Saturday 31 December 2011

Fuerteventura: Desert Specialities

OK, so the title gives the game away for anyone still puzzled by yesterday’s mystery photos. The ever-observant RB had it right: Suzanne and I spent Christmas in the Canary Islands. And the mystery bird? If you can’t work it out from the destination, I’ll return to that later in this post…

Over 12 days, we toured around quite a bit, starting with four days on Fuerteventura, then taking an internal flight over to Tenerife. In the middle of our stay here, we took the RO-RO ferry over to La Gomera and spent three days here over Christmas itself.

We’ll write up a full trip report with site details and a complete trip list ASAP, but in the mean time, the next few posts will concentrate on the best photos from the various islands.


Fuerteventura, as the image above suggests, is largely covered by stony desert and low rocky mountains; fresh water and therefore anything more than low-lying scrubby vegetation is at a premium. We spent most of our time either searching for desert speciality species, or checking the few areas of water where the range of birds was wider. The few coastal resorts are a bit grim, so although we stayed in a suite in one of these (Caleta de Fustes), we were out and about pretty much all day every day.

Although we spent a good few hours seeing not a lot, in the end we managed to clean up on all the ‘target species’ in one magic session on the plains near the Embalse de Los Molinos. First, as we drove in down the dusty approach track, a few Cream-coloured Coursers were running alongside:


I reckon these are just superb birds – always on the move, charismatic, and often pretty confiding for photos. They also look and sound great in flight, so when you’re stood in the middle of nowhere and pick up a few flying over it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Arriving at the end of the track, I was delighted to find a raptor perched out on the plain – a lucky encounter with a Barbary Falcon. It clearly showed rufous markings on the back of the head, and had a paler mantle tone than would be expected of Peregrine, though I gather hybrids are now thought to occur on the islands.

But I’d seen coursers and falcons before, in Morocco, and my number one target proved harder to find. We had already looked unsuccessfully at Costa Calma and la Oliva for Houbara Bustard, before I started scanning the rocky plain east of the reservoir, more in hope than expectation. These wandered into view…


My initial thought when I found the first bird was of some sort of weird domesticated turkey-type creature, before the brain kicked in and I realised that Houbara really are that small! Over the course of the next hour or so, we determined that there were at least two pairs of bustards wandering around in a fenced goat enclosure. Although they remained too distant for good photos, and disappeared all too easily in what appeared completely open habitat, scope views were excellent on a rather grey and cloudy day.

While standing around enjoying these, a couple of groups of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew past – bonus! Large flocks of Lesser Short-toed Lark also buzzed around, easily a hundred strong.


On the reservoir, waterbirds included close on 200 Coot, 120+ Ruddy Shelduck, 6 Teal, 2 Wigeon, Green and Common Sandpipers… and two rather less expected visitors from the USA: female Ring-necked Ducks.


These had been around for a while, so I couldn’t claim genuine surprise, but American vagrants are always good to see in Europe. Apparently a Lesser Scaup had been seen a few days previously, too, but we couldn’t find this.

On our way back out of the site, we paused to scan the hordes of sparrows by the goat farm in Las Parcelas, hoping for one more desert species. It took a little while, and we only saw two, but eventually Trumpeter Finches were found and photographed.


And finally, what of the mystery bird? Yesterday’s pic illustrated a female Canary Islands Chat. In fact, this one:


These are actually the most notable species on the entire trip, in a world listing context, since they’re only found on Fuerteventura, and the total population is apparently not very well known – less than 20,000 individuals, and possibly much less. (See info from BirdLife International, illustrating the variance between different survey results.)

We encountered these at a number of sites, including Embalse de Los Molinos, the Barranco de Gran Valle on the Jandia peninsula, Barranco de la Torre, the Fimapaire valley east of La Oliva, and finally Vega de Rio Palmas, where the most confiding birds posed for these photos. While the females are strikingly pale, almost grey and white, the males are very smart – rather like you imagine a cross between a Stonechat and a Whinchat would look.


Friday 30 December 2011

Back home – but from where?

After a late night arrival in the UK, eventual escape from the UK’s shambolic passport control system, and a mercifully painless drive home, Suzanne and I are back from a fantastic Christmas break. I’ve taken at least 600 photos, and Suzanne a similar number, so it might take a while to get them properly organised!

So in the meantime, here’s a couple of snaps straight out of the camera that illustrate the main reasons for our choice of destination: awesome scenery (this shot taken on Christmas Day!), and a few noteworthy birds to see.

Question is, for those who don’t know, where did we go (and what’s the bird)? Leave a comment if you can guess…



Sunday 11 December 2011

Stats for 2011

After a weekend primarily concerned with catching up on sleep, working through a Christmas party hangover, and drafting an economics essay, I’ve been feeling the need to engage in something vaguely bird-related this afternoon. So I’ve been updating my records, keeping track of the rarities and scarcities I’ve seen in 2011. Although the year’s not out yet, I reckon the chances of seeing much more are pretty slim, given our plans for Christmas, so I’ll get in ahead of the inevitable flurry of ‘review of the year’ posts…

2011 was another acceptable year for British lifers, with 11 new species finding their way onto my list, taking the total up to 426 (BOU). Things were surprisingly quiet through the spring, though White-throated Robin and Roller in the space of a week got things ticking along nicely. I was pleased to see two long-awaited ‘tart's ticks’ fall in midsummer, too (Cory’s and Western Bonelli’s). Unlike last year, Shetland didn’t hit the jackpot in September, but the Yankee double-act on Scilly were both stunning. The autumn has been remarkably protracted as well, and a couple of late bonuses got me into double figures:

Lesser White-fronted Goose 2-Jan-11 Buckenham
Rufous Turtle Dove 26-Feb-11 Chipping Norton
White-throated Robin 7-Jun-11 Hartlepool Headland
Roller 13-Jun-11 Hollesley Common
Western Bonelli's Warbler 4-Jul-11 Arnfield Reservoir
Cory's Shearwater 9-Jul-11 Porthgwarra
Black-and-white Warbler 17-Sep-11 Lower Moors
Sandhill Crane 4-Oct-11 Boyton Marshes
Northern Waterthrush 28-Oct-11 Lower Moors
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 19-Nov-11 Chew Valley Lake
Western Sandpiper 2-Dec-11 Cley

11 ticks is pretty much par for the course – just below my average for the last nine years. What that actually reveals, though, is that I must be twitching more seriously and travelling further for new birds these days, since you’d naturally expect to see less and less each year as the game gets harder. Not sure how long that trend will continue – having twitched Scilly twice this autumn, I’m not sure there’s much further to go!

But extending the data sample beyond just lifers, there’s a few more insights to be gained. First, it reveals a few notable ‘multiples’ in 2011: 18 Yellow-browed Warblers (Shetland clearly still good for something!), 17 Sabine’s Gulls and 13 Grey Phalaropes (both boosted strongly by an excellent Pendeen seawatch). Then there were 4 Cattle Egrets, and 3 each of White-winged Black Tern and Woodchat Shrike. And my first Western Bonelli’s Warbler was followed by a second just a few weeks later… how often does that seem to happen?!

So where have I seen all these birds? Along with day-to-day records in an old-fashioned notebook, I keep track of all rarities and a range of other ‘notables’ in an Excel spreadsheet. (The list of species recorded is influenced a bit by my east coast background, so things like Balearic Shear and Storm Petrel are on there, alongside scarcities like Lapland Bunting and Yellow-browed Warbler). This makes it very easy to summarise where I’ve seen the decent birds. This year, the number of records per county looks as follows. (Note that The charts indicate ‘species days’ – so loads of Poms somewhere on a single date only counts as one).


But I haven’t always birded from Shetland to Scilly each year – compare to the overall totals, since I started birding. (This includes only the counties where I’ve seen more than ten notable birds):


No prizes for guessing which county I grew up in! I’m quite surprised that there’s such a gap between Norfolk and Suffolk (since as a kid, it seemed that we were down at Minsmere every other weekend)… but the spreadsheet never lies. It does illustrate how much you can see with a few trips to Scilly or Shetland, though – relatively few days birding there in the autumn really racks up some quantity. Continuing on a similar theme, the next chart looks at the best sites through my historic records:


Check out Rainham! Better than Minsmere, Porthgwarra and Dungeness! Unsurprisingly this isn’t a particularly accurate stat – it’s simply boosted by multiple days with Caspian Gulls, Penduline Tits and Serins…

But Cley genuinely is head and shoulders ahead of everywhere else: the only significant multiple here is Temminck’s Stint (seen at least one here five times, including two triples). It’s clearly delivered plenty of real quality, as well, with no less than eight lifers over the years. Minsmere comes second with six, and Titchwell with five.

Finally, it’s interesting to break the records down month by month. The chart below shows lifers on one scale, and rarities and scarcities on the other. No surprises here – there’s a notable pick-up in spring, especially May, and a bigger one in autumn. (It’s also clear you should go on holiday in March!) In the autumn, you can see a slight difference in trend between lifers (which peak later, in October), and other ‘notebook padders’, peaking earlier in September.