Author Archives: iago80

Corbieres Garden Watch: Birds

I normally walk reasonably lengthy distances birding my second patch in the Corbieres region (reminder: think limestone hills and out-crops, medieval villages, scrubby, largely evergreen hillsides, and the beginning ripples of the Pyrenees) in the South of France. On this trip, given the extreme heat (we are a couple of hours drive from the record-breaking areas of 45-46 degree centigrade, but it was still 39 degrees when we arrived in France), and the fact that I now have a small baby, meant that I was a lot less mobile. This, in turn, meant most of my birding was done later in the morning in the shade from the house and sat on the patio looking west down the valley.

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My wife and son and the cypress mentioned in this post

Late June / early July is hardly peak time for passerine song, but three male Nightingale sang for brief periods daily (and nightly) within ear-shot of the house (I counted three more territories elsewhere on the land). Woodlark were not doing the big circling song-flights that I love watching in the Spring, but one or two would occasionally pop up and down for a brief burst and their stubby shapes were regular sights being flushed as we drove to-and-from the house down the 2km track. A new singer for me on the patch was Tawny Pipit; whilst common in the local region, it has eluded me hyper-locally until now.

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Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris)

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Classic Tawny Pipit territory – where I found it

Our other key songster, Melodious Warbler, was another daily regular, but was only heard in brief snippets of song once or twice. Our two most common warblers, Western Subalpine Warbler and, the year-round-resident, Sardinian Warbler, were both extra noticeable this year, but mostly not in song. Plenty of successful breeding evidence from both was noted, and family groups of Subalpine Warbler occasionally moved up and down the garden cypress tree with the juvenile birds having their catches supplemented. Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff were much less prevalent but recorded nearby. I got one view, once, of a silent juvenile (or just dull female?) Dartford Warbler.

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Juv Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

That garden cypress tree proved a productive focal point for finches. The local Greenfinch and vocal Goldfinch flock used it, as did an occasional Serin. A Linnet flock of six birds preferred the ground in the scrubby meadow behind the house, and Chaffinch song was heard daily, but they seemed less inclined to come close to the house. Cirl Bunting sang a couple of times near the house, and slightly further up the hill I was pleased to connect with Rock Bunting, albeit disproving my own theory that they only showed up during winter months when the mountains were too snowy and ice-covered.

A row of cypress trees a few metres to the left of our big garden tree housed nesting Firecrest. Amongst the other visitors to the tree during the week, a highlight was Crested Tit which watched me from the top of the tree as I took its photo whilst sat in a deckchair (easy birding!).

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Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Black Redstart continued to perform as one of the most reliable ‘garden’ birds and a fledgling bird, still with oversize-wide bill, hopped around on our patio as I watched it from the kitchen. There were also a pair of semi-fledged Great Tit still being fed by their parents on the floor, only partially covered by undergrowth, right next to the barn and Blue Tits also seem to have had a successful year.

In the spirit of ‘why go to the birds, when the birds can come to me’, Turtle Dove flew over once, but was heard burbling away somewhere nearby more frequently. Also largely invisible, but regularly audible was Cuckoo. Great Spotted Woodpecker – not a common bird at all in the scrub land – was heard one day from our nearest pines.

Two years ago I photographed a single colony of 33 Bee-eater fly over the house. I certainly didn’t get a repeat of that, but never have I so consistently seen and heard Bee-eaters around the house. Every day I would hear their calls, and eventually I even stopped scanning the hillsides to see them perched up of swooping up and down. As we drove out on a couple of trips, they perched tantalisingly close on telegraph wires, making me curse the fact I didn’t have my camera handy.

Our local breeding Raven were less of a feature of this trip than almost any I had made before, although I occasionally heard their calls distantly and watched a pair on one of the valley stone outcrops one evening. Jays were the only other corvid on the trip garden list.

Raptor watching was patchy at first and then, at times, truly excellent:Watching six Griffon Vulture kettling over the house was a patch-record and a highlight for me.
Short-toed Eagle, as usual for the summer months was the most commonly seen raptor; mostly sailing over silently, but on a rare walk to the top of our local hill (Mont Major at 541m above sea level), a pair made an absolute racket as they flew past together.
Frustratingly, I fluffed the ID of a suspected Booted Eagle which I saw briefly before it disappeared over a hill: shape and brief view of colouration looked good but my impression of size was that it was noticeably bigger than Short-toed Eagle.
A pair of noisy Peregrine appeared briefly (a rare sight over the patch).
I also got one view of a Kestrel flying purposefully past the house carrying prey.
The patch highlight of the trip was undoubtedly good views of a young Montagu’s Harrier our main ruin on the land. I noticed it almost static in the air some distance away, but it then scythed around the curved contours of the hillsides (a first for me here, although I once had a pair a few miles away over a field).

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

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Underside plumage in transition it seems – reds still visible

On my walk to the top of the hill, I got good views of Crag Martin and Common Swift (I have had Alpine Swift here in the past). Whilst not very exciting for readers, I recorded my first ever House Martin on the French Patch this trip, a small flock passing high over head and hawking with the Swifts. House Martin and Swallows are teeming in the local villages a few miles away, but neither seem to be seen over this wild and remote valley, which is where the wild things are (Crag Martin in this case), so this was a welcome sighting. As with buses, I saw them almost every day after that, so perhaps the local village populations are hunting further afield now.

Whilst not seen from my ‘garden watch’ location, Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge were flushed by the car along the track within the patch boundaries and Hoopoe flew over the car about a mile from our track. The best local (off-patch) sighting of the trip was probably a circling White Stork near the Medieval village of Lagrasse – this is the closest I have seen this species to the Patch and raises the chances that I will hopefully get one one day from the House. Straying from birds, I finally added Hare to my patch mammal list, joining at least two bat species, Stoat, Wild Boar, and Roe Deer (unfortunately I have only experienced Red Deer from the tales of the hunters takings from around (or illegally on) our land).

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Juv European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Considering I barely left the garden, and we were largely being baked by the sun, this was still some enjoyable birding and this hopefully gives a sense to any readers of what can be found with minimal effort in the Corbieres. The butterflies probably outperformed the birds this trip, but I will save that for a separate trip report.

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The scene of most of my observations

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What a Great Reed Warbler!

The mixed blessing of going out birding later than I used to, due to family time, is that I get a good sense of whether the Patch is likely to be productive before I set foot outside.

This morning, it did not bode well and so when I heard news that Rich Bonser had found a Great Reed Warbler at Crossness in South London: a full-on UK tick for me, it was a no-brainer. A lot of my patch colleagues shared that they needed it for London, but it was only when there that I learned this was actually the first ever for the LNHS recording area.

I left the house at 09:50 and had to be back at 12 as we were hosting a lunch for our NCT baby and parent group; it was a race against the clock. I planned it out in my head: 35 minutes drive there, 35 minutes drive back, 15 minutes from the car to bird and the same back would give me 30 minute to locate, hear and hopefully see the bird.

The walk across the meadow took me back to my last time there, in February when I went for the Penduline Tit. It is a great site: a pair of Peregrines were circling each other as I arrived, and there were Cetti’s, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, both Whitethroat species, Skylark, and much more all in full song.

I was amazed when I finally got there that I was only the third birder there and the finder, Mr Bonser was luckily still there. I heard it almost immediately – that distinctive deep croaking that sounds like one of those wooden ‘guiro’ musical instruments and then the louder and gruffer version of the Reed Warbler‘s song.

But the bird stayed well hidden behind a large bramble bush in the reeds as we watched through the metal fencing to keep everyone from the ‘protected area’. We were treated to my best views this year of Sedge Warbler while we were waiting for the star bird to show.

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Eventually, the thrush-sized Acro popped up on top of the reeds some way from where where we had heard it singing after it chased a smaller bird. There were many better photos taken later that day, but ticking a bird in London that is also the first time anyone else could have ticked that bird was special.

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Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)

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belting out its gruff song

I was in a very good mood, albeit partially dampened when the Satnav told me it was going to take closer to an hour to get home. Slightly late, but, I think, with a pretty good excuse.

As it was car journey solely to twitch a bird, I made a small contribution (as per my new pledge) to a charity to protect some rainforest.

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Filling in the gaps

I have been increasingly aware of a few gaps on my Patch list that should be filled by birds generally seen annually. One of these was Green Sandpiper. Bob had a flyover the other day, but when Rob found one on the deck of Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats this morning, I jumped into the car (more about this later) to see it. And see it I did – my 131st bird for the Patch.

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Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

I got home, played with my baby son for a bit, changed his nappy, made my wife some breakfast and was pondering which other bogey birds are still missing from my list… Woodlark… Sedg… it was at this point I saw the news that Bob had found a Sedge Warbler singing by the Roding. Given I had promised that Friday would be a family day, going back out on to the Patch was not ideal, so I jumped back in the car (yes, I still plan to come back to this point) for another smash-and-grab tick (walking would have taken me well over an hour there and back).

I only got brief views in the giant Blackthorn bush, but it sang almost continuously for a small gathering of us until I had to leave (2nd tick of the day, 132nd bird of the patch and made even sweeter by two year ticks materialising whilst I was there: Common Whitethroat and Swallow).

Tony B. recently ran through 24 gaps in his patch list. He is a fair way ahead of me, so he has fewer ‘bogey’ birds, but it has prompted me to think of which 8 species are most likely to take me to 140. Here is what I reckon are the 8 most common omissions or most likely scores over the next year or five:

  1. Jack Snipe – almost annually seen, particularly on Alex. But normally flushed and gone, so rarely twitchable.
  2. Woodlark – another annual bird, but generally just Autumn flyovers.
  3. Golden Plover – spend time looking up in hard weather and I’ve got to tick this off some time.
  4. Marsh Harrier – only three sightings in the last five years, but with the increasing success of these birds at some relatively local sites, I reckon it is only a matter of time before I get one on the list.
  5. Goosander – Only a handful records in the last decade, but… I’m hopeful.
  6. Cattle Egret – very rare to date, but given the increasing preponderance of views over time means I reckon there is a good chance.
  7. Crossbill – worryingly not seen flying over since 2015. Could that mean the odds have gone down, or are we due a few this Autumn?
  8. Dartford Warbler – probably less likely than Grasshopper Warbler to be honest, as we’ve only had one, ever, on the Patch, but I have included it as the habitat feels right for a stray and because our Patch has a strong capability to surprise when we least expect it (evidenced by the fact that I had Ortolan Bunting and Rustic Bunting on my Patch list before seeing a Yellowhammer!).

Of that list, I can probably only class the top three as remaining patch bogey birds. We shall see!

To drive for a Twitch or not, that is the question

I got a fair amount of stick from one or two of my patch colleagues for driving such a relatively short distance to twitch the two birds today. Whilst it was done in a light-hearted way, I did actually feel pretty guilty. I really do worry that we are trashing our environment and heading for climate catastrophe, and me driving to see a bird is certainly not helping matters.

So, why do I do it, and what am I going to do about it?

I do it, because birding is my primary hobby and I love seeing new birds on the Patch. As I currently have significant family commitments with a young baby, I get out less than I would otherwise and have to maximise my time. I wouldn’t have been out today were it not for the fact that I was able to zoom there and back so quickly. There is more I could say about the relative benefits of local patch birding rather than long-distance twitches (which I don’t do), but let’s get on to what I am going to do about it…

  1. Wherever feasible, I will aim not to drive.
  2. From today, I will only drive on to the Patch if it is to try and see a new bird for my Patch list (no more driving for year-ticking).
  3. If I do drive (anywhere) for a bird, I will make a contribution of £20 for every 30 minutes in the car to a charity that specialises in planting trees and restoring nature (see below for my donation made for today’s largesse.
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Guilty much?

I am aware this is still not great. I am also trying rather shabbily to green my life in other ways: switching increasingly to a plant-based diet (I haven’t eaten any beef or lamb for months and am trying to cut out pork at the moment); and looking at alternatives to flying (I recently looked at the train alternatives to a trip to France and the train cost 5 times more than the plane – which reminded me of the need for policy changes as well as action by individuals).

I am clearly no eco-warrior or saint, but I recognise I do need to improve my own game a little if I am going to call on the Government to do more as well.

Duck tales

Last weekend Rob S. found a stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond.

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Garganey (Anas querquedula)

It was a rather incongruous sight on the most urban and densely-visited of our patch-ponds, but the behaviour was all Garganey: highly skittish, and fearful, with no nice overhanging vegetation to hide under and bullied by just about everything else on the pond. It was my first patch tick for the year; my 129th bird locally.

One week later…

Nick C. found a drake Mandarin Duck on Alexandra Lake. I had family visiting so am a little ashamed to say that I jumped in the car to get to the other side of the patch (from my house) and try and bag my 130th bird.

As soon as I approached the lake, I saw it in the distance (“Get in!” – I always think in semi-macho cliches when I see new birds. Maybe also “Back of the net!”) I quickly fired off a record shot in case I was unable to get any closer.

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Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

I shouldn’t have worried. ‘Skittish’ and ‘fearful’ are not words I would use to describe this individual. Without moving around the shore, I noticed the duck swimming in my general direction. No, not in my general direction… at me… at speed. And it did not stop.

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“I need your bread, your boots, and your motorcycle”

I didn’t have any bird seed or bread, but this duck is clearly used to being fed, and possibly being fed directly out of hand, as it had zero fear for me or any of my fellow birders. The contrast with the Garganey of last week could not have been more pronounced. But it could fly and feral populations clearly do move around. As we discussed on the shore yesterday, is there really much difference (apart from maybe a few generations) between Mandarin Duck arriving on the Patch and, say, Canada Goose, or Ring-necked Parakeet? It stayed one day, as reports as I type suggest the Mandarin has departed this morning; maybe back to the Far-East, or maybe just back to Connaught Water.

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A nice way to round off 130 birds on the Patch

 

 

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only made it out on to the patch three times in March, recording 50 species of birds. Five of these species were new for the year, and one was a patch life tick.

Highlights were:

  • The stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond found by Rob S. on 31 March – my first full patch life tick this year.
  • Winning the local Wheatear sweepstake by correctly predicting 17 March as the first arrival. Seeing it perch up nicely after being found by Tony B.
  • Hearing my first Cetti’s Warbler (found by Marco J.) on Wanstead Flats (last bird being on the Roding) also on 17 March.
  • Spring being sealed on 23 March by singing Blackcap and first sighting of Sand Martin.

Lowlights were:

  • Whilst pleased to see some of the early Spring arrivals, I missed a few others that my colleagues picked up, namely a record early House Martin and Swallow.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Adding a new bird to my French Patch list (albeit not the most exciting of additions): Mistle Thrush.
  • Other highlights of a week working my French Patch were: Griffon Vulture, lots of Golden Eagle sightings, courting Ravens, singing Woodlark, Black Redstart, Stonechat closer to the house than I have had before, Crested Tit, singing Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, and more Sardinian Warbler than you would know what to do with.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only recorded 56 species of birds in four patch visits during February. Of the 56, three were new for the year for me.

Highlights were:

  • Connecting pretty quickly with the Rook Bob found on Alexandra Pond on 17 Feb. Probably the same individual as last year.
  • Having a nice low fly-past from my first patch Common Buzzard of the year also on 17 Feb.
  • SSSI seeming to be a magnet for good numbers of Reed Bunting, Linnet, Pied Wagtail, and very large numbers of Goldfinch.
  • Finding a new colour-ringed Black-headed Gull on Alex on 18 Feb (Yellow TN9T): first sighting since ringed in Poland in June 2018.
  • A very high count of 44 Mute Swan on Jubilee for the WeBS count on 17 Feb.

Lowlights were:

  • Continued to fail to see Fieldfare (probably missed now until the Autumn) or Water Rail.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Seeing 1W Caspian Gull ‘X530’ at Stonebarges in Rainham (but sadly not finding either of the Glaucous Gull that have been around) on 19 Feb.
  • Seeing and hearing my first ever Penduline Tit. In London as well. with added bonus of several Bearded Tit/Reedling present too. All at Crossness in South London on 22 Feb.
  • Flying out to my French Patch (more to be reported for March) and, on first day out and about on last day (28th) of Feb felt like reconnecting with old friends: Sardinian Warbler rattling from bushes in large numbers, Raven courting, Stonechat posing, and Cirl Bunting singing.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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Somewhere in that lot is probably a Glaucous – not that I found it/them

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Record shot of a Bearded Tit at Crossness – sadly wasn’t fast enough to capture the Penduline