Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Chat show

Flushed with my Corncrake success I turned my attention to another old favourite of mine, Common Redstart. I have never had any success taking photos of Redstarts either here in Latvia or back in the UK. However, there was a male bird coming into the garden quite often, so seeing as I was on a roll I thought I would try and take some shots.
It favoured one corner of the garden in particular, so I set up my gear on a low tripod, spread my jacket out on the ground and waited. Lo and behold I managed to get some decent shots. In fact as time went by I think he was aware of my presence but choose to ignore me. So I ended up getting some very nice shots (in my own humble opinion).

Not the most pristine individual, apart from being a bit tatty, he was also moulting a little around his face and head. Still, I will never get such a good opportunity to photograph a Redstart so I can't complain.
One day I had left my gear out while I popped back in for a cuppa and could see from the living room that he had decided that my lens made a very agreeable perch.

The female was a lot less conspicuous and frequent. In all the time he was there I saw her maybe three or four times. But what's seldom is wonderful, right?

Female Common Redstart, Jurmala, Latvia

Monday, 10 July 2017

Crex Crex -at last!

For the rest of the trip I was content to bird locally around Jurmala / Dzintari. Knowing that we were heading into the summer doldrums I did not have high expectations. I went around the local reserve of Leilupe one evening and either heard or saw most of what I have come to expect there – namely Great Reed Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Garden Warbler, Common Rosefinch and Red-backed Shrike.
I was just getting back in the car at around 9.30pm when I thought I heard a distant "crex crex". I sat and listened for five minutes before hearing again. Right so, then maybe this time I might finally get to see a Corncrake?
I managed to locate where the bird was singing from but the meadow was at least knee high so chances of seeing it would be neglible. Still, I would at least try. 


At one stage it was calling from the long grass within a few feet of where I stood. It kept coming closer and closer to where I was. I was hoping it might emerge from the edge of the meadow and cross the narrow path I was on before slipping back into the long grass on the other side. That would be my only hope of seeing it. I got down on one knee in case it caught sight of me. Then to my amazement a line in the grass starting moving directly towards me, a bit like the ripple-line a fish's dorsal fin makes as it breaks the surface of the water. Then suddenly the Corncrake emerged, climbed across my bent knee, realised with a start what I was, flew over my left shoulder with his wings brushing my face, back out across the meadow, feet dangling and dropped back into the long grass and out of sight! 
So, almost forty years since I first heard a Corncrake, now at last I had finally seen one. In fact I had not just seen one, I had been caressed by one!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Latvia 2017 - Day Two

We made a leisurely start the next morning. I was first up and sat out on the porch of the guesthouse enjoying my coffee while I watched Spotted Flycatcher, Common and Black Redstarts and a pair of White Wagtails feeding their fledglings. A Garden Warbler sang from cover and a Golden Oriole screeched from the woods on the far side of the lake. Not a bad way to start the day off.

View from the porch


White Wagtail

Our first stop that morning was at a small plantation of Aspen trees which a Grey-headed Woodpecker had been frequenting. We needed to re-trace our route from the night before back through the forest. We stopped briefly when Karlis spotted this Green Sandpiper perched on a fir tree on the edge of the forest path. I know they breed in trees but I’m so used to seeing them in some random muddy puddle or piece of stagnant water that I did a double take when I saw this bird sitting out on a branch.

Green Sandpiper in a fir tree!
The photos above were taken from the car with the bird about 4 meters away perched on the branch of a fir tree at eye-level. Amazing!

Anyway, after that brief encounter we soon arrived at the aspen tree plantation. However, there was no sign of any Grey-headed Woodpeckers that morning. However, all was not lost , right in the ditch beside where we had parked a Blyth’s Reed Warbler broke into song. A little furtive at first but after fifteen minutes it came out on a branch and sang in full view. Not quite the mimic that Marsh Warblers are but still did a convincing Great Tit and Chaffinch.

Blyth's Reed Warbler

Next up we headed over to the Lubans Lake area to a spot where there had been breeding White-backed Woodpecker. Karlis gave it 50:50 with the likelihood that the birds had fledged young and dispersed from the area. Sadly this appeared to be the case. Still, we did have good views of Thrush Nightingale, Greenish Warbler, Icterine Warbler and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. We moved on towards Nagli fish ponds stopping briefly as two possible Whiskered terns flew over. At Nagli we had five Black terns, a White-tailed Eagle, two Great Grey Shrikes and a distant White-spotted Bluethroat.

For the rest of the day the weather became our enemy. Hot and sunny one minute and flash flooding the next. We searched a few spots for Wryneck (unsuccessfully – but did have one field that had three male Red-backed Shrikes in it), we stopped once again for a quick meal in Madona before making our way back along the highway to Riga. A pit stop for fuel and coffee along the way gave a singing Redwing (first time I’ve ever heard one singing!) and another Great Grey Shrike.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Latvia 2017 - Day One

I spent the first two days of this year's trip to Latvia with Karlis Millars with the sole intent of finally seeing Booted Warbler and River Warbler. I also gave Karlis a list of other species that if available I would be keen to see (Corncrake, Pygmy Owl, Ural Owl, Three-toed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker and Great Snipe).
Polina and I arrived late Sunday evening and I met with Karlis on Monday morning at Dzintari train station in Jurmala.
First stop was to check sites near Riga for singing River Warbler but very breezy conditions meant we failed to turn up any singing birds at all three locations we checked.
Then we headed eastwards for Booted Warbler but once again windy conditions thwarted our efforts. So far the best we had all day was a smart male thunbergi Yellow Wagtail.
We checked one final spot where thankfully it was a little more sheltered and we managed to find a singing male Booted Warbler.

Lurking in the bushes - Booted Warbler
It's easy enough not to notice their song (especially in windy conditions). Their name in Latvian translates to English as 'Silent Warbler'.
However, as always, patience and perserverance won out and this bird came out and posed briefly for a photo.

Booted Warbler, Latvia - 19th June 2017

Booted Warbler, Latvia - 19th June 2017
So target number one was safely secured!
While we watched it a very smart male Montagu's Harrier did a fly-past. Monty's is not a Harrier spp. I've seen too often so I was very pleased to receive this extra bonus bird.

Male Montagu's Harrier, Latvia  - 19th June

By now it was heading for 7pm. We grabbed a quick dinner (two courses and a beer for 11 euro each!) and headed for the forests where we had a rendevous arranged with Gaidis Grandans to search for Pygmy Owl and Ural Owl. We were successful with Pygmy Owl but not with Ural.

Pygmy Owl, Latvia - 19th June 2017
Every so often in the forest there would be an area of clear-fell, maybe about two acres in size, consisting of pine tree stumps, young birches and long grasses. In several of these areas we had singing Tree Pipit, Blyth's Reed Warbler and thankfully River Warbler (although views were not as good as I hoped for).

Clear-fell area

It stayed bright well into the evening thereby enabling us to keep on birding. Even after 10pm Cuckoos were still active and once darkness fell we were joined by the sight and sound of Woodcocks and Nightjars.  

Moose and calf - taken after 10pm hence at ISO20,000!
Atmospheric and all as it was I was still glad to have Karlis with me. A desk-jockey like me wouldn't last one night alone in the Latvian forest! This fallen birch tree which blocked the forest track was quickly dispatched by Karlis's handy axe!

Karlis welds the axe
We reached our guest house sometime after midnight and rounded off a long day with a few cold beers on the porch before bedtime.