Sunday 31 May 2015

Yorkshire Squirrels

Had another visit to Yearsley, this time with me Dad. One of the Pied Flycatchers was still singing vigorously near the lakes, but failed to see the others. Not much else apart from Garden Warblers, Bullfinches and a Nuthatch. Yellow Pimpernel was a nice plant spot next to the track.

Fired up the Bongo and headed for Wensleydale for a few days camping near Hawes. Ticked YWT Leyburn Old Glebe and YWT Yellands Meadow during the trip, and most chuffed with the Bongo who made it over Buttertubs Pass without a problem. Had a walk round Snaizedale on Friday and enjoyed seeing our first Yorkshire Red Squirrels. These hadn't really been in my consciousness before my return to York and so really pleased to catch up with them. They seem to be doing well here, in a few isolated woodland patches out of the harmful reach of the invading Greys. Great views of a displaying Wood Warbler too, flying round me singing and doing a sort of butterfly flight, plus Redstart, Cuckoo, drumming Snipe, a rather damp midday Tawny Owl on a fence post and a reeling Grasshopper Warbler on a grassy hillside.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Handsome Devils

Following some gen from Duncan Bye, finally managed to get Pied Flycatcher on my York area list. This species has become very scarce in recent years from a rather more occasional presence a couple of decades ago when the occasional pair bred in the north of the area and singing males were fairly regular. Today I was delighted to find three males around the lakes at Yearsley. Remarkably, a very vocal and dusky grey male was actually joined by a second, blacker male for a period. A little further away, another black male was singing away. Very handsome birds.

Also of note, a singing male Redstart near the Gilling entrance, a few Garden Warblers, a pair of Bullfinches and a couple of Nuthatches. No sign of any Wood Warblers in this traditional spot.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Finally meeting the Duke

Ten years ago, I was involved in a big project to secure Totternhoe Quarry near Dunstable, Beds, as a nature reserve. One of the top species we were hoping to save by getting hold of the quarry (for the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants) was the tiny little Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Ironically, having raised the money to save the site, I never did actually manage to see the Duke, despite several attempts. However, it was a good project and the Dukes are still doing well.

Today, Sol and me got the chance to hook up with Rich and Dan and try not just for Dukes, but Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, two butterflies I have never seen. Even Sol was excited! First things first, however, and we had change to spend at the Bishy Infants school summer fair, which didn't take Sol long. Then off we went for a rendezvous on a garage forecourt before heading off to the site for the Pearls. The weather was ideal, with a chilly westerly breeze blowing, creating sunny spells that just chivvied the temperature up to the magic 14 degrees, but never warming sufficiently to properly activate our little sunbathers. On site, Dan quickly picked up the first Pearls and we delighted in some great close views as they basked on the bracken, to soak up the spring sunshine. Corking! Some very nice Early Purple Orchids nearby too.

On to our second site, and a fleeting Green Hairstreak was the only butterfly noted before we finished our hike to the Duke of Burgundy site. The Dukes here are laying on Primrose leaves, unlike the Totternhoe gang which make use of Cowslips. Dan quickly spotted the first individual resting on a bramble leaf and after a bit, four or five were found in the same area, enlivened by the warm rays of the sun cutting through the brisk wind. I had heard Dukes were small, but they really were tiny and when flying kept low down. When the wings were folded they became very difficult to spot so I wasn't surprised I had struggled to find them previously. So, thanks to Rich and Dan, I had finally got to meet the Duke! The top three photos below are of a female (I think!) and the bottom two of a darker male (again, I think!).

Had a fine pint of Helmsley Brewery's Yorkshire Legend to celebrate, and enjoyed watching a pair of Spotted Flycatchers in the pub garden too. A top couple of hours for Sol and me with top company.

Sol leading Rich and Dan astray...

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Twitching the World's Rarest Cat

A visit to the Sierra Morena in southern Spain has become a bit of a pilgrimage for Wildlifers in recent years due to the more than reasonable chance of seeing Iberian Lynx, the world's rarest feline. Until recently, the Coto Donana was the best place to see this elusive and enigmatic cat, but sightings by the public were few and far between. And so focus turned to the Sierra Morena to the east of Cordoba, the last stronghold of the Iberian Lynx with a population of between 67 and 190 individuals in 2008. The cats rely virtually entirely on Rabbits for prey and they have been catastrophically affected by disease in recent years, and when combined with habitat loss and traffic collisions, the future has become dangerously precarious for the Iberian Lynx. With the world population being so tiny, conservation efforts have been really stepped up and a number of reintroduction projects are taking place. We told everybody we could why we were visiting in a hope this would inspire local pride in this beautiful species and encourage more protection measures.

At the last minute, Philip Precey and myself had decided to give this trip a try and then were joined by Andy Gibson. We stayed in Los Pinos Hotel near Andujar, a regular haunt for Lynx botherers like us. The staff were great, food reasonable and available very late, which was helpful as we would be staying out late, and the location perfect. We flew into Malaga and the drive took c3 hours on good roads.

Much has been written about finding Lynx in the hills here and we followed the guidance we had found on the internet. Our preferred stake out was along the potholed track to La Lancha which took c40 minutes from Los Pinos. It was only c20 km but the first part was very windy through the hills and the last 5km was very slow due to the immense number of car-killing potholes. We parked up just before some large white concrete blocks by the side of the road and grilled the shallow valley below. Over the next three days, we were out before dawn and looked for Lynx until about 10.30 when it got pretty hot and then went off elsewhere, breaking for lunch about 1pm and then back out at 4pm to watch until dark, before slowly driving back. The Lynx are seen regularly along the road but we had no luck.

The biggest tip I can offer is to listen to the Magpies and Red-legged Partridges. Whenever Lynx were present, even if you can't see them, they go mad, constantly alarm calling and collecting in the nearest bush or tree. If the Lynx moves, they follow it and are a great guide. If all is quiet, chill out and enjoy the birding, or scan the more distant slopes for Lynx and other mammals.

Friday 8 May
It is always arriving somewhere in the dark and then seeing what the daylight brings. As we loaded into our tiny car, a Nightingale sang, unseen in the gloom. We headed off up the hill road peering into the gloom hoping for a cat to prowl across the road in front of us. As dawn broke, Golden Orioles sang from the Holm Oaks, along with more familiar Blackbirds and Chaffinches. Red Deer looked up from the glades and Little Owls glared from overhead wires. On to the rough track, we paused to watch Crested Larks, Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies and Corn Buntings. The habitat was lovely, flower-stuffed verges, stone post fence lines, and boulder-strewn open woodlands. The land became more hilly, the road more rough and after being jiggled thoroughly, we arrived at our stake out, a little after daybreak. A couple of Spaniards were already on watch, along with a Belgian lad. They had not seen anything. Then began our wait.

We scanned and scanned for hours. The road clung to the edge of a moderate to steep slope, which was strewn with boulders and patches of scrub, Rosemary thickets and the occasional stand of Oaks. Iberian Green Woodpeckers yaffled away, punctuating the rattles of Dartford and Sardinian Warblers. Red-legged Partridges chuntered away from the tops of boulders and Serins tinkled past. Small groups of Magpies chatted as they went about their morning rounds and a little further away the collosal shape of an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle glided along a ridge and landed clumsily in a tree that seemed far too small to bear it's regal weight.


I chatted to Mike, the Belgian. He had arrived four days ago and had been shown the back of a camera by a Dutchman who had just had wonderful views of a Lynx. Sadly, this was the only view Mike had had and he had spent the last three and a half days in a fruitless vigil. I asked if he had seen Mouflon, another of our target mammals and he had drawn a blank there too. Still he had until lunchtime to get lucky.

The minutes turned to hours and still no Lynx. As the temperature warmed up, a stream of Griffon Vultures glided northwest along the ridge, while in the valley, the birds began to quieten down and reduce their activity, so we decided it wasn't going to happen this morning. We wished Mike well with his continuing Spanish trip - he said he might return before heading back to Belgium. I hope he has more luck next time. I began to feel that this might not be as easy as we had hoped. I know several friends who have made this trip and been successful. However, Mike's news reduced our optimism. We decided to have a break and head down to the end of the road where we had a chance of Spanish Ibex.

Large Tortoiseshell

The road ended at a dam on the River Jandula, forming a large reservoir. No sign of any Ibex but we managed to spot some Daubenton's Bats huddled in holes in the roof of a nearby tunnel plus some fabulous large Greater Mouse-eared Bats, plus a cluster of smaller bats, which may have been Schreiber's. Crag Martins were nesting in the mouth of the tunnel too, seemingly unconcerned by us.

Greater Mouse-eared Bat. Surely one of the most handsome bats!

Food and siesta called. We were knackered having had about five hours sleep!

Friday evening.
Suitably refreshed, we had a look down the other road, which revealed some nice views of Bee-eaters splash-bathing in the river, but we didn't fancy our chances with Lynx there, so decided to head back to the original site.

Woodlarks sang over some of the larger clearings and a few Hawfinches ticked in the oaks. A Rock Sparrow was a nice surprise, sitting on a nearby fence post.

Arriving on site, we noted Mike had departed, replaced by a pleasant French couple in a campervan and the same two Spaniards. After a little while, the Magpies started making a racket. This immediately intensified our efforts, I handed out the radios in order to keep in touch and we spread out along the road edge to scan for cats. The atmosphere was electric. The Magpies were going mad, seriously cross at something. They relentlessly shouted into the bushes, diving in to the base of the rock pile and then shooting out again. Suddenly, I saw a glimpse of sandy fur, disappearing down the slope - Lynx? I radioed Andy and said that I thought I had got one, but then, a large Red Deer walked out from the bushes. Oops! I radioed out an apology. The tension continued. And then Andy radioed that he had got one. There was no doubt in his voice, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted back down the road. Andy had said a Lynx had just stood up in the grass and then walked off behind some bushes. Panic! Where was it? The Magpies knew, they were still going crazy down in the valley bottom, about 30 metres away. I was anxious - what if it had dropped into the thick line of scrub in the gulley? We might never seen it. Mike had said the Dutch guy had watched the Magpies follow the Lynx all the way along this gulley without getting a single glimpse before the cat had suddenly appeared on a rock right in front of him. It could therefore slip away just as easily. But no! Andy suddenly announced he had it again, and this time, we all got on it. A Boxer-dog size, dark brown cat was pacing casually across a glade, black and white tufted ears erect. Iberian Lynx! Get in! The cat headed across the glade and then into cover. But seconds later, it was out again, still walking away from us. It vanished again. The French couple still hadn't seen it. Then it appeared again, a little further away, but this time side on. Through the scope you could see the black spotted brown coat, the little stumpy black tail and the long sideburns, so characteristic of this rare feline. Wow! I grabbed the Frenchman, who still hadn't got on it, and literally shoved his eye to my scope so he could see it before it disappeared. He was elated. The Lynx moved across some grass and into a thick belt of scrub and trees and evaporated. The Magpies gave up. Even they couldn't track it in there. I have never seen such big grins on friends and strangers. High fives all round. Our quest had been successful and so quickly too, though only hours earlier, I thought we may well fail.

No photos sadly as this was a moment to savour, rather than fiddle about with my camera. So I have pinched one off Google in case you don't know what they look like. This is how it looked just before it slipped away. If this is your photo, thank you.

The bearded one.

And our third magic mammal was to come. As we bounced back through the potholes in the dark, Philip shouted Mouflon! And there, on a rocky outcrop were two Mouflon, a ewe and a young ram. Awesome! Philip was stoked as he really wanted to see this species. Andy and me were quite impressed too. What a day!

Out before dawn, in the half-light we came across a staggering flock of 21 Mouflon next to the road - wow! After the pothole experience, we arrived at the valley to be greeted by the French couple who excitedly told us in thick French accents 'We 'ave just seen the Lynx, going from 'ere to there - five minutes ago!' The cat was clearly still there as our friendly assistants, the Magpies were going crackers down below. We again spread out and within minutes we all came running as this time Philip announced 'It is on a rock'. A few moments later, it was on the move. I couldn't get on it at first in the scrub, but after a few moments, it ran up a grassy slope and we all managed a view, if only brief. Andy was sure this was a smaller individual than the one we had seen last night, but I couldn't tell. We scanned hard for the next few hours, but sadly, it had melted away unseen. A few Honey Buzzards headed north overhead. We checked out the local butterflies: Blue Spot and False Ilex Hairstreaks, Spanish Gatekeeper, Cleopatra, European Swallowtail, Green-striped White etc, plus an amazing Ribbon-winged Lacewing, the like of which I had never seen before. But no Lynx.

Today was getting scorching, so we turned in for lunch at the super cafe across the road from Los Pinos, adding Iberian Long-tailed Tit to the list on the way back.

Saturday Evening
A kettle of vultures dropping in to a corpse contained c50 Griffons and at least four Blacks.

So far, so good, but it seemed out luck had run out. No more noisy Magpies and no more cats. All was quiet, until dusk when in the valley below us a couple of Red-necked Nightjars gave a rousing chorus of Kutock-Kutock-Kutock and then flew around in a stunning performance, with wing-clapping, chasing etc, all viewed from above (once I had moved out from behind the tree that was completely obscuring my view...).

Sunday morning
A Wild Boar on the way up the road was the first one I had ever seen, and surprisingly, our only sighting of the trip.

Again, all was quiet in the valley. The Lynx had clearly gone elsewhere and the relaxed atmosphere of the local Magpies, Partridges and Rabbits was palpable.

A small number of Honey Buzzards were heading north, some of which came through low enough to be photographed.

Honey Buzzard, plus two of the local common birds, Southern Grey Shrike and Golden Oriole.

So there ended our trip. We headed back to Malaga, noting White Storks, Short-toed Eagles and Montague's Harrier en route. A lovely way to spend a weekend, a top laugh and a successful quest for the rarest cat in the World. Let's hope there is a brighter future for the Iberian Lynx.

Florida Family Birding #3

A dawn visit from Casey Key to Oscar Shaerer State Park was my first crack at the legendary Florida Scrub Jay and one of my 'must see' birds of the trip. I turned up before the gate was open and a little walk in along the drive revealed Blue-headed Vireos singing away, rather smart little dudes. A pair of Wood Ducks flew over and then it hit 8am and I was allowed in. I headed off round one of the trails and after seeing a few Blue Jays mobbing a Sharp-shinned Hawk, I picked up a distant Scrub Jay perched on a dead pine - great! This was a great start and I headed on round to seek better views. The heath was relatively quiet apart from the loud calls of Northern Bobwhites which drove me a bit mad, though I eventually chanced upon a couple of these small quail. A Red-headed Woodpecker was a cracking first, but surprisingly, I didn't come across any more Scrub Jays. A distant Bald Eagle nest with attendant Eagle was a nice surprise. Back to the car and on to another trail where frustratingly I still didn't find any Scrub Jays. I met two American birders who told me I was in the right spot but they hadn't seen any either despite attempting to tape lure them. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers displaying by the car was a fine consolation but I would have to try elsewhere.

Back at Casey Key for breakfast with the kids and unbelievably a dark shape in the crystal clear shallows turned out to be a Manatee! It swam right past us about five metres out and we followed it all along the beach. Bumped into a tern roost on the beach, which included 13 Black Skimmers, c50 Royal Terns, an American Herring Gull and three Cabot's Terns.

Sad to leave the idyllic Casey Key, we headed north to Tampa and then east to Orlando. The kids had been brilliant and really enjoyed the wildlifey stuff, so it was their turn for some fun. Before the Disney-fuelled chaos began we had a little trip down to East Lake Tohopakagee which delivered in fine style, with crazy views of Sandhill Cranes walking about on people's lawns on the shore of the lake, while up to eight stonking Snail Kites quartered the cattails on the edge of the lake, diving in for Apple Snails. I couldn't bring myself to take a photo of a Crane in somebody's garden, so went for a more natural looking effort, even if they were a bit further away! A Limpkin called but failed to show itself, while a few Tree Swallows went through. Soon it was time to hit the hay as we would be mouse-bothering come the morning.

Bizarrely, on the way into Magic Kingdom the next morning, I saw a Swallow-tailed Kite over the road - ace!

After surviving three days of Disney fun it was time to get back into character. We drove east to Merritt Island, giving Sol the chance to see some rockets and me the chance to do a bit of wildlife-ing.

We did the Black Point Trail which gave the kids some great views of some common stuff, like Tricoloured, Green and Great Blue Herons and me the chance to add Roseate Spoonbill, a stonking Sora, and a few more Mottled Ducks. Best of all however, was just down the road where we spotted a sign for a Manatee Watchpoint and this gave us stonking views of several Manatees loafing about in the shadows and occasionally cuddling each other!

Merritt wildlife - from top:  Eastern Kingbird, Fritillary sp, Green Heron, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark.

Some Manatee shots:

Off-island we went and south down the coast to Sebastian, noting a flock of Cedar Waxwings on route. From the restaurant that night, we saw more Bottlenose Dolphins, Least and Forster's Terns. Smart.

And so dawned our last day. Up early, I headed down to Sebastian River State Park for my last chance of Florida Scrub Jays. Dumping the car in the little reserve car park, I headed off into the heath. Eastern Towhees sang from the scrub along with Carolina Wrens, and then suddenly a squawk revealed a Scrub Jay flying across the heath in the distance. Surely this wouldn't be a repeat of the other day! I carried on along the sandy track and then another squawk and a Scrub Jay landed in a pine tree just a few metres away - brilliant! For the next half an hour up to four Scrub Jays (in two separate pairs) followed me as I walked along, seemingly looking for food in the disturbed earth I left with my footsteps. This gave me brilliant views. The birds were all colour-ringed and are presumably part of a research project. This species is well known for a cooperative breeding system in which offspring stay around and help their parents with subsequent broods. I had learned about these birds in my degree, so to get good views of this scarce Florida endemic was a thrill and a fitting end to a fantastic holiday. But the fat lady hadn't sung, and heading back to the hotel to join the kids for one last swim in the pool and over the road flew my bird of the trip, a Swallow-tailed Kite. Brilliant!