Tag Archives: hirundines

This Hobby of mine

Spring has been, temporarily (?), catapulted into summer on this first May Bank Holiday. Record breaking temperatures and clear blue skies. Perfect for raptors. I’ve already seen four Red Kite this Spring, which is four more than I saw last year, and the year before that! And yesterday I saw two birds, including this one with a missing eighth primary feather on its left wing.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

It was also a fantastic day for Hobby. All over East London good numbers were seen. I can’t be sure exactly how many birds I saw in the multiple sightings I had, or whether they were all repeats, but I can be sure there are at least two as I watched a pair circle each other effortlessly, getting higher and higher over the Old Sewage Works, their bright red trousers showing well in the sunshine.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

At one point I even saw one of them sweep past me with avian prey in its talons. This was possibly the first hirundine I saw on the day as there seem to be strangely few around the Patch yet. I picked up a few Swift distantly over Ilford and, later, when dozing in the sun on the Western Flats, I eventually watched a couple of Swallow fly overhead in the early evening. But I have now gone longer through the year than any previous year without seeing House Martin and Sand Martin.

The advanced and unseasonably hot weather enhances the feeling that Spring passage migration is over, emphasised even more by the lack of Wheatear on the Patch. I have probably missed the chance for Spring Redstart, Whinchat, and – most sadly – Ring Ouzel.  We have had record Ring Ouzel for the Spring, but I have seen none of them. I shall have to wait for their return in Autumn when they are normally slightly easier.

But it is hard to be too disappointed when watching birds in glorious weather. Lesser Whitethroat are singing in multiple locations, we have a couple of singing Willow Warbler, territorial Reed Bunting, and a singing Reed Warbler. All of these are small and fragile numbers across the Patch, but still more common than our warbler hopes of Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Garden Warbler which are all still missing from the Patch list so far this year.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)

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Japan: trip report part I (The Top Ten)

I have just returned from a long holiday in Japan. It was a family holiday with very little dedicated birding involved.

This was a trip of:

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Kinkaku-ji (Buddhist temple), Kyoto

and…

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Tokyo

But, I did see some birds (including 20 life ticks) and so thought there may be some value in a sort of trip report from a non-birding trip. In other words, if you are planning a trip to Japan that will include all the best birding sites and the utilisation of local guides, etc, this may be of limited use. On the other hand, if you are interested in birds but unlikely to have much time to dedicate to birding (as I didn’t), I hope, and aim, for this to be of some value. For these reasons, I haven’t really bothered with logistical aspects as the purpose of this ‘top ten’ is to highlight the birds that can frequently be found all over Japan (on the main island of Honshu where I stayed).

Intro: general comments on birding Japan

At the risk of starting off on a bit of a sour note… there weren’t all that many birds. I am aware that anyone with real experience of living in, or birding in, Japan may have just spluttered on their sushi, but that was my experience. There seemed to be less bird song than I am used to in the UK (although I did love how various street signs played different bird songs/calls as a guide for the blind) and the variety of commonly seen birds also seemed relatively low.

It’s all about the hills. Japan is a country full of contrasts and this includes the topography. Much of Japan seems incredibly flat and low altitude and nearly all of this low-altitude land seems to be taken up with urbanised buildings or agriculture. The hills then seem to appear out of nowhere; they are steep; and mostly covered in forest. It should be no surprise that this is where the wild things are.

The top ten

When I go somewhere new, I often go with very little conception of what I will and won’t see. Taking a bird field guide (in this case, Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil) is obviously useful, but they inevitably include everything you might possibly see with very little indication of what you are most likely to see. With that ‘gap-in-the-market’ in mind, the following list is what I would have found useful to read before I left: A list of the birds (7 species and 3 families) that you would almost struggle not to see.

1.Brown-eared Bulbul – my comment above about lack of bird calls or song should really have a caveat exempting the loud and varied calls of this ubiquitous bird. Before I left, one of my Patch-birding colleagues repeatedly said ‘Brown-eared Bulbul‘ whenever Japan came up. To me it was simply one of the thousands of birds I still hadn’t seen. Little did I know how quickly and thoroughly that omission would be righted when I reached Japan. They. Are. Everywhere!

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

2.Large-billed Crow – I saw a fair few Carrion Crow on my trip, but they were outnumbered significantly by Large-billed Crow. Only marginally smaller than a Raven, these chunky and noisy corvids were frequently found in large numbers in the cities we visited.

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Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)

3.Black-eared Kite – look up to the sky in Japan. If you see any birds circling, they are probably Large Billed Crow. If they aren’t, they are probably Black-eared Kite. Again, these birds – like many kites around the world when they aren’t persecuted – seem highly comfortable in densely populated areas and can be seen in large numbers. Unfortunately for my world list, Black-eared Kite is still considered a subspecies of Black Kite, despite several distinguishing features. Apparently, it has evolved quite distinctly and separately from Black Kite for a long time, but the intermingling of genes in the overlap areas have prevented the experts from separating completely.

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Black(-eared) Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

4.The Tits – The first bird family, rather than species on my list. As in the UK, and handful of species of tits are seemingly common and well distributed across Japan, cropping up again and again wherever I went. Japanese Tit, closely related to our Great Tit was ubiquitous, closely followed by the attractively-coloured Varied Tit. Other species encountered were: Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and (although, strictly speaking, not in the Paridae family) Long-tailed Tit.

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Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius)

5.Wagtails – Having lumped an entire bird family into the list above, I feel less guilty about now introducing a genus. Wagtails were one of only a couple of groups of birds where I felt they were more common in Japan than they are in the UK. Japanese Wagtail and Black-backed Wagtail (the subspecies of the familiar European White Wagtail) were most common with Grey Wagtail present as well.

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Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis)

6.Oriental Turtle Dove – I saw this attractive dove frequently. It’s commonness was bittersweet for me as it reminded me how increasingly scarce the closely related, but slightly smaller, European Turtle Dove is in my home country; a bird I haven’t even seen for a couple of years in the UK.

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Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)

7.Hirundines – We chose our time to visit Japan to coincide with ‘Sakura’, the cherry blossom, but this also meant I got to experience some of the Spring migration I was missing back in the UK. Just as the swallows and martins are returning North to breed from their wintering grounds in Africa, so swallows and martins have also been appearing all over Japan from their wintering grounds of Borneo, the Philippines, Java, etc. Our familiar Barn Swallow was common as was the Asian House Martin which was a life tick for me.

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Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) subspecies guttaralis

8.Tree Sparrow – Interestingly, this species seems to have filled the niche of House Sparrow almost entirely in Japan and was far more commonly seen than I have ever found this species to be anywhere else that I have seen it. Anyone used to Tree Sparrow in Europe will be able to see that this subspecies has a richer brown hue to it and a large bill.

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus saturatus)

9.Ducks – This section of the anatidae were relatively strongly represented and mostly familiar species to me (more on this in the next blog post), with the exception of the Eastern Spot-billed Duck which was one of the most regularly seen species throughout my travels.

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Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)

10.Japanese White-eye – Lastly, this attractive little bird was a lovely addition to my world list and is relatively easy to pick up in small flocks across Honshu.

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Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus)

EDITED ADDITION
It was only when re-reading this, that I realised I missed off a bird that easily deserves to be in this top ten. As I didn’t have the heart to knock one of the top ten off the list, I have simply cheated and created an eleventh.

11.White-cheeked Starling – Not quite as frequently seen or heard as the Bulbul, but not far off. This Starling is almost as common as our own Common Starling.

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White-cheeked Starling (Spodiopsar cineraceus)

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Patch birding can be tough going.

I’m sure many of us get almost existential jitters: “why on earth am I walking around semi-urban scrub regularly to tick off birds on a list?” amongst other thoughts. The general consensus is that things on the Patch are a bit rubbish at the moment (many of my fellow local tribe would probably use stronger language than that to describe things). It is true that hirundines seem later and scarcer, and some of the other migrants seem few and far between, not to mention the fact that we have watched much of the habitat trashed recently, but… I have to say I refuse to be cowed and give in to the birding funk.

Recent positives (for me at least) include:

1. Patch first Little Ringed Plover (times 3!)

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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

… and just to prove that there were three of them…

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2. More Willow Warbler than I have seen before on patch (I ticked seven singers the other day)

3. Actual views of Yellow Wagtail on visible migration (rather than usual faint squashy call in the ether)

4. Finding a Treecreeper in Bush Wood (these guys are scarce and tricky locally)

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

5. Finding a Cetti’s Warbler – only second ever on Patch (probably a returning bird)

6. Seeing a pair of Raven just off patch – highly scarce locally

7. Getting some photos of a White Wagtail – although not a new patch species tick, the continental race and cousin to our ‘pied’ variety is still always of interest when found on our island

White Wagtail

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

8. Getting a photo (however bad) of a Snipe on patch

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

9. We have had some glorious weather (one early April day even went over 25 degrees C)

10. Getting close enough to a Wheatear to have a photo that is better than my usual rubbish

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

So things could undoubtedly be better, but I still get pleasure from just being on the Patch in Spring. And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XVIII (The teeming hordes)

“The teeming hordes are sweeping, swirling round” The Teeming Hordes – Mallory Patrick

There is a sense of ‘movement’ amongst many of the migrant birds on the patch as we enter the Autumn passage time.

Some of our Summer visitors are leaving, and others are bunching up in bigger numbers as those on passage from further North stop off to refuel.

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The rather poor shot of a Chiffchaff above was taken in the low light of early morning. Yesterday I came across a flock of Chiffchaff at least 10-20 strong with a few Blue Tits and Great Tits tagging along for the ride (rather than the usual other way around). Chiffchaff breed across the patch, but the current numbers have swelled considerably.

Nowhere near as numerous, but also increased from very low number(s) during the breeding season, are Willow Warbler. The photo below has been puzzling me somewhat – the general colour and brightness point to it being a Willow Warbler and the legs look pale, but … the supercilium is annoyingly narrow and nondescript and as I didn’t hear it call or sing, I can be relatively confident, but not 100% certain, that it is not an aberrantly bright chiffy:

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) - I think!

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) – I think!

Spotted Flycatchers have been an excellent feature bird on the patch for the last few weeks and numbers seem to fluctuate as they pass through. Yesterday I watched as three tussled and fought with each other, zipping from tree-to-tree in the highly productive area called ‘The Enclosure’. I even filmed one for a bit, calling and then flying off (excuse my shaky camera work): click here.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatchers have been seen at numerous locations across the patch although the majority have been found around Long Wood and the Enclosure, reflected in this map of my personal sighting locations (each dot represents a rough location of sightings, not individual birds seen):

Thanks to City of London for the map

Thanks to City of London for the map

South of Long Wood are the brooms and grassland famous for our breeding Skylarks, but more recently the brooms have been alive with Whinchat. Six or seven have been recorded on particular days and have been popular with the local and visiting birders:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) and some of the Wanstead birders blurry in the background

Whinchat

Whinchat

Four Whinchat in a bush

Four Whinchat in a bush

Even more popular than the Whinchat are the slightly less common Wheatear:

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

With a blurry crow for size comparison

With a blurry crow for size comparison

In the last few days I have rectified my lack of Yellow Wagtail on my patch list and have now seen a few pass high over. Meadow Pipits and several types of finches can also frequently be heard high above. But the numbers of all of these pale beside the hirundines; the sky has become increasingly busy with waves of Swallow, Sand Martin and House Martin:

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

Today the Wanstead Birders counted up to 1000 Swallows pass over the flats.

Just as the summer migrants are leaving or preparing to leave, some of the familiar winter avians are starting to return from northerly climes or their coastal breeding sites, such as this Common Gull:

Common gull (Larus canus)

Common gull (Larus canus)

Migrants come and go, but much of the wildlife remains on the patch…

Juvenile Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Juvenile Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Female Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Female Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

With the onset of Autumn, the local fungi has been blooming all over the place:

Parasol mushroom (Macro Lepiota procera)

Parasol mushroom (Macro Lepiota procera)

Unidentified fungus

Unidentified fungus

A different type of late bloomer is this naturalised Cyclamen found in Bushwood:

Ivy-leaved Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)

Ivy-leaved Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)

August and Early September has been great on the patch, but I am particularly looking forward to the return passage of the Ring Ouzels which I missed in the Spring.

Three scenes of Southern France

We returned from our last visit to France almost a month ago, but it has taken me this long to review some of the photos I took. I have recorded before some of our trips to the Aude region in the extreme south of the country here, here, and here.

I want to reflect back on, and share, three landscapes that are now very familiar to me, but may not be well known by others:

Scene One: The Medieval French Village
Lagrasse is a stunning village built around the famous Abbey which dates from the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th Century (and no, I haven’t forgotten a digit there) and can be seen rising above the trees in the background:
Lagrasse

Hirundines whip around the sky above the narrow and ancient streets such as these nesting House Martins:

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

And in the surrounding gardens a large number of birds can be found such as this Spotted Flycatcher:

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

[It’s digression time] Despite this not being a great photo, flycatchers are probably one of my favourite types of bird to photograph. Why?… (I hear you wearily but politely ask) Well, because birding and bird photograph is bloody difficult. Birds are generally small, shy (read as ‘far-away’) things that spend their time flying around quickly or hidden in bushes and trees. When walking around with a camera, a birder is often first aware of a nearby bird when it flies off startled by your presence (they invariably see or hear you before you see or hear them). A bird in flight is generally not a bird you are going to be able to photograph and it will not settle down for quite a distance. A flycatcher, however, is different. The birder is alerted to its presence by it flying, but then it settles on a perch. It takes off again – “damn! I missed it!” but never fear, because it is likely to settle back on the same perch it launched off from, as that is how it hunts.[here endith lengthy digression]

Scene Two: The Mediterranean Valley
I have mentioned before that my wife’s family have a home in a valley near Lagrasse. In case you want to consider staying there, have a look at their website, here. Here is a view from the top of the hill next to her home down into the steeper neighbouring valley:

Valley view

To give a sense of the topography of the area, I used the excellent website topographic-map.com which is powered by Google. Below you can see where my wife’s home is marked by a big red X and where I was standing and pointing to take the photograph above marked by an arrow. You can also see the precise elevation of the hill (I intend to use that website lots):

valley map

It was in this valley that I got my photo of a Bee Eater in France. Even though the photo is crap, you get a sense of the amazing colours of this bird – if anyone can think of a more exotic looking bird found in Europe, let me know:

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

I was also pleased to get my first definitive photo of an Eagle from my wife’s house – reassuring the residents after my previous dismissive comments that soaring raptors were buzzards. I hopefully made up for my previous cynicism by confirming that it was the wonderfully named Short-toed Snake Eagle:

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Scene Three: The Pyrenees
My wife’s home is only about an hour’s drive from the Pyrenees, and so my final scene is from the picturesque Gorges de la Frau. Lily can be seen walking up in front of me:

Pyrenees

With my new-found favourite map website, you can see where I took the photo (X, as always, marks the spot) and the altitude sign is on top of the mountain – Sarrat de Rouquieres – seen in the photo to the left – higher, we should observe, than any point in Britain:

Gorges de la Frau

It was craning my neck back to stare up at the mountain that I saw a corvid with what appeared to be blazing wing-tips. The photo is distant and poor of the wonderful Alpine Chough, but I cannot really explain the reason why the light at this angle makes its all-black wing-tips look like they are on fire. If there is magic anywhere in the world, surely it is with the wildlife that lives high in the mountains:

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)