Tag Archives: Trip report

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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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)

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!