resulting in it being much favoured as a safe haven for various species. A quick stroll around the edge, always keeping an eye on the threatening clouds building over the mountains to the south, provided good views of several common sandpipers that flicked away low over the water on deeply bowed wings, a few greenshank piping their three note alarm call, a small flock of Kentish plover that are apparently the only resident and breeding wader hereabouts, elegant black- winged stilts, paired up and flighty and a pair of avocets. Whimbrel, turnstones and grey plovers completed the list huddled together on a rocky outcrop. A surprise was the sight of a brood of 19 ruddy shelducklings accompanied by their rather gorgeous rufous-coloured parents swimming benignly across the sheltered calm. A Berthelot's pipit perched obligingly for the camera, twisting its head from side to side to allow capture of a range of different poses. Thank you my lovely. And then a very quick march back to the car, arriving just as the heavens opened to drench the black sand once more.

Surf's Up!

The Lagoon at Salinas de Junubio


Black-winged Stilt

A Pair of Black-winged Stilts

A Trio of Turnstones Beginning to Moult into Summer Plumage

An Obliging Berthelot's Pipit.
These pale, long billed pipits are very common all over the island.
Their wagtail-like calls can be heard just about everywhere,
but their light plumage sometimes makes them difficult to see.

Scroll forwards a couple of days and we were told by Carmen, our birdwatching guide, that more rain has fallen on the island this winter than for the whole of the last decade. The inevitable and rather positive result of all this moisture is an abundance of greenery and wild flowers. More flowers = more insects, more insects = more food for birds and other wildlife, more food = better breeding success......only it doesn't seem to be working quite that way. The reasons, as always, everywhere, will be multifaceted and more complex, but the fact remains that in the desert of Lanzarote the special inhabitants are in trouble. The problem is nobody really knows how many birds and animals there should be. Are they really decreasing in numbers? Perhaps the more abundant plant life simply makes them more difficult to find? Without a clear scientific baseline population index it is difficult to assess change. And there, I guess, lies the rub because there are only a very few people who actually care about these things here and take the trouble to notice. Sure there are incidental birders such as ourselves that see some lovely birds, take a few snaps and fly home, but that's simply taking from the environment; it would be nice to be able to give something back. Carmen is passionate about her island and its wildlife and is in the process of lobbying the government in order to better protect what they have. The desert area on the north western section are theoretically a protected zone, but this doesn't stop farmers encroaching around the edges, 4x4 vehicles careering across the plain, and the seemingly empty spaces being used for microlite aircraft, dog exercising, shooting etc, etc. It needs to be policed, but there is no will or money to do so. Ultimately everything boils down to money; if you could somehow make it more profitable for the local authorities to preserve the habitat as opposed to turning a blind eye, then things may take a more positively course. That and of course education. Make the local inhabitants proud of the special plants, birds, insects and wild spaces they are custodians of and maybe attitudes will change. But first you have to get people to understand what is there, why it is important and why they must protect it. In other words what is in it for them? A difficult job and let's wish Carmen every success with her worthwhile endeavours.

That aside, the time we spent slowly driving along the dusty tracks in this fantastic, moonscape-like habitat was fascinating. The rain had washed the top layer of ash away from some areas to reveal fossilised nest chambers of now extinct bees - the eruptions that took place in the early 19th century wiped out all life in its wake. But nature, as it always will, has slowly crept back. Before long we espied a couple of small shapes scurrying away from the jeep. Cream-coloured coursers no less and one of our target species for the trip. We watched these quite lovely waders, 2 adults and a well grown juvenile, for several minutes as they pecked at the sand to pick up a tasty morsel before realising another family group was closer to us on the opposite side of the track. So well are these birds camouflaged that we couldn't see them until they moved, and once they froze again they simply blended into the landscape. One superbly marked adult came within camera range and as usual I loosed off a few shots. The dove grey head and nape of these birds contrasts strongly with their russet, black and white head colouring. Close to they really are most exotic looking creatures.

The Desert Area Near Soo
A Beautiful Adult Cream-coloured Courser

Moving on a kilometre or so we came upon the star bird of the week, a magnificent Houbara bustard that strode sedately but purposefully away from our approach. As with the coursers once it froze, partly hidden by the plentiful low scrub, it was virtually impossible to see. It kept a wary eye on us until we moved on once more. These bustards are an endemic sub-species, smaller, much darker and more vermiculated than the nominate race. Lanzarote boasts the highest density of bustards in all the Canaries, but once again precise numbers are not known. Estimates of 80 pairs seem to be an accepted figure, which in the grand scheme of things is not a large number. We came upon a few more of these strange but endearing birds on our drive and a real treat awaited us when we found a male in full display. He began by standing stock still head pointing skywards before slowly, tentatively, stepping forwards. The black feathering that normally forms a stripe along its neck were now raised to form long plumes waving in the breeze. All of a sudden the whole of the breast and neck feathers seemed to explode and the bird ran wildly hither and thither in the form of a fluffy ball of down on long rangy legs. Comical, exciting and fascinating all at the same time. The climatic sighting of the desert trip and one we were very lucky to witness.
An Equally Beautiful Houbara Bustard.
 Note the cryptically camouflaged plumage.
Male Houbara Commencing His Display

In Full Flow

We ended our tour on an impressively high cliff top soaking in the stunning views of the coastline North and South. The Atlantic Ocean sparkling as the sun began to descend, all around us endemic and precious wild flowers that are not to be found in such profusion at any other point of the island. A truly beautiful and memorable way to end our week long trip to this rather wonderful place.

Wildflower Meadow at Los Lomillos
Stunning Views Towards La Graciosa
Blazing Sunset

If you ever find yourselves paying a visit to Lanzarote you should really treat yourselves to the birding tour. It's not a heavy duty, full on trip and moves at your pace. The wildlife you will see is not abundant, but it is very special and you will not find such things so accessible anywhere else in the world. I always think a trip to see wild things and habitats provides a much more rounded experience allowing a deeper appreciation of the destination, its treasures and its challenges. For details take a look at  which provides lots of information on what can be seen and also offers guided walks and bike tours to some of the less visited (and therefore more interesting) areas of the island.

Friday, 20 March 2015

For the Shear Hell of It

And it may indeed have been hell for some people. The ferry trip between Lanzarote and  Fuerteventura is scheduled to take 30 minutes......unless you are sailing into heavy seas and a stiff northerly wind. In these circumstances the voyage is longer and, how should we put it..... interesting. But whilst most folk were more concerned with keeping their breakfast where it belonged, yours truly was poised atop deck, camera in hand hoping to snap passing Cory's Shearwaters. Doesn't everyone do this from time to time? No! Well buckle-up folks for it's a rough ride. With the spray from our bow lashing across deck, the boat pitching and tossing in the swell, everything moving up and down and side to side, I tried to photograph fast moving birds that were tacking into the wind and living up to their names. Shearwaters indeed, totally at one with the elements and unperturbed by the conditions, these Mariners scythed through the air inches above the waves, twisting one way and then flipping over to glide another 100 yards without so much as a flick of their long, bowed wings. I simply pointed the camera in their rough direction, pressed the shutter button and hoped for the best. And much to my delight I got a couple of reasonable images. Unfortunately this temperamental iPad doesn't seem keen on letting me share them with you, but If you can bare to wait a couple of days I'll post them when I return home.

Once settled on Fuerteventura we spent our time wandering around the town of Corralejo that is much more built up than anything we've seen on Lanzarote and more typical of touristic hotspots the world over. However the beaches were pleasant and the sangria even more so. Whilst sitting on the seafront imbibing a large glass of said liquid, a bold whimbrel began probing in the rocks on the foreshore just a few yards from where we sat. After a while it began to doze until it obviously saw a movement on the newly exposed sand. It almost sprinted down the beach and began hacking away at an, as yet unseen, item of prey. After a lot of pecking and tossing of its head from side to side it became clear that the bird was tackling a medium sized crab. We sometimes fail to fully appreciate, I think, the power a birds beak can weald; the poor crustacean didn't stand a chance. Before too long all that was left was a hollowed out shell. If you've ever found crab shells on the beach with a ragged hole in the centre, it has almost certainly been caused by a hungry bird, maybe an oystercatcher or perhaps a gull. This poor crab made the fatal mistake of being seen, demonstrating in one torrid episode how tenuous life can be for small creatures of this world, whose very survival lies in their ability to remain hidden from prying eyes and vicious beaks. But for the whimbrel such a meal sustains it for another hour or two and helps to fuel the long migration northwards that it must soon make.

And then it was time for the ferry back and another crack at those shearwaters......

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Early Morning Call

I sit here on our balcony at 5.30 in the afternoon, the tab holes of two empty beer cans sadly eyeing me as they sit forlorn side by side on the table, and I am in the company of a pair of Spanish sparrows and a collared dove feeding within touching distance. They are gorging themselves on fragments of digestive biscuit I crumbled for them; they seem most grateful. These birds are common all over the island, but close to are really most handsome. Particularly the sparrows that, between bouts of feasting on biscuits, chirrup loudly and incessantly from the date palms a few metres from our balcony. With no alarm clock and thick curtains it is not obvious that dawn has arrived, but these persistent bachelors commence their piercing chirping with first light and make quite an effective early morning call. They don't stop until sunset.

We spent today exploring the northern half of the island spending some time at Mirador del Rio, a fantastic lookout point giving breathtaking views from the weirdly sloping cliffs to the much smaller island of La Graciosa and beyond. No birds or wildlife of note here though, we had to wait a couple of hours before driving past Orzola for that. Stopping at a vantage point overlooking conventional golden sand as opposed to the jet black beaches elsewhere, we espied a large bird just offshore that seemed to have an unusual flight style. It would have been easy to dismiss this as another gull, but closer scrutiny showed it to be an osprey. The bird was coasting northwards, we were heading south, so we backtracked and parked in anticipation of intercepting it and getting a better look. Success! But only for a couple of minutes before it noticed a few sunbathers on the far side of the inlet it was hovering over. It turned with the wind and was gone in a flash.

Other notables were a couple of migrating swallows and a trio of swifts (don't know which species) over the hotel. We've booked a trip with a local birder for Friday and hope she will be able to find the island specialities such as cream-coloured courser and Houbara bustard for us. Having no site guide or knowledge of this place makes looking for these birds needle in the haystack territory, but despite the avian alarm clock we're enjoying ourselves and after all that's why we are here.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Wish You Were Here

There are not a vast range of species to be seen on the Canary Isles, especially Lanzarote where we are seconded for a week, but the black lava strewn hills and beaches do hold a surprise or two. We are based in a very small village called Puerto Calero towards the southernmost tip, and our hotel complex (and it is a complex business to find your way around) is the last building before a range of sparsely grass-clad fields slope gently into the Atlantic Ocean.

On our first morning here we walked a few kilometres along the coastal path in the increasing heat of a mid morning sun to find the apparent uniform yellowing grass interspersed liberally with low growing plants of many kinds. I'm no botanist and can't even begin to provide names for these plants, but close inspection showed the whole landscape to be a mosaic of tiny flowers, purple, red, white, yellow and blue hidden from a cursory glance. Where there is nectar there are bound to be insects and such was indeed the case. Many butterflies and day flying moths flitted around us, some familiar such as painted lady and clouded yellow, but others a mystery. Grasshoppers were plentiful and small lizards darted away from us into the safety of a crevasse in the rock. Where there are invertebrates there will be birds, and sure enough we were serenaded by constantly warbling short-toed larks and the wagtail-like calls of Berthelot's pipits. Yellow-legged gulls patrolled the low cliff face where below on the rocks common sandpipers fed. Where there are small birds you will undoubtedly find predatory birds, and yes, there are kestrels, buzzards and larger falcons dispersed thinly around the island. What at first seems a deserted landscape devoid of life can, on closer inspection, provide much of interest.

Friday, 13 March 2015

At the Turn of the Tide

I stood on Hunstanton beach bathed in the warm glow of the late afternoon, surrounded by oystercatchers roosting and preening on the seaweed strewn rocks, the bubbling cries of curlew carrying far through the still air, and thought I don't need to be anywhere else; it is all here on my doorstep.

The whole Norfolk coastline is shaped by the tides, the twice daily ebb and flow that firstly washes our perimeter clean then deposits myriad flotsam and jetsam along our desolately haunting shores. No two visits are the same and every turn of the tide reveals new bounty for the waders to plunder.

Earlier in the day with the blaze of a March sun behind me illuminating the gently curving bay between Titchwell and Brancaster, I watched bar-tailed godwits, grey plovers, sanderlings and turnstones probing the newly exposed muds for food, perhaps lugworms, maybe small crabs or other invertebrates that would sustain them through another day. It is a constant struggle for survival, but this season has been kind to our wildlife and they have not had to cope with prolonged periods of frost or inclement weather and are presumably all the fitter and healthier for it.

Certainly these most welcome warming rays had encouraged other waders, redshank and lapwings, to engage in their courtship rituals with the redshanks in particular showing real intent. I watched a pair engage in dramatic close combat beside the public footpath forming the western border of the reserve where it is possible to obtain very close views of various species including black-tailed godwits and avocets. These normally shy birds seem quite blasé here with regard to the the close proximity of humans and go about their business oblivious to our admiring observations.

It was a day to savour with the sense and smell of spring oozing from every pore of the earth. I feel these subtle changes as the season turns and soak up the sense of transition. The passage between winter and spring can sometimes seem interminably slow, but then you have a day such as this when the vibrancy of change is profound. It is long overdue.
So, I eventually found myself on the beach at Hunstanton, listening to the grunting greeting calls of fulmars reverberating from ledges on the unique tricoloured cliffs. Some of these stiff-winged petrels were gathering on the glassy sea to further indulge in their wooing, most were already paired and canoodling each other on their chosen niche. And all around me were the oystercatchers, pied pipers, and most willing to tolerate my clumsy attempts at stealth.  Their mood was in keeping with the soporific nature of the day, they were taking time to rest and recharge in the warm glow of that afternoon sun and await the turn of the tide.

Black-tailed Godwit. These birds are nearly always to be found
 feeding in the shallow lagoons by the public footpath

Oystercatcher. Many of these fine birds gather along the Wash
 to feed on cockles which are abundant hereabouts.

Grey Plover and Knot

Bar-tailed Godwit

Fulmars. The bird on the left had just landed and is greeting
his/her mate with a braying grunt. Not overly romantic.

Fulmar in Flight

The Pied Piper

Curlew. Look at the wonderful intricate plumage patterning.

Fighting Redshank

Oystercatchers awaiting the turn of the tide


Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Sap is Rising

Life is tough if you're a male bird vying for a mate; it can get physical. Very. I spend every Wednesday volunteering at Cley Marshes and this week in the most welcome rays of a late winter sun the birds were getting frisky.

First it was the marsh harriers. The resident pair are in the process of setting up home in a patch of reeds they have made their own for the last three years. Both birds are recognisable for their quite extreme plumage; the female being splendidly bright and well-marked and the male being almost uniform dark without any discernible wing patterning. But today an interloper appeared in the territory, another male, and he was not welcome. True to form it was the mature and experienced female bird that saw him off, rising with speed to intercept his intrusion with talons poised to strike. The imposter didn't linger and after a brief show of bravado continued on his way.

The Players: The Intruding Male
The Players: The Resident Dark Male
The Players: The Lovely Resident Female 'Blondie'
The Interception

Then the shelducks. I counted about 50 of these boldly patterned, goose-sized wildfowl inhabiting the scrapes. Nearly all were paired up and inevitably in such a confined space squabbles broke out. These confrontations which are preceded by a rapid cackling emitted by the protagonist are a common feature of spring. Most amount to nothing of import; no more than the equivalent of a squaring up between Premiership footballers, but sometimes, and more frequently as the mating urge really kicks in, they can become a touch more meaningful. On these occasions pairs give chase to each other with much splashing and whirring of wings. The drake birds will launch at each other and come to blows. Quite spectacular when you can freeze the action.


Later in the afternoon I was intrigued by what I at first thought must be a large mammal bathing in one of the pools. Closer inspection showed this bedraggled mass to be a pair of grey lag geese locked together in an intense duel. The birds must have been fighting for some time as their plumage was muddied and waterlogged. It seemed a complete stalemate, but eventually they released their grips upon one another and broke apart. The victor wasted no time in chasing the 2nd placed bird away, although quite how they could tell who had won this particular brawl is anyone's guess.

There's Two Birds There Somewhere
Fight Over

There were other milder and less dramatic rituals taking place between rival lapwings, dunnocks, little egrets and skylarks, but none quite as physical as those mentioned above. So, the sap is certainly rising and there will be many more skirmishes between various species before things settle down. It does make for an interesting time though and allows us to witness behaviour not seen at any other time of year.