Thursday 28 June 2012

Savi's twitch

It was too much to bear. All the stuff I'd missed earlier in the year, the 10th Irish record of Savi's Warbler, a singing male at Tacumshin..........I had to go and twitch this one!! Late on Tuesday I decided to go, the original plan was to drive to Wexford on Wednesday evening and get the bird towards dusk but I figured that if I hit the hay early I could get up and drive to Tacumshin Wednesday morning and so that's what I did.
The alarm went at 2.20am..........didn't seem like a good idea then. A hot shower and some coffee woke me up and by 3am I was on the road. The fog between Youghal and Dungarvan had visibility down to about 2 meters so this slowed me up. 4am and I reached the turn-off for Bunmahon where I picked up Daniel Weldon (he of the Bunmahon Purple Heron fame!!). Just after 5am we reached the site. Clearly a massive Irish twitch was underway as we were joined by........absolutely no-one............not one other person! I know not everyone needs Savi's and those that do had probably been there already but it was a little odd that we were the only people there. As we drove down the narrow track we wondered if we were in the right place, I stopped the car and opened the door and could immediately hear a Locustella reeling away........this must be it so. We parked the car and all the landmarks as Harry had described were there, the abandoned cottage, the set of rocks and the white sign. With the bird still singing we set the scopes up and started to look for it. This is where I was very glad I had Daniel with me. After 10 minutes of scoping a set of willows he goes...."Hold on.....(long pause).......I have it". (Great to have the eye-sight of a 15 year old). And there it was on the outer edge of a set of willows giving its reeling song. The pity was that the fog was so heavy and the bird so distant that photos were impossible. I tried a few on the 'live-view' function but they were so grainy and blurry that I didn't bother to process them. To give you an idea of the poor light and distance here's a shot taken at 700mm and ISO1600. I took it straight from the raw file and didn't adjust the exposure or white balance so that's what it looked like first thing. The bird was singing from the bottom right hand side just above the line of reeds.

Savi's Warbler in there - honestly!!
But on the scope at least it was possible to make out the features of the bird. Quite Reed Warbler-like. Unstreaked with rufous brown upper-parts and buff on the chest with an off-white throat that swelled out as he sang. The tail looked broad and the long under-tail coverts gave it that distinctive Locustella shape. You could also make out the short supercilium. Compared to Grasshopper Warbler the song is described as being of a higher frequency and lower pitch. My own recording isn't great but recordings on xeno-canto will give you an idea of the difference between G'ropper and Savi's (and River Warbler also).

Singing Grasshopper Warbler

Singing Savi's Warbler

Singing River Warbler

We stayed with the bird until about 8am hoping in vain that the fog would lift but it didn't. It was at least nice to also hear so many Reed Warblers in song there, could have been up to 4 birds singing in that same area. We headed over towards the East End of Tac where there was one Little Gull. The fog and drizzle was now so bad that we only checked Forgotten Corner, Lingstown and White Hole briefly. Apart from a single Kestrel we had no other BoPs, no Hobbys or Harriers of any kind. We returned to the Savi's at about 9.30am and while the fog had lifted a bit the bird had stopped singing. With that it was time to turn around and head home.
So while the views didn't offer any photos ops I was still very happy with the scope views I had and of course to have a good listen to its song. The last record was 1996, hopefully we won't need to wait 16 years for the next one.

I arrived back home just before lunch and went to bed to try and catch up on some sleep........twitching eh!!

Footnote: Who was Savi?? Italian Ornithologist evidently. Thankyou Wikipedia.

Paolo Savi

Monday 25 June 2012

RIP George

A sad day today. Poor ol' Lonesome George passed away. Found dead in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Station near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. He was the last of his kind and was estimated to be over 100 years old. At least we got to see him in 2010.

Rest in peace 'Solitario Jorge'

Thanks Polina for the following images taken in 2010 when we visited the research centre.

Lonesome George - June 2010

Sunday 24 June 2012

Birding in Latvia - Part 5

Wednesday 13th June

Yesterday was our 2nd wedding anniversary so we had a bit of a celebration last night. Little bit of a sore head today which was a pity really as the weather was really nice. Around 5pm I mustered up enough energy to check the woods for the Greenish but no sign. A spin into Riga that evening provided a soaring Common Buzzard by the motorway with a roding Woodcock over the forest on the way home (another Latvian tick).

Thursday 14th June

A (or 'the') Greenish Warbler was singing from the top of one of the spruce trees in the garden. Sadly it stayed high up there so no possibility of a photo.
Polina and I headed up to river before lunch where the Great Reed Warbler remained on view still singing away confidently.
A soaring Honey Buzzard treated us to some nice views, another Latvian tick also.

Adult male Honey Buzzard, Lielupe river, Latvia - June 2012
After lunch I checked the woods once more. The Wood Warblers are well established and the Pied Fly pair remain busy. The female RB Fly appeared briefly but well away from where the nest had been. A female Bullfinch was a further Latvian tick and a singing Treecreeper, again not something I can remember hearing before.
On Friday the male Common Redstart appeared in the garden once again. For the last week he had been in absentia so it was good to know he was still around. Last year in July I saw several females and juveniles in the area but only saw a male once. They seem to become very elusive later in the season.

Saturday 16th June

The second last day here sadly. The male and female Common Redstarts both made short appearances on the garden fence but as usual the male evaded my attempts to photograph him.

Over at the local post-office a female Black Redstart scolded one of the local cats which was clearly sunning himself too closely to its nest or young. Back at the garden a family party of Jays made plenty of noise all afternoon.

Jay, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012
But best of all a non-singing Greenish Warbler showed up in the beech tree at the side of the garden, the light was against me so I needed to step up the ISO but at least the resultant shot shows the strong supercilium and the narrow whitish wing-bar. I'm reasonably pleased with it anyway!!

Back garden tick - Greenish Warbler, Jurmala, Latvia - June 2012

Photographing Greenish Warbler

Sunday 17th June 

The last day. I really only had time to check the local woods but it'll be a while before I see or hear any Wood Warblers, Pied Flys or Common Redstarts again so I was determined to have one last look.
The Great Spotted Woodpeckers appear to have 3 fledglings and were busy ferrying food back and forth. Time ran out very quickly and I returned sadly back to house to start packing. Just as I came around the corner the male Common Redstart hopped up on the fence in front of me. He was still quite distant and the light was side-on but he gave me a couple of second before dropping down on the other side of the fence and disappearing. I guess his wariness and elusiveness is part of the reason why he survives so good luck to him. In the end this was the best shot I could manage, maybe next year I'll bring a pop-up hide.

Male Common Redstart

As we were leaving a Greenish Warbler sang from the neighbours garden.........a farewell song I suppose.

So that gives you a flavour at least of birding in Latvia. This year all our birding was local patch. Last year we hired a guide for 3 days and visited Kemeri National Park not far from Riga and then took 2 days over in the eastern part of the country visiting sites such as Lake Lubans and Nagli Fish Ponds. The highlights then included singing Bluethroats, Marsh Sandpiper, Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Roller and Blyth's Reed Warbler to name just a few.
I would highly recommend Latvia as a birding destination. There are regular flights with Ryanair and Air Baltic from Dublin to Riga as well as from many UK airports. The infrastructure is good and if you need a guide you can go the birding Latvia website Latvian Birding and send them an email. Last year we birded with Karlis Millars and I would recommend him, a very competent birder with detailed knowledge of where to find specific birds in Latvia (he's also Latvia's top lister). In fact if you check out that website on a regular basis then you will get a flavour for the sort of birds you can expect to see at any time of the year in Latvia. Although obviously winter is probably not the best time to travel there because the cold can be severe.
Finally here is selection of some of the images I took while there in July of last year - some of them record shots but just to give you an idea of what we saw.

Marsh Harrier - Latvia July 2011

(white-spotted) Bluethroat - Nagli Fish Ponds, Latvia, July 2011

Whinchat - fairly common throughout

Barred Warbler, Nagli Fish Ponds, Latvia, July 2011
Blue-headed Wagtail - Nagli Fish Ponds - July 2011

European Roller, Latvia, July 2011

Common Cranes, Latvia July 2011

Displaying White Stork

White-winged Black Tern - Lubans Lake - July 2011

Fledgling Common Redstart, Jurmala, Latvia, July 2011

Temminck's Stint - Latvia, July 2011

And finally Latvia's National Bird............White Wagtail

White Wagtail, Jumala, Latvia, July 2011

Saturday 23 June 2012

Birding in Latvia - Part 4

Saturday 9th June

Today I decided to try and get a decent shot of the male Common Redstart. I had worked out his circuit and knew that every 2-3 hours he'd pop up on the fence in the back garden. All I needed to do was have the camera and gear set up and ready and just wait. Seems simple right?.........wrong! He appeared twice in about 4 hours. The first time as soon as I moved he vanished. Then 2 hours later he was back, this time he allowed me get my finger onto the shutter button, press the auto-focus and then he vanished!
The female was a little bit more confident but still wary nonetheless. While I waited though I noticed a bird of prey flying towards me from a distance off. Mobbed by crows it looked like a Sparrowhawk. However as it got closer it appeared to dwarf the crows it was with, as it flew right over the garden I could see it was a Northern Goshawk. A fine garden tick!
A pair of Crested Tits also put in a brief appearance but they preferred to remain high up in the pines.
A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers have a nest in the garden opposite and remained busy feeding noisy youngsters all day. I guess going in and out of a tree hole all day for several weeks doesn't do the plumage much good, this one looks especially tatty!

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012

Monday 11th June

Poured rain for most of the day. Driving into Riga I picked up a male Northern Wheatear (Latvian tick) and Yellowhammer by the roadside.
The rain cleared around evening time and I set out to the local  woods to check on the RB Flys. The female was still around the nest but no sign of the male. Several more Spotted and Pied Flys around and Wood Warblers are still in song. I had the female Common Redstart briefly and the GSWs are working hard to feed their young. There was also a couple of Siskins singing, not a song I've heard much before and Hobby passed over chased by some Swifts.

Tuesday 12th June

Back to the woods for a couple of hours. The rain had cleared up and it was a very pleasant day with temperatures of about 24-26 degrees. However the female RB Fly was nowhere to be seen around the nest. I suspect the rain yesterday may have had something to do with that sadly. The Pied Flys are still feeding though as were the GSWs. I wandered around the woods in a bit of a circle without seeing anything other than Chaffinches and Robins. Fed up with the mosquitos I decided to make my way back to the house. Just on the edge of the woods I picked up a small bird singing high up in the one of the beech trees. Not a song I recognised so interesting straight away. The song seemed to be more of a jumble of calls rather than a song and while the song was being delivered from the same spot for about 5 minutes, looking up into the top of the trees against the light it was very hard to locate the bird. However eventually I did and to my surprise the songster was a small Greenish Warbler! I've seen Greenish Warblers on Cape Clear and Mizen Head but never heard one sing. It's not the most melodic of songs but distinctive in its own sense. I have put this short movie clip on Youtube so you can hear the song, the bird is not very easy to see in the movie but gives its song from 0:9 seconds to 0.15 seconds in this short clip.

Song of Greenish Warbler - movie clip

I tried for a shot of the bird but it was so high up in the tree and against the light this effort is the best I could manage.

Greenish Warbler - Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012
Delighted with my little find I headed home for a cold beer and some anti-histamine ointment for my mosquito bites!

Friday 22 June 2012

Birding in Latvia - Part 3

Friday 8th June

There was no birding on Thursday but I managed to sneak a few hours in on Friday. First thing I wanted to do was check the RB Flys briefly and see how they were getting on. So it was back to the local woods where the female was still feeding young birds but sadly no sign of the male. In fact I never saw him again and wondered had he been predated or was he sick? The Pied Flys were still busy going in and out of the tree-hole nest so good news there. To complete the picture then the first Spotted Flys of the year were chasing mosquitos high in the pines. By now there were at least 3 singing Wood Warblers. One of my favourite birds so I decided to give it a little time and try for a decent shot. They're very interesting to watch when they're singing. They were aware of my presence but as long as I kept still they carried on singing and displaying. I thought that if I gave it enough time one would hopefully start to sing from a branch close to where I stood......and I was not wrong!

Singing Wood Warbler - movie clip

Even though I'd been fairly liberal with mosquito repellant I got some nice juicy bites, but you just put up with it and try not to wave your hands around too much as it spooks the birds. I guess it's about suffering for your art!

Wood Warbler, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012

Happy with the results I left the woods just as a pair of Crested Tits fed high above me in the pines, pity they weren't lower down as that's a bird I'd love to get some good quality pictures of.

I headed up to the Lielupe river once more where by now all the usual suspects were singing (Marsh, Sedge, Reed, Great Reed, Icterine, Blackcap, Whitethroat and now a Garden Warbler too). A Cuckoo was in song somewhere quite nearby but I couldn't see it. As I lunched in the jeep a Sedge Warbler flew out of the reeds over my head and smack into the window of an apartment opposite! It dropped like a stone to the ground below and lay stunned for several minutes. I watched carefully and could see it was starting to come to but to be sure I carefully gathered it up in my hands and returned it back to the reeds where it would be safe from the local cats. It felt so small and light in my hands, how does something that diminutive make it from sub-Saharan Africa to the Baltics and back......several times..........amazing really.

A little stunned but coming to - Sedge Warbler
One thing that occurred to me was that I had seen no Shrikes this year. In the same spot last year I had a family party of Red-backed Shrikes and enjoyed nice views of the adults bringing food to 3 young shrikes. This year no sign. Here's some shots though of the Lielupe Shrike family from 2011.

Male brings food to juvenile Red-backed Shrike, Lielupe river, July 2011

Male Red-backed Shrike, Latvia 2011
The other notable absentee this year (and last) were Nuthatches. Present in the garden when I first visited in 2007 I have seen none since, which is odd as the habitat is perfect and they are the Fenno-Scandia form europaea so that little bit different from any you'll see in the UK.
I was also a little curious about the Robins I saw....or more specifically....heard. Robins, in this part of the world are migratory, the temperature drops very low here in the winter so survival is probably tough for small birds. Those that I heard singing sounded like our Robins but slightly different, still recognisable as a Robin singing but still different nonetheless. I would love to super-impose sonograms of Latvian Robins and UK/Irish Robins over one another and compare. The difference would be subtle but different nonetheless. And while I'm on it I wondered were the Chiffers abietinus??

Birding in Latvia - Part 2

Wednesday 6th June

P had work to do so I was told to "P.... off" birding for the day! Well, I didn't need to be told twice so off I set.
Starting first at the Lielupe river there were plenty of warblers in song. Marsh, Sedge and Reeds were all singing as well as the Great Reed Warbler. The Icterines continued to sing from cover while a single Willow Warbler sang from the top of a small spruce. Over on the other side of the river I could hear a Cuckoo singing, my first one of the year. I was reminded of the little poem my Dad says about Cuckoos;

The Cuckoo comes in April
He sings a song in May
In the middle of June he whistles a tune
And July he flies away

Not quite Chaucer but I like it very much!

A Common Tern did a few circuits down the river bank and a male Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds briefly.
The weather was picking up and there were plenty of singing Common Rosefinch around also that morning.

Common Rosefinch, Lielupe river, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012
Singing Common Rosefinch movie clip

I stopped to try and get some shots of a Marsh Warbler and noticed a Penduline Tit building its hanging nest above my head.
Next stop was to a local park about 3 kilometers away. Last year I birded here a few times and the highlight was a very nice Wryneck which I found there one evening. No sign of it this time but here's some shots from back then in any case.

Wryneck, Jurmala, Latvia, July 2011
Strolling around the woods on the edge of the park I noticed a Pied Flycatcher flitting around in the oaks.

Pied Flycatcher, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012

I spent a little while watching him as he sang. After a short while he got interested in the sound of the camera shutter and came over to check me out.

Canon or Nikon mate???

He also decided then to show me how well he could sing, although like me he was getting distracted by mosquito bites and stopped once or twice for a good scratch.

Singing Pied Flycatcher, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012

I suspect he is a first summer male Pied Fly. My reasons for thinking this are two-fold. Firstly, the black parts of his plumage were still somewhat brownish. Secondly, his song was still slightly under-developed. Another male Pied Fly was singing nearby with much blacker looking plumage and a far sweeter and more 'crystallised' sounding song (to my ear).

On the way home I stopped at the local woods. The Wood Warblers had finally arrived and I could hear 2 males in song. Moving towards one of them my eye was caught by a small bird moving around in the bracken. I got onto it and couldn't identify it straight away. Female Pied Fly maybe, but not quite. It flicked its tail revealing a Wheatear like pattern........female Red-breasted Flycatcher. I was trying for a shot when a darn Robin obstructed my line.........hang on, that's no Robin, male Red-breasted Flycatcher!! I have seen RB Flys on Mizen Head, Cape Clear, Knockadoon Head and Bulgaria. But they have all been 1st winter birds, never seen a male. I got one shot and realised that they were busy going in and out of a tree stump with food so I left them to it.

Male Red-breasted Flycatcher - Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012
A pair of Pied Flys also had a nest in a tree hole about 10 meters away. They were still busy feeding young up to the last day I was in Latvia so hopefully by now they're fledged.

I arrived back at the house around 3pm and spent the remaining few hours of good light trying to get a nice shot of the male Common Redstart which had appeared along with his female companion earlier in the week. I set up in the back garden, however it turned out to be far harder than I thought to get a shot of one of these. This male was very, very wary of me and I never got the pic I hoped for despite many hours trying. I guess I should have used a hide. The female was a little bit less shy and sat up on wall opposite for one brief moment.

Female Common Redstart, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012

Thursday 21 June 2012

Birding in Latvia - Part 1

It was holiday time at last. Polina had gone to Latvia for 3 weeks and I joined her for 2 weeks. In July 2011 we spent a fortnight there and birded both locally and further afield in the eastern part of Latvia near the Russian border. This time all the birding I did was local patch stuff. Mostly around the back garden, local woods and nearby river. However as you will see, for a visiting Irish birder, there was plenty around to tickle my fancy. We stayed with Polina's mum in Jurmala which is about 25 kilometers from the capital Riga. Jurmala is on the coast facing out onto the Gulf of Riga. There is a long beach that stretches from the Lielupe river for almost 40 kilometers.

Beach at Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012

Jurmala is a beach resort which in Soviet times was a favoured destination for many high ranking Communist party officals including Nikita Khruschev and Leonid Brezhnev. The neighbourhood consists of plenty of old style houses with mature gardens and plenty of native forest, mainly spruce but with an under-story of oak, beech and birch. So perfect for many woodland species.

Local woods about 50 meters from the house - great for woodland species

About 500 meters from the house was a small nature reserve along the banks of the Lielupe river. Mainly a place for walking and fishing but plenty of good birds to be seen and heard there too.

Nature reserve at Lielupe river

Birding is not big in Latvia, hunting and fishing are the main outdoor pursuits. I never met anyone else birding while I was there and clearly drew some odd looks from locals as I strolled around with bins and camera. As I said there were a lot of mature gardens in the neighbourhood and one of the nicest and juiciest looking was that of the Russian embassy, however I thought better about pointing a big camoflage covered lens into that garden!! In any case Polina's mum's back garden had more than enough gems to occupy me.

Some shots of the back garden

Saturday 2nd June

Arrived at 6am to Riga airport. The weather was cold and wet! While waiting to be picked up I spied a distant falcon being mobbed by several Hoodies which turned out to the the one and only Kestrel I have ever seen in Latvia.
I grabbed some sleep after the flight and that evening ventured out to the local woods but the weather was still cold and wet, the woods were very quiet but at least there was a female Common Redstart in the garden. Hopefully there was a male around somewhere!

Sunday 3rd June

The weather had picked up a bit. The garden across the road had a singing Common Whitethroat which stayed around for 3 days and also a female Whinchat briefly. Not bad garden birds!

Common Whitethroat - sang for 3 days before moving on.
We took a trip into Riga for supplies and had a nice White Stork feeding on the grass verge between both lanes of the motorway. That evening as we BBQ'd the sun came out and a Blackcap singing from the back of the garden was soon joined by a singing Icterine Warbler.

I burn the meat while P listens to the Icky singing
Monday 4th June

Back into the city centre again. Plenty of Common Swifts and quite a few Tree Sparrows in the local parks.

Tree Sparrow - plentiful
That evening I took a stroll up to the Lielupe river, at about 7.30pm the light was really warm and soft. And the Acro's were out in force!! Quite a few singing Marsh, Sedge and Reed Warblers and this smashing and very showey Great Reed Warbler.

Great Reed Warbler - Lielupe river, Latvia, June 2012
He remained there in song for almost 2 weeks. Never really bothered by my presence and was quite happy to put on a show for me several times.

Singing Great Reed Warbler movie clip

Tuesday 5th June

We took a very brief drive to the Kemeri National Park about 44 kilometers from Riga. At a spot we'd been to last year we had singing Icterine Warbler (which showed briefly but otherwise they seem to sing from deep cover).

Icterine Warbler, Kemeri National Park, Latvia, June 2012
Also several Marsh Warblers including one quite vocal and confident individual.

Marsh Warbler, Kemeri National Park, Latvia, June 2012

There were plenty of Common Whitethroat around here too, interestingly in July 2011 I saw none and quite a few Lesser 'throats. This time in early June it was the opposite way around, I saw no Lesser 'throats at all!

Common Whitethroat, Kemeri Nationa Park, Latvia, June 2012
The rain came in though and we had to cut our visit to Kemeri short. Following a clearance and some nice evening sunshine, we hired bikes and cycled around the local neighbourhood in Jurmala.

Bike rental, Jurmala, Latvia, June 2012
Apart from feeling like kids on our bikes again we had 3 singing male Common Redstarts in various gardens and a pair of Fieldfares. No camera with me then though!

More in part 2................