Monday 7 April 2014

Late winter in Latvia

I'm back over in Latvia for a few days. Not a birding trip but my gear did come with me just in case. Gardening chores were finished ahead of schedule so I was given a pass to go birding for the day. I didn't have any transport and had left it too late to arrange a guide so I just decided to check out the local patches that I had birded often in the three previous summers. The small reserve up by the Leilupe river has been a fine spot for summer migrants, birds that I have seen here from June to August in previous years include Great White Egret, Black Tern, Cuckoo, Wryneck, Marsh Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Barred Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Whinchat and Common get the picture, its a good spot! Spring comes late in Latvia, its still quite cold and grey and shoots are only beginning to appear. In the summer this place has tonnes of cover, today it was stark and bare so I didn't have much hope of seeing anything special.....but you never know! The pictures below show the contrast.

April 2014

June 2012
Anyway, before I had gone twenty meters I had a nice flock, about thirty strong, of Tree Sparrows. Commoner here than the UK so worth stopping to watch for a while. I wandered around the trails and paths and noted the many Great Tits and Chaffinches and small flocks of Siskins and Redpolls (I thought there seemed to be both Common and Lesser in these flocks???). I headed out along a worn path across some open fields towards the river which is where I usually see Whinchat and RB Shrikes in the summer. This time I had a small flock of Song Thrushes, several Hooded Crows, a single Lapwing and when I reached the willows near the river's edge......a fine Great Grey Shrike!
What a stunning bird, it hunted along the river edge, perching in the stunted willows to scan the field below and occasionally hoping down to chase after some prey-item. I watched it for a while when it appeared to take a small rodent from the long grass. It then took off into a willow clump and began impaling its victim on a branch before ripping its head off and beginning to devour it. Unfortunately then a woman walking her five dogs flushed the bird and it left its meal behind before resuming its hunting position atop another willow.
I reckoned with my presence also it was unlikely to return to its larder so I too beat a retreat. Meanwhile I walked another trial that ran alongside a small fishing lake, the reeds here in summer have been great for Reed and Great Reed Warblers. At the beginning of the trail I had a single Chiffchaff feeding high in the willows (the first summer migrant) and a brief glimpse of a female Black Redstart.....not bad birds really.This time I had to contend with Reed Bunting and at least four smart looking White Wagtails.
At this stage I decided to head back to the house for some lunch and to pick up my camera. On the return journey to the area I stopped to take some photos of the Tree Sparrows which were wary at first but quickly became quite confident.

Tree Sparrow, Lielupe River, Latvia, 7th April 2014
I headed over to the area where the Great Grey Shrike had been and took a quick peek at his larder first as he was nowhere to be seen nearby.

The victim!
I scanned the tops of the trees and soon picked up the Butcher Bird himself about four hundred meters away. I approached carefully but as expected with this species, he had seen me long before I had seen him and he kept me at arms length.

Clearly eyeing me carefully!

Great Grey Shrike (nominate race Excubitor) - Leilupe, Latvia

Keeping watch from the willows on a grey and cold morning
The cold was starting to get into my bones by now and hunger pangs were gnawing at me. As I left a female Merlin caused panic amongst the Reed Bunting and White Wagtails as she passed over the reedbed.
That's more or less all the birding I will get on this short visit. As always Latvian birding never disappoints!

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