Monthly Archives: April 2014

Firsts in France

Six years ago, on my first visit to the Southern French district of Aude, I saw my first and only Crested Tit. Despite travelling to this part of France at least annually ever since (here is my blog post from my visit last year), it wasn’t until my visit this April, that I saw this beautiful bird again. As with all the birds in the remote valley, they are shy and not easy to photograph, but this time I just managed to capture him in pixels:

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

When the sun shines in the valley, even in April, it can feel like it is perpetually blessed (and sometimes scorched) by Mediterranean heat (my wife’s family home can just be seen to the right of the picture below):

The valley

But lest anyone forgets that the valley sits in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the weather can change with frightening speed (that seems the calling card of mountainous lands); cloudless blue can be replaced by a river of fog in the space of a few hours (normally overnight):

in the clouds

I spent the days creeping through thickets trying to photograph the shy bird-life with only moderate success. Whilst we enjoyed the liquid tunes of several Nightingale throughout the days, the famous singers only let me get within maximum zoom-lens distance…

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

…And despite large numbers of Warblers making themselves known to me through their clicks, calls, and songs, they rarely poked their heads above the thick vegetation to let me snap them (the stunning Sub-Alpine Warbler is joined in the valley by enough of its fellow species to surely be of scientific interest, but watching – or photographing – them closely is devilishly hard):

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

I also snapped the slightly bolder Pied Flycatchers near the house:

Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

… and in the same tree, although higher and hidden in the branches, came the high pitched whistles of one of my favourite birds – but one I have never succeeded (until now) in photographing:

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Each day the valley is crossed, to-and-fro, by the mightiest of the crow family, the Raven, announcing their presence with their distinctive ‘cronking’:

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

But some other dark silhouettes were smaller, faster, more acrobatic, and sharper billed. Their calls were higher pitched and harsher. Whilst I was sad not to see their distinctive blood-red bills, I was delighted to photograph shapes in the sky that were unmistakably the rarest of the European crow family (corvidae):

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Slightly easier to photograph than the birds (although only just at times), were the valley’s array of butterflies, including:

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

… and the stunning…

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Supposedly even easier to photograph (although I have never really embraced macro-photography), are flowers. The flora of the valley could easily be given a blog post of their own (maybe one day they will), but for now, I just want to broadcast a few of the stunning orchids blooming this spring:

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

… and then a beauty I snapped in heavy rain with my iPhone…

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

I took many photos of many wonderful things in the valley and in the hills of one small part of Southern France (only a few of which I have shared today), but wanted to finish this post with a slightly obscured snap of the largest wild lizard I have seen on mainland Europe:

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)

New York City: the birds of Central Park

One does not necessarily associate New York City with wildlife. There is so much to see and do in this amazing city that birding is probably quite far down most people’s NYC bucket list. However, for an “Englishman in New York” (to borrow Sting’s lyrics), spending a few hours with the wildlife of Central Park was deeply rewarding in my recent week in the Big Apple.

Central Park is like a great slab of green in the heart of Manhattan (or brown when we were there last week, as New York was just emerging from Winter, slightly behind the UK) – seen below from the top of the Empire State building partially obscured by skyscrapers…

Central Park from Empire State

Central Park from Empire State

Despite its uber-urban location, an astonishing 230 species of bird (about a quarter of all birds known to exist in the US) have been spotted in Central Park. Whilst I obviously didn’t get close to that number in just a couple of hours in early April, I was pleased with my visit.

I started at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (the largest body of water in the park):

Reservoir views

Reservoir walkway

There were some familiar waterbirds, such as:

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

… and…

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

… But also less familiar for a European, such as:

Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

… and what I later discovered was a relatively rare sight for New York City…

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Although not as numerous as in the nearby Turtle Pond, the Reservoir is also home to introduced (probably released pets) Terrapins (I am uncertain of the species below, but it is probably the common, Red-eared Slider):

Terrapin

Near the Reservoir, I was alerted by the call of a raptor circling over the trees in what seemed like a victory dance as it carried the carcass of its prey (an unidentified bird) in its talons:

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Elsewhere around the park, I saw a couple of further familiar species, such as:

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

… and…

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

… and the almost globally ubiquitous…

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

But I was there to see North American species. Central Park did not disappoint:

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

I was thrilled to see a North American favourite, the aptly named Cardinal…

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Three obscured shots below of, what I believe (thanks to some help from the online birding community – how cool am I?) is an Eastern Phoebe – one of the first migratory birds to return heralding the start of Spring:

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Visiting other countries is great for a birder, because you get to be all excited by common birds that a local birder wouldn’t look twice at, such as:

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

…and the highly common but confusingly named (it is called a robin because of its red breast, but is actually a Thrush)…

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

Another Thrush that I snapped was the Hermit Thrush:

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

There are a number of other lakes in the park beyond the Reservoir:

Central Park lake

It was on these lakes that I saw the New World relative of our Great Cormorant:

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) next to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) next to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and numerous terrapins

As well as getting a very distant shot of the wonderfully named, Bufflehead:

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

And seeing lots more terrapins/turtles basking…

At least two species, but mainly the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

At least two species, but mainly the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

The highlight of my birding afternoon in Central Park was probably the fact that I spotted three species of woodpecker:

Including these two merged perspectives…

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

…and the smallest woodpecker in the US…

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

… and finally a blurry and obscured shot of…

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Outside of Central Park, I got a bit excited seeing a brown squirrel, until I realised it was a melanistic sub-group of the familiar Grey Squirrel and not a new species:

Eastern Grey/Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Grey/Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

I also photographed a couple of gulls outside of Central Park: one which appeared to be familiar and one not…

The familiar bird is a Herring Gull, but is recognised now by most authorities as a separate species from the European Herring Gull, photographed from the Staten Island ferry…

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

The less familiar gull was photographed (twice – two shots merged below) near Brooklyn Bridge:

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

This gull took my total number of species photographed during a week in New York City (an only about 2 hours of birding) to 24, 17 of which were new birds for my photographic list.