Saturday, 25 April 2015

It's That Time of Year!

The sun is still shining today, and spring has very much arrived on the islands. And with this, signs of breeding are popping up all over the place. Everything is at different stages at the moment, so here is a run-down of what's what on the islands at the moment! Starting at the top, the cliff nesting species.

Shags are often the first species we see laying eggs here, and this year has been no exception. The first eggs were discovered on the 2nd of April, and more and more are appearing every day. Shags are particularly nest-proud, and will pinch anything to make their nests more impressive. Last year we lost gloves, rope and a broom to a shags nests!

Shag chicks imminent! 

Elsewhere on the cliffs, we have had our first Guillemot eggs of the year and it certainly won't be long until we find our first Kittiwake and Razorbill ones too. Guillemot's are the densest nesting species of bird on the planet, and as such they can often be seen having scraps with others as they pass through the colony to get to their own small patch. They are also wonderfully affectionate, not only to their partner but also their close neighbours, and allopreening can regularly be seen mainly serving to keep the number of ticks in the colony at bay. It won't be long now until the cliffs of the Farnes are permanently crammed with some 25,000 of them on eggs.

That is one handsome bird! Razorbill

The closer you get, the better they look!

Equally as lovely; Guillemot.

Elsewhere on the islands, Fulmars are now almost consistently on their nest sites, and Puffins are on the islands daily in their thousands, cleaning out their burrows ready for another season. Fulmars are the bird I most enjoy watching in the air, their effortless soaring along the cliffs never ceases to amaze me. On land they are far less graceful though. It's strange to think that the chicks we saw these birds rear last year won't return to land for at least another 5 years, if not longer! As for the Puffins, they certainly win the prize as the most popular bird for visitors to the islands and I can understand why; they are endearing. However, I can also tell you from first hand experience that they can be vicious when they want to be! Looks can be deceiving....

Master of the air (not here though). Fulmar

Wonderful, just blooming wonderful. Puffins

In amongst the rapidly growing vegetation of the islands Eiders are now coming up and starting to settle. We have at least 12 nests on the Inner Farne at present, with this female sitting on a "jumbo clutch" of no less than 8 eggs! Eiders are a delight to monitor; in order to count their eggs we simply lift them gently up off the nest, have a quick count and pop them down again, and generally they don't seem to mind! As for the males, having fulfilled their duties, they are now starting to gather in groups just off the islands ready for a summer of bobbing around on the sea.

Can you spot her?

Close up of the female Eider sitting on 8 eggs!

Less camouflage, more outrageously attractive   

Elsewhere and making lots of noise, the Sandwich Terns are well and truly back in force, with a roost count last night of some 750 birds. In amongst them and always slightly later to return are a handful of Arctic Terns. The peace of the islands is soon to be shattered.... In the mean time, the Rock Pipits parachuting and Pied Wagtails singing can still be just about heard over the Terns, as they undertake their courtship rituals. And last but not least, our Mallards. We generally get plenty of nests but not many chicks survive unfortunately. This particularly savvy female has utilised our gas cage as the ultimate defence for her nest!

Male Pied Wagtail. This individual has been busy collecting nest material over the last few days

Nothing will get to this female Mallard in there.

And that completes the round up for this entry. The coming week involves more upheaval as myself and 4 others move ourselves to Brownsman for the breading season, and before we know it there will be chicks everywhere. I for one can't wait!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

It's Been a While

A busy start to the new season on the Farnes has meant little time for blogging, but now we are settled in and well into the swing of things. It's been a funny old start, with a mixture of very late arrivals and very early ones. The season started with a bang, as our first day on the islands produced a Stonechat. After a severe winter in 2010, this species suffered a population crash; something they are known to be susceptible to. This resulted in a once annual bird becoming a scarcity, our record in March being the first since October 2013. All we can hope is that this is a sign of a population recovery for these lovely little birds.

Stonechat on Inner Farne

The following day we were treated to great views of a Red-necked Grebe, another bird that is often tricky to come by on the Farnes. It spent a good 15 minutes in the Kettle around the jetty before drifting south. After this, things rather slowed down. We had to wait until the 10th April, a full 12 days later than last year, for our first Wheatear of the year. This was swiftly followed by our first Chiffchaff (21 days later than last year), Willow Warbler, Swallow, Blackcap and Brambling as the islands were graced with some wonderful weather. An unexpected arrival during this spell was a single Little Tern seen to go to roost on Knoxes Reef. This represents the earliest ever record for the Farnes, beating the previous one by a full 8 days!

During the quiet spell, our attention was held by this pair of Mediterranean Gulls which were displaying and settling on Central Meadow in the Black-headed Gull colony. This would represent a first breeding record for the islands should they decide to stick around.

Courting Mediterranean Gulls. Possibly a Farnes first.

Inner Farne lighthouse in glorious sun

Wheatear on the beach!

This about covers the migrant side of goings on on the islands, apart from a bit of excitement on the gull front. A 1st winter Glaucous Gull was discovered off the North Rocks of Inner Farne on the 15th. This was a good record after a blank year last year, and things got even better when the following evening a 3cy bird was discovered in the roost on Knoxes Reef. Then to our amazement, the 2cy bird returned on the 17th and showed beautifully on Ladies Path from the living room window. Marvellous stuff!

Guillemot... "What a lovely Gull!" Glaucous Gull.... "What a lovely pair of Guillemot!"

That wraps up the latest migrant news from the islands as I sit in the living room window with glorious sun beaming through. On a final note, we were treated to spectacular aurora display on Thursday night, and I snapped this photo of the Pele tower nicely backlit.

Aurora on the Farnes

Next up (in a few days hopefully), the breeders!!

Cuthbert's Gut is filling up.....

Sunday, 22 March 2015

La Palma - March 2015

This is a little late, but earlier in the month we were lucky enough to spend a week exploring the stunning island of La Palma, the most North Westerly of the Canary Islands. It's a wonderful mixture of temperate cloud (laurel) forest, dry scrubby slopes and volcanic rock. It is a paradise for walkers and during our week exploring we encountered few people.
We stayed near San Pedro, however wherever you choose to stay you will be sure to encounter Canary; we had 2 males singing in the garden and flocks of 20-30 birds were not uncommon.

Singing Canary

Also on the garden list were Blackcap, Blackbird, African Blue Tit subspecies palmensis;  and overhead Kestrel, the insularum subspecies of Common Buzzard and Chough were seen. All these species were also common around the island.

African Blue Tit, Cyanistes teneriffae palmensis

We spent two days walking in the Laurel forest looking for the two target Pigeon species, Bolle's and Laurel Pigeon. We spent our first day at Cuba de la Galga, a thoroughly beautiful valley and well worth a visit. On our way up the valley we heard both species but the dense canopy makes catching a decent view rather tricky. We had some half decent views of Bolle's Pigeon but had to wait for flight views of a single Laurel Pigeon until we reached Somada Alta. The view from there is also particularly impressive. Our second day was spent at Los Tilos, where we heard and saw Bolle's but not Laurel Pigeon. Here the walk was just as beautiful, and along the way we encountered some incredibly tame La Palma Chaffinch.

Best we could manage.... but that tail is a give-away. Bolle's Pigeon

Cracker. La Palma Chaffinch

Our next day was spent exploring the south of the island, where the recent (1971) volcanic eruption has left the landscape looking rather different to the rest of the island. I'd read that this was a good area for Berthelot's Pipit, and we weren't disappointed. We encountered our first pair around the visitor centre for Las Salinas at Punta de Fuencaliente. There were also 3 Turnstone present on the saline lagoons and a few distant Cory's Shearwater passing offshore. We then moved up to Volcan de San Antonio where we had at least another 4 Berthelot's Pipit along with Chough and Canary.

Berthelot's Pipit at Volcan de San Antonio

Our last day exploring was spent with a trip up to the Observatorio Astrofisico, an impressive array of 14 telescopes across the highest points of the island, around 2400 metres above sea level. Here we again saw good numbers of Chough, but the highlight was finding a splendid male Spectacled Warbler in the scrub around the MAGIC telescope. On the road up, we were also treated to a magical experience with a pair of very tame Ravens at the parking place for the Pico de la Nieve. They had clearly learnt that stopping cars often meant food. It was a real privilege being so close to such an impressive bird.

What a bill! Raven

Raven and I

Smart male Spectacled Warbler

Our final evening was spent around the El Pilar refuge. On the way we stopped for coffee on the seafront at Puerto Naos, where in 45 minutes we recorded well over 100 Cory's Shearwater passing and a pod of Short-fined Pilot Whale! We then walked from El Pilar and headed up onto the rim of the volcano where we were treated to more Chough, some brilliant views of Western Canary Island Goldcrest and a screaming flock of over 60 Plain Swift. On top of all this, we were able to witness a stunning sunset and make the most of a brief spell of dark sky before the full moon rose.

Western Canary Island Goldcrest


Venus rising over the Atlantic

Friday, 20 February 2015

Birding All Around

It's been a strange few weeks, applying for jobs and not knowing quite what the future holds. It is all resolved now, and we are back to The Farnes for another season. Along the way, we have managed some top quality birds.
A while back now, we took our annual pilgrimage to Dungeness to catch up with the winter wonders that inhabit the wilderness of the peninsula. All the usual suspects were present, with Great Egret, Smew, Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier and Tree Sparrow showing off nicely. Undoubtedly the highlight was sitting in the Scott Hide and watching a Kingfisher and sublime Male Smew fishing within metres of us. It was great to be able to catch up with the two Cattle Egret that have been resident all winter and the local Tundra Bean Geese at Scotney and Lesser Yellowlegs at Rye Harbour.

It's always a treat to observe these birds properly! Splendid Kingfisher

The most handsome duck of all? Smew

Cattle Egret, without cattle this time.

Having been able to also catch the Greater Yellowlegs at Titchfield a few weeks before, I believe I am now in real contention for the two worst record shots of Yellowlegs in the country this year. A prestigious title that I have long wanted to add to my collection.... Luckily the scope views of these smart American waders were much much better than the photographs suggest.

Greater Yellowlegs....

And Lesser Yellowlegs... Honest Guv
And now to fast forward a tad, and a trip to Northumberland for the Farnes interview via Devon to visit friends. What a beautiful part of the world, and we had a wonderful guided tour of the coastline, adding some more top quality birds along the way. Our first stop was Darts Farm RSPB, where you could be forgiven for thinking that the three Penduline Tit there were escapees and not bothered by human presence. Certainly the most enjoyable life tick I have had in a long while. These smart little birds are becoming increasingly regular, and they are certainly a contender for the next species to establish themselves as British breeders.

Cracking little Penduline Tit
Another target species for us both was Cirl Bunting, a bird I had never seen before due in part to the fact I had never visited that part of the Devon coastline before. This is a species that represents both the tragedy of our relentless drive to destroy as much of our countryside as possible for profit (mainly animal products), and also what can happen if conservationists and local landowners take action. Watching two males happily singing away was a strange experience, appreciating the beauty of these now rare (in British terms) Buntings and also wondering which species will be next to suffer in this way. When will people listen.....

Cirl Bunting, unaware of its own plight?
Along the way, we were also treated to spectacular views of this rugged coastline. This photo was taken in very windy conditions from Prawle Point, the most southerly point of Devon. Despite the wind, a cracking male Stonechat was clinging on to a piece of Gorse. We also stopped by the very obliging Snow Bunting that has been present for some time now on the sea wall at Turf in the Exe Estuary.

Delightful. Snow Bunting

Not a bad place to live!

And last but not least, two winter stunners that are much easier to catch up with on the East Coast than down in Sussex where I reside at this time of year. As we were in Newcastle, it would have been very rude not to make the most of seeing both Waxwing and Shore Lark, two birds that attract me for their beauty more than anything else (as I'm sure is the case for most people). Both were showy, the Waxwing at The Lea's in South Shields and the Shore Lark on Hartlepool Headland. The Shore Lark was in a particularly grotty area; obviously the food was good and the constant stream of dog walkers and the view were not enough to put if off!

Yet another gorgeous bird! Waxwing

And another... Shore Lark
So after a whirlwind few weeks its off to explore La Palma and its endemic subspecies for us next week! And then its back to the mayhem of the Farnes for another season. Could be worse.....

Friday, 23 January 2015

Argentina: Part 6 - Iguazu National Park

It's the final instalment... Having survived our slightly nerve-racking journey North, we arrived in Iguazu National Park. It was beautiful (and almost certainly still is!), don't get me wrong, but we were a bit unlucky with the weather. It didn't rain, it wasn't windy, it was far far too hot, both for us and seemingly the birds. We did spend a very enjoyable 3 days exploring both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides of the falls, but it was hard work.

We crossed into the Brazilian side the first day, which when coming from Argentina was rather expensive. We took a trek into the rainforest accompanied by a guide, and we didn't see a single bird as we walked. What we did see though, were butterflies; heaps and heaps of stunning butterflies. Giant Blue Morpho, easily mistaken for small birds were loafing along the trails. We found Many-banded Daggerwing resting in sunny patches along with The Malachite and on almost every bush as we approached the Iguazu river there were resting Diaethria (88) species.

Pyrrhogyra neaerea, common name possibly Banded Banner!

"88" butterfly, Diaethria eluina

Many-banded Daggerwing, Marpesia chiron
Broad-banded Swallowtail, Papilio astyalus

Along with Butterflies, we also found this impressive beast.... whatever it is.

We were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a troop of Black Capuchin Monkeys as we made our way along the trails. Apparently they are named after an order of Catholic Friars from the 16th century. Upon reaching the Americas and discovering Capuchin Monkeys, the explorers are said to have thought they bore a remarkable resemblance to said Friars! Having never met a Capuchin Friar, I am in no position to comment! This particularly obliging individual sat in a tree right above us and enjoyed some foliage! There were numerous signs around warning that they have a nasty bite, and you can see from this photo how they get that reputation. However, what we couldn't understand was how you would ever get into a situation where one would need to bite you! But there you go....

Black Capuchin

Aside from all the fantastic wildlife, the main attraction for most in this part of the world are the Iguazu Falls. I feel like I lack the eloquence to describe just how breathtaking these falls are; all I can say is that you must visit. I have been to Niagara, and I hate to say it but they just don't compare to these. There can be anything up to 300 separate waterfalls along the 2.7km edge depending on the water level, some up to 80 metres in height and all contributing to an overwhelming assault on the senses. Add to that hundreds of Black and Turkey Vulture soaring above the cascades and Great Dusky Swifts darting in and out from underneath them, and you have one hell of an experience.    

The Garganta del Diablo, complete with soaring vulture

Panoramic from the Brazilian side of the falls

The following day we stuck to the Argentinian side. Both sides are well worth a visit, and I would suggest the Brazilian side first to get a feel for the falls as a whole, then the Argentinian side for a slightly less busy and more involved experience. We arrived early both days to miss the rush and to try and beat the heat, although there really wasn't any beating it at all, as we easily managed to spend a full day on each side. We managed our best views of the Dusky Swift this side, and it was quite remarkable to see them clinging to the side of the rock as the water tumbled down beside them.

Achingly picturesque. Can you spot the Swift?

A true marvel of the natural world - Great Dusky Swift

We also took a couple of trips on the river, marketed as ecological tours. They were very pleasant, but perhaps due to the heat there wasn't much wildlife around. We did, however, get cracking views of Greater Ani, with its honking bill and unusual reproductive behaviour (not that we observed that). Unable to recognise their own eggs or nestling's, chicks are raised communally.

Greater Ani

Aside from the vast array of butterflies also on offer on the Argentinian side, the two wildlife highlights came in the form of Coatis and a very special dragonfly! The Coatis were common on both sides, and also very tame. Related to the Racoon, they spend a lot of their time in large groups, foraging in the undergrowth using their wonderfully designed snouts to locate food. As they do this, they make a wonderful array of squeaks and grunts, especially the young. According to the signs, they also have a nasty bite! And as for the Dragonfly, well before I saw this I would have probably laughed if you'd told me that there is a PINK Dragonfly out there. Needless to say we were both amazed by this beautiful little insect, and it posed wonderfully for us as well!

Splendid. Carmine Skimmer, Orthemis discolor
Coati mother and baby - look at those teeth!

If you insist. One more of the stunning Iguazu Falls

In order to ease our woes at having missed out on some splendid tropical bird species, we decided to visit the Jardin de los Picaflores (Hummingbird Garden) located in the middle of Puerto Iguazu. We'd read good things, but were not expecting what we found. Upon performing the customary clap to alert the home-owner, we were let into the little garden. It was like a mecca for Hummingbirds, we were blown away. We sat on a little bench and for half an hour (before it shut for lunch) sat and watched no less than six species of Hummingbird including Swallow-tailed and Planalto Hermit, Bananaquit, Sayaca Tanager, Epaulet Oriole, Blue Dacnis and many others.

Violaceous Euphonia

Planalto Hermit

Female Black-throated Mango
Glittering-bellied Emerald

It was one of the highlights of the entire trip for both of us, and a perfect way to end our first South American journey. Until next time.....