Tag Archives: shorebirds

From dawn til dusk: in Spain

This Sunday I spent all day birding. From dawn until dusk. In Spain.

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Juvenile Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

The architect of this short and intense day of birding was my patch colleague, Jonathan, who has written up a great trip report on our day (and night) out. So, I don’t wish to duplicate what already exists on t’internet, nor can I duplicate the quality of his photos.

So, instead, I will do what I do best on this blog: ramble on a bit about my experiences in the wild: or rather, the impressions the wild leave on me and pepper these thoughts with lists and poor photos of the birds I see. Sounds gripping, huh?!

Spain is an important country for me. I spent a formative early-adult year of my life there and fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, and even the language. I know some people think Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, or French, but nothing beats Spanish for me.

¡Ay sol! ¡Ay luna, luna!
Un minuto después.
Sesenta flores grises
enredaban sus pies. – 
Federico Garcia Lorca

The day began in the hills near Alicante. Just up from a rural town called Xixona.

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As we drove along a narrow lane, Rock Sparrow flocks bounced through the olive trees in front of us with Serin, and Goldfinch in accompaniment.

Bushes clicked at us with Sardinian Warbler whilst Cirl Bunting threw their colourful heads back and sang to us in the bright light of a November morning.

But it was further down the hillsides where we found the first of our avian targets. Down in the rougher, drier land in the shadow of industrial factories and warehouses.

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Abandoned building near Xixona

Way above us there were dots circling the peaks slowly like flies drunk on fermented fruit. Flys with bald heads and close-to three metre wingspans that is.

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Four, possibly five, Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). No, really!

I could zoom in more, crop, and present a more feasible record shot in all its pixelated glory, but the picture above captures the moment better for me.

We stood on one side of a small gorge and looked across to the other. Below us a small farmstead house (finca) obscured unidentifiable, parachuting larks (Thekla Lark or Crested Lark we wondered?). The finca’s inhabitant, an elderly Spanish farmer came up to see what two men with telescopes and cameras were doing above his land. But there was no hostility. He walked up the steep slopes, stood behind us for a while and must have wondered what kind of strangeness had been visited on him as we took turns to peer through a scope and celebrate distant views of Black Wheatear. The old farmer wished us a good journey as we left him alone on the rocks.

The gorge was surveyed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a small dole of Rock Dove nestled in holes in the vertical slice of sedimentary rock; geological time made physical.

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Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Jono and I swapped dust and sand for water and reed at the famous wetland site of El Hondo:

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El Hondo

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It was from here that Jono found a Bluethroat on the shore

We were lucky enough to watch a single Marbled Duck, a life first for both of us, paddle silently amongst the Pochard, Mallard, Coot, and Shoveler.

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Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

Outside of the threatened marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, these are very scarcely and patchily found ducks. Whilst that was Jono’s only life tick of the day, I had three other lifers including a monster. Not a monster find or tick, just a monster…

There was an amusing moment as we first approached a pool when I smiled into my binoculars and told Jono I’d just seen a life tick. “What? A Moorhen?” came the reply. But eventually the giant came into view for Mr L as well; a bird superficially similar to Coot, but twice the size and stunningly coloured, looking like it had just swallowed three Moorhen whole.

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Western (formerly ‘Purple’) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)

The artist formerly known as Purple Swamphen strutted about the reserve with its bright red, raspberry beret (sorry! I couldn’t resist that). Its relative size emphasised when a flock of ibis collected around it. We saw many more that day of both Swamphen and Glossy Ibis.

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Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

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We were also treated to brief appearances from Bluethroat and the onomatopoeic Zitting Cisticola. This was all whilst eagles crossed over our heads repeatedly. I had really hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle, and perhaps the level of hope almost allowed myself to ‘string’ some of the early views of Booted Eagle into my intended quarry. Whilst not a lifer, the pale morph of these diminutive eagles showed well and we saw several throughout the day.

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Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)

The vast El Hondo reserve was great but still largely remains a mystery to us both as its largest lake was hidden behind a biblically large wall of reeds that would have taken hours (almost literally) for us to walk around and peer behind its curtain. Time was against us and so we moved on to an even larger wetland system of salines called Santa Pola.

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Torre en Santa Pola

We watched a number of waders ranging in size from Dunlin, Sanderling, and Kentish Plover, through Turnstone, RedshankGreenshank, Avocet, and Black-winged Stilt up to Greater Flamingo.

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Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

We stopped at several sites around the salt ponds and I saw another lifer; a large flock or two of Slender-billed Gull dotted with Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull.

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Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) and Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

We stayed until the sun, which had blazed through clear blue all day, eventually bathed us in soft and cool golden light.

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The chevrons point towards Mr L and the sun

It was close to dusk when I ticked off my fourth lifer of the day: a pair of Whiskered Tern that circled and skimmed a small roadside pool.

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Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Finally it would feel rude of me not to mention one more bird. Throughout the day, the species that seemed to keep us company the most – irrespective of habitat, was Black Redstart.

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Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Jonathan travels a lot. I mean A LOT. He signs off his excellent trip reports with a photo of a stuffed panther called Snuffy. So I decided to do something in the spirit of an Attenborough documentary style ‘diary’ (US readers won’t know what this means as I believe the ten minute short ‘making-of’ films at the end of wildlife documentaries don’t make it across the pond as they are the result of packaged-up ad break times).

Here is a secret peak* into the making of the famous ‘Snuffy shots’:

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Jono and Snuffy with the end result courtesy of Wanstead Birder

*At a couple of points, passing cars would sound their horns at us. I wondered why, but then I was taking a photo of a man taking a photo of a stuffed panther. Nothing to see here! Move along now people!

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Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.

Birding the Yucatan: Part IV (take me to my beach)

The Yucatan peninsula is famous for its beaches.

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View from treetop hotel bar to Celestun beach

But actually, something I noticed about the Yucatan coast is that it was often less definitive than we are used to in the UK, for example. By that I partly mean that, while there are some lovely beaches, there are few cliffs. Land doesn’t just drop away into the sea, it is like the two elements struggle together or co-exist in some uneasy equilibrium of lagoons and mangrove swamps.

This sometimes means that, rather like the All Saints song lyrics, the actual point of transition was unclear, even unobtainable: “Out of reach, take me to my beach”. But I did my best to explore this rich mezcla of ecosystems.

Mangrove

I felt like a colonial explorer. Sitting in the front of a two-person kayak, but not paddling. My guide was doing the work while I held my camera poised as we moved slowly through dense mangrove swamp waters.

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The shallow waters are home to caiman, but they are rarely seen during the day. Caiman share the fish with a number of avian piscators as well, including this gem:

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Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aena stictoptera)

Where the Mangrove ends and the open water of the lagoon (Ria Celestun in this case) begins, bigger predators can be found:

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Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax hoactli)

If there was one bird family I felt I covered pretty well during the two week trip, it would be the Ardeidae, the herons. Apart from the Black-crowned Night Heron* above (a life tick for me, completing a bit of a set alongside the Yellow-crowned Night Heron I saw in the Galapagos and Boat-billed Heron I saw in Costa Rica), I also found: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricoloured Heron*, Reddish Egret*, and Green Heron. Seven species, three of them life ticks*… not bad!

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Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)

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Tricoloured Heron (Egretta tricolor)

I spent time in mature mangroves, but also saw areas of young secondary growth where conservationists are replanting them.

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Mangrove restoration

For a couple of days I explored the mangroves entirely alone. By alone, I really mean alone. Salt cracking beneath my feet and leaving tracks in the snow-like floor (albeit in 40 degree heat) with no other human for literally miles around. But I never feel alone, and certainly not lonely, when I am surrounded by wildlife. Aside from some of the common species (already referred to here), these walks through partially restored mangroves had a great cast list…

Mangrove Warbler with its red head distinguishing it from the very closely related American Yellow Warbler (both were seen). At Progreso, I watched a Palm Warbler scuttle along the floor finding insects, presumably refuelling before its flight back to Canada.

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Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia)

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Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

Bushes often had the very noisy Red-winged Blackbird on top of them in territorial display-mode. Equally, the extraordinary Groove-billed Ani often seemed to watch my progress from a safe distance looking like some dark-cowled creature from an early Sinbad movie. Much maligned because of their appearance, I find the ani family fascinating given their communal brood-rearing habits as much as for their aesthetics.

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Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

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Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris)

Mangroves attract specialists and generalists alike. I was often surrounded by Barn Swallow, but also by Mangrove Swallow. I was delighted to see Vermillion Flycatcher again, after a gap of over a decade (and despite the fact the only picture I could get was almost directly into the sun), but even more delighted to see my first Mangrove Vireo – a species endemic to Central America with the sub-species endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula (poor quality record shot only unfortunately).

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Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus)

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Mangrove Vireo (Vireo pallens salvini)

Lagoon

As I described when I opened this post, with an expression of the indeterminate nature of the Yucatan coast, one finds the perimeter of the Yucatan streaked with lagunas. Often difficult to reach or explore, but tantalising and somehow engulfing. The shallows are worked hard by industrious waders/shorebirds that would largely all be common to North American birders but were often new and exciting to me (with the exception of the circumpolar Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstone).

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Unnamed lagoon near Progreso

On a couple of trips out from Merida, I clocked up: Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s PloverWestern Sandpiper (I think – correct me if I am wrong), the wonderfully large Willet, Greater Yellow-legs, Lesser Yellow-legs, and Black-necked Stilt.

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Wilson’s Plover (Chararius wilsonia)

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Willet (Tringa semipalata)

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

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Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) – I think??

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Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavapes)

The main forty-mile long lagoon at Progreso is a good destination to see American Flamingo:

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Laguna Rosada near Progreso

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American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)

Interestingly, I didn’t see any Flamingo at Celestun – which is famous for them, but I did see plenty of White Ibis.

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American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

As our kayaks slipped out of the dense mangroves, the Lagoon opened up like a giant river (presumably why it is called Ria Celestun).

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Ria Celestun

The expanse of water  did not seem as promising for birds (I frowned as I could hear unidentified parakeets calling from deep in the mangroves), but as we paddled effortlessly South (effortlessly for me anyway, as I still wasn’t even attempting to paddle – I gave my guide a good tip so don’t judge me too harshly), we occasionally drifted past something interesting. We floated close past Double-crested Cormorants resting on exposed stumps and mooring posts, seemingly unfazed by our presence other than the odd glance, their emotionless emerald eyes betraying nothing. Birds incredibly similar to this would have witnessed the impact 66 million years before that wiped out their dinosaur cousins.

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Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritas)

We also paddled past a raft of Lesser Scaup:

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Female Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis)

Closer inland, I also got a distant shot of Blue-winged Teal:

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Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors)

As we came ashore (although in the mezcla habitat of lagoon/mangrove swamp, I am not sure one is truly ashore), there was a lot of splashing and someone knocked something brown into the water. The brown ‘thing’ scuttled across the surface of water almost like a giant water-boatman (it was at least 12cm in diameter) until I gave it my ‘dry’ paddle to climb onto and put safely (unsure whether it needed ‘saving’) back on the jetty:

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Unidentified spider

In one of the mini sub-lagoons, I was taken back in time several months to an Essex twitch of Wilson’s Phalarope. This time I saw one more, much closer, but still too far to get a good picture, in its more typical environment.

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Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) and an unidentified sandpiper

The salty sand of dried Lagoons also serve as breeding grounds for terns. On one walk (I won’t disclose where) I quickly skirted around – at a respectable distance – some Least Tern I found on the ground as others helped warn me away by circling noisily over my head:

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Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)

Talking of terns, I also got good views of Royal Tern and had a flyover from the huge Caspian Tern on Progreso beach.

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Royal Tern (Sterna maxima)

Beach

It is on the beach-proper that I found Laughing Gull in large numbers, a single Ring-billed Gull, regular fly-overs from Brown Pelican and American White Pelican.

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Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atrcilla)

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Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

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Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis)

Wherever we were on the coast, we nearly always walked in the flickered sunlight with the shards of shade cast by the pirates of the sky:

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Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

Perhaps you will indulge me in one final journey as part of this epic trip report. I would like to take you next time to an (almost) untouched island.