Tuesday, 11 December 2012

More from Madagascar...

So I'm back in the what seems to be harsh winter climate of Southern England; a world away from the humid forests of North-Western Madagascar. Reflecting on my trip there are simply too many magical things to write about on here, so I have selected a few to share all of which have a similar theme; of being small!

So the first, up until 2007 was the smallest frog in the world, until someone else discovered a smaller one in Papua New Guinea. Even so, Stumpffia pygmaea is a terrestrial frog only 11mm in length, weighing less than 0.2g and a joy to behold. Although fairly common where we were working, it is listed as vulnerable as it is only found on two islands off the coast of Madagascar; Nosy Be where we were and Nosy Komba. This tiny frog lives in the leaf-litter of secondary and primary forests and similar to other tropical frogs, it builds foam nests to protect their eggs. They are rather difficult to photograph, so I have included a picture of one in the hand to give an idea of just how small they are.

Stumpffia pygmaea

Stumpffia pygmaea

The next tiny creature on my list is Brookesia Stumpffi, or the Plated Leaf Chameleon. They can grow to up to 9cm long and live for up to 3 years. Much like the Stumpffia pygmaea, it inhabits the leaf litter of primary and secondary forest during the day, and much like other chameleons it will spend the night perched on branches away from the ground. Brookesia Stumpffi is listed of least concern by the IUCN as it has a fairly large distribution across North-Western Madagascar and has also shown fairly high adaptability to different habitats. Non-the-less, habitat destruction in Madagascar is still rampant, and its safe status may not remain that way for much longer. Unfortunately, it is also much favoured in the pet trade.

Brookesia Stumpffi

And to end what else but a bird, and one that I was most keen to see while I was in Madagascar, the Pygmy Kingfisher. This stunning little bird is slightly smaller than your average House Sparrow, around 13cm long. They are widespread across Madagascar, and inhabit what rainforest is left in Madagascar. They feed on insects, spiders, frogs and tadpoles and as such don't necessarily associate with water.Their population is believed to be declining but as yet their population has not been properly quantified. However, like all species in Madagascar, their habitat is still rapidly disappearing, so unless more is done to stop the ongoing destruction, 150,00 species endemic to this magical island could be lost.

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, Ceyx madagascariensis

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Some highlights from Madagascar (so far)

So here is my first post from Madagascar, and what a wonderful time I'm having. The wildlife is incredible, and the abundance is also staggering. This post contains just a tiny sample of the photos I've taken so far, and mainly of birds. The Madagascar Nightjars show well near camp (Nosy Be) and are relatively easy to spot. They are also incredibly confiding, landing on the ground and branches 15ft away. The Hoopoes were similar, and while visiting Ankarafantsika National Park they were resident in the camp site, as were the Bee-eaters and Sickle-billed Vangas. Perhaps the highlight of the trip so far however, were the pair of Madagascar Fish Eagles that visited the camp briefly (in Ankarafantsika). There are thought to be around only 120 pairs of these magnificent birds left in  Madagascar, so to see a pair was simple magical.
I felt like I should also include some other wildlife, and these Coquerels' Sifakas were also present on the campsite; a truly beautiful lemur. This Panther Chameleon was present on camp at Nosy Be for over a week.

Madagascar Nightjar, Caprimulgus madagascariensis

Madagascar Hoopoe, Upupa epops marginata

Madagascar Bee-eater, Merops superciliosus

Madagascar Fish Eagle, Haliaeetus vociferoides

Sickle-billed Vanga, Falculea palliata

Coquerel's Sifaka, Propithecus coquereli
Panther Chameleon, Furcifer pardalis

Friday, 28 September 2012

Dowitcher in Dorset

So for my last birding trip in the UK for a few months, it was decided that we would hit Dorset for the day, primarily for the Short-Billed Dowitcher at Lodmoor but also as it always makes a lovely day out. Upon arriving at Lodmoor in bright sunshine, the Dowitcher was showing on cue only 100 yards away, where it fed on the edge of the long grass for around 5 minutes before disappearing into the reeds. It was supported by a cast that included a single Bar-Headed Goose, Sparrowhawk, Common Sandpiper, singing Cetti's Warblers and small numbers of ducks.

Short-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus

We spent the rest of the day between Stanpit marsh and Ferrybridge; there were good numbers of waders including Black-tailed Godwit, Knot and a single Curlew Sandpiper! There was also plenty of vis mig, with Wheatears, Swallows, Meadow Pipits and Linnets all moving in good numbers.

A final ringing session before my trip this morning proved fruitful, and again migration was obvious. We easily hit double figures of Chiffchaff and Blackcap despite a shower interupting proceedings. However, there were two birds that easily stood out amongst the rest, and are real contenders for birds of the year at the Mumbles! One, a lovely juvenile Spotted Flycatcher, my first in the hand, and the other.... This stunning female Firecrest! So a very nice send off for me, and now I'm frantically packing for Madagascar!

Firecrest, Regulus ignicapilla

Firecrest, Regulus ignicapilla

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Fair Isle Finale

Well this will be my last post from Fair Isle (actually being done retrospectively at home). What an amazing experience, although it does seem that I left a few days too early; needless to say I was more than gutted when I saw what had turned up on Sunday. That is not to say that I didn't see some amazing birds, it just means I'll have to go back! So here are the last few pictures I took there, including my first Marsh Warbler, Skylark, Whinchat (in the hand) and a rather rare and tiny eastern Grasshopper Warbler; its' wing length was 3mm below the range of that of our resident Grasshopper Warblers.

Marsh Warbler, Acrocephalus palustris

Skylark, Alauda arvensis

Whinchat, Saxicola rubetra

Common Grasshopper Warbler, Locustella naevia

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Why is There a River in the Garden?

With some fairly heavy spells of rain over the last few days, a river was probably more likely than the bird that was trapped in the nets a few mornings ago! Having had almost constant westerly winds for the past week, we weren't expecting much in from the continent, so you can imagine the excitement when a visitor came running into the ringing room this morning, trying to explain through his excitement that there was an unstriped Locustella in the nets, and that he was certain that it was a River Warbler. That is indeed, what it turned out to be!
This little bird breeds in Eastern and Central Europe then migrates down to East Africa, so how it had managed to battle through the winds and end up here is a mystery. What makes it more special is that it is Fair Isles' second record of the year.

River Warbler, Locustella fluviatilis

River Warbler, Locustella fluviatilis. Picture by Will Miles

River Warbler, Locustella fluviatilis and me (not sure what the face is all about). Picture by Will Miles.
 I also managed to finally catch the Mealy Redpoll that has been hanging around the obs for the last few days. This was a first for me in the hand, and it was a lovely fluffy individual, looking like it has come from somewhere rather more cold that Fair Isle!!

Mealy Redpoll, Carduelis flammea rostrata

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Finally, a Piece of the Action!

So the strong westerlies that have been sweeping the country over the last few days has brought in all manner of American waders to UK shores, and we were beginning to wonder if we were going to get in on the action at all. Luckily, yesterday we did as A Buff-Breasted Sandpiper turned up on the South of the island. The bird remained and we easily twitched, giving superb views, sometimes at very close range. The Buff-Breasted Sandpiper breeds up in the tundra of North America and winters in South America, making it a very long distance migrant. It is one of the commonest American waders to visit our shores, but none-the-less it is still a lovely little bird. This lover of short grasslands was first found on the island "golf course."

Buff-Breasted Sandpiper, Tryngites subruficollis. With juvenile Ringed Plover, Charadrius hiaticula

On the same day, we were also joined by c1000 Pink-Footed Geese seeking shelter from the fog. These noisy migrants could be heard all over the north of the island for the day, before most of them left last night. It was quite something being up on the hills during census and having a flock of 800 passing at virtually eye-level. This photo is of one of the smaller flocks, containing roughly 130 birds.

Pink-Footed Goose flock, Anser brachyrhynchus

I woken up again this morning by Will, this time offering me a Sparrowhawk as a ringing tick. Needless to say that I was very cautious when first given it, but it was amazing to have such an impressive predator in the hand!

Sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus

My quest for the ever growing population of Lapland Buntings on the island continues, having bottomed out no less than four times when trying to see one!

More Musings From Fair Isle

South Lighthouse, Fair Isle

A nice picture of the South Lighthouse to start this post off. A few birds have started arriving in the last few days with Grasshopper Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Red Breasted Merganser and Knot all being added to the list (this is being written retrospectively, there are some exciting birds here at the moment!). In the mean time, our attention has turned to fungi and this rather scarce plant! This is Oysterplant, Mertensia maritima. It gets its name due to the fact its leaves taste like oyster, but having never tried oyster I can't comment. It is rather pretty though, and Shetland is an important site for this declining beach-loving species. Its seed can be spread via the sea so it can colonise new beaches readily, however grazing and disturbance often means these new colonies are unsuccessful.

Oysterplant, Mertensia maritima

Our second Arctic Warbler of the season (possibly third) is still showing well in one of the crop strips, so I was able to grab some nice shots of it.

Arctic Warbler, Phylloscopus borealis

Arctic Warbler, Phylloscopus borealis

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Another Update From Fair Isle

So, in Fair Isle terms, the last few days have been rather quiet in terms of new arrivals. This does not include the arrival of a new Arctic Warbler which was trapped and ringed and two Common Rosefinch which I was lucky enough to get my hands on!

Arctic Warbler, Phylloscopus borealis

Common Rosefinch, Carpodacus erythrinus

In the mean time we have kept ourselves busy trapping waders in various ways, resulting in Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Sandling. There are still 5 very elusive Knot that keep evading us! Also, by way of wading into the sea at 11.30 at night, we managed to catch this juvenile Common Gull, the photo of which is courtesy of Sammy Fraser.

Sanderling, Chalidris alba

Common Gull, Larus canus

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Suprise Wake-Up Call!

With things still fairly quiet on the island and the weather not looking like it was going to help change that, a few lie-ins were in order after a stint of Storm Petrel ringing. However, yesterday it was rudely interrupted by a knock at the door.... Will, one of the AWs said that he had a new ringing tick for me, so half asleep I made my way to the ringing room. As I walked through the door I passed an Icterine Warbler going the other way, and my though was "that's the prize bird, I'm guessing I'll have a nice scarcity!
However, I was handed a large warbleresk bird and happened to glance down to where the bible (collins bird guide) lay open on a page that contained Nightingale. What I didn't register is the bird underneath it.... a Thrush Nightingale. I glanced at the bird in my hand and my exact words were.. "bloody hell!" This is a rare bird in Britain, and I was being given the chance to ring it! The Sprosser, in German, is the Northern and Eastern European equivalent of our own Nightingale. Needless to say I was rather chuffed.
Thrush Nightingale, Luscinia luscinia

Thrush Nightingale, Luscinia luscinia
After that wonderful start to the day, another two Icterine Warblers were found. At one point in the afternoon, the obs garden (no bigger than 30 square metres) contained Thrush Nightingale, Icterine Warbler, Barred Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler and Siskin, not to mention the resident Twite on the feeders next to it!

Today has also been fairly quiet, with a strong northerly wind blowing up making it a little chilly outside. However, a single Citrine Wagtail has been reported, and this simply stunning juvenile male Crossbill was trapped at lunchtime.

Common Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Break From Birds?

Well not exactly. There is never a break from birds here. However, things have quietened down over the last few days, with excitement being provided by a Shoveler on the wader pools outside the obs and the largest flock of Shelduck seen on Fair Isle for 40 years...... 6! There have been lots of cetacean sightings over the last few days, and I was lucky enough to catch sight of 5 White-Sided Dolphins yesterday and a pod of at least 10 White-Beaked Dolphins this morning, on what I can safely say is one of the flattest seas I have ever seen, simply stunning! A trek over the heath on the north of the island to survey Bonxie chicks gave me an opportunity to get some pictures of the island itself! This first picture is of the obs looking across the Havens (where we ring the Storm Petrels) from North Buness, where the Puffins and Arctic Terns normally nest in the summer.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory

This next photo is taken from Swey, in the heart of the North and looking over Homisdale! This is a Bonxie stronghold and it can get interesting if you venture too near them. Although they do come at you at some pace, they very rarely make contact!

Looking East

Fair Isle Air Strip

This final photo is me getting a bit arty with some heather! Not bad for a photo taken on a phone!

Arty heather

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

An Arctic Rarity!

So this is a rather special post, but before we get to the real excitement, I took this nice photo of a Raven making a racket on top of North Light yesterday, just after I found my first BBRC rarity!!

Common Raven, Corvus corax

An Arctic Warbler! Keep an out next October, I'll be getting my name published in the annual report (hopefully!). This stunning little bird was flitting around Kirn O'skroo on the north of the island! I knew it was either an Arctic or Greenish Warbler, but on return a few hours later with a small army of experienced birders it was confirmed as the Arctic Warbler, Fair Isles' 80th record and only the second bird in the UK this year! This bird breeds right up in the northernmost forests of Scandanavia (Fennoscandia) and Russia and winters in SE Asia; meaning it has one of the longest migration routes of any Old World insectivorous birds.

Arctic Warbler, Phylloscopus borealis

Some of the assembled birders. Joe, Me, Jason and Becky.

I also got another treat yesterday morning when Jason caught a Common Rosefinch in one of the heligoland traps. This was the first time I'd seen one of these nice little birds anywhere near close and was a nice start to the morning, on a day which also produced a Little Gull at South Light and a nice flock of 20 Whimbrel that flew past us while we were on the cliffs.

Common Rosefinch, Carpodacus erythrinus

Common Rosefinch, Carpodacus erythrinus

Friday, 17 August 2012

A dark and stormy night.....

Well it was dark, but not stormy in the conventional sense! Last night, at around 11:30pm, in pitch black, we headed down to the coast for a night of Storm Petrel ringing.... I can't tell you how excited I was! The nets were set up before it was dark and our makeshift ringing station (generator room) organised. So the nets were unfurled and the tape turned on to attract any passing birds. Within seconds we had four birds in the net. And this was a sign of things to come. In just under four hours we rang 120 Storm Petrels! It was quite incredible.
What is more incredible is the life of these little birds. Not much bigger than a sparrow, these birds are pelagic, spending over half their lives at sea of the coast of South Africa, a life by the way which can be 40-50 years long! They only come onto land to breed and this is a precarious business for a Storm Petrel as they are less than useless on hard ground, hence why they only leave their nest sights at night; burrows or deep crevices in rocks out of the reach of predators such as skuas. As can be seen in particular in the bottom photo, Storm Petrels have beaks very similar to those of the Fulmar, allowing them to be able to extract the salt from sea water.

European Storm Petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus

European Storm Petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus

Fair Isle 2! The migrants just keep coming....

So here is my second update from Fair Isle, and what a few days it has been. My species list continues to grow, with the arrival of Common and Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Reed Warbler, Redstart, Winchat, Spotted Flycatcher, Little Stint and Common Sandpiper. There have also been some rather special arrivals as well. The first were in the form of two Citrine Wagtails, which we were able to locate fairly easily in murky conditions after they were spotted on the morning census! The next special arrival came in the form of a Wryneck, with at least two present yesterday, one being in the observatory garden! Unfortunately, I could only get fairly poor record shots through the glass so as not to scare it away from the small crowd that had gathered (and its sideways)!!

Wryneck Jynx torquilla  
Another bird that has arrived and been seen in small numbers in the last few days is the Barred Warbler. This larger warbler breeds in eastern Europe and central Asia, and migrates to Arabia and east Africa, so the individuals that end up on Fair Isle are somewhat lost! There are only about 150 of these birds that pass through the UK each year, so to see one is rare, but to catch and ring two is quite remarkable!

Barred Warbler, Sylvia nisoria

Barred Warbler, Sylvia nisoria

Other birds of note that were trapped and rung in the last few days include a smart (for autumn) male Redstart and juvenile Ringed Plover!

Common Redstart, Phoenicurus phoenicurus

Ringed Plover, Charadrius hiaticula