Saturday, April 30, 2011

A wet day on the way to General Kandardjievo

It's been a miserably wet and cool April in my part of Bulgaria. That's not just the view of a man who is used to Libyan heat. Statistics show it is the coldest for a decade.

Nevertheless, I went on one of my favourite walks on Wednesday afternoon. The road between my village of Klimentovo and the next one of General Kandardjievo is straight, quiet and tree lined. There are ploughed, planted and unploughed fields either side of the road and a pleasant wood just before Kandardjievo. Its also on a plateau at 350 metres. The habitats usually generates a variety of birds.


When I do this walk its usually to my friends' house in Kandardjievo and with any luck I get a lift back. This was the case on Wednesday.






part of the road to Kandardjievo

In the summer you are guaranteed to see golden oriole flitting around. This year there are no leaves yet and very little cover for such a shy bird!  


The rain died down a bit on Wednesday afternoon though it was still spitting during my walk.


The corn bunting weren't put off and were everywhere.  Starling and jay were in the trees on the edge of my village. Many birds were probably skulking because of the wet. However in the fields either side of the road there were very large numbers of active skylark.

a wet looking skylark

The field below may look deserted but every minute or so a skylark or two would soar into the air, singing their hearts out presumably to attract females.

\
local damp field

On two occasions I was watching one species and by the time I took out my camera another species was accidentally around which got snapped instead.!  I was following two blue tit with my binoculars. As I took out the camera they flew off but on the same tree was a pied flycatcher.


pied flycatcher

This was very lucky since this is a passage bird. The closely related semi-collared flycatcher is a summer breeder in this area but pied flycatcher only breed in countries further north. 

another view of pied flycatcher

I got three shots of the bird and can see its collar is too short for a semi-collared flycatcher and it had two white dots above the bill not one.


chiffchaff

This chiffchaff was the second accidental bird to be photographed. This time I was following a northern wheatear sitting on a stone near a bush. By the time my camera was out, it had flown over the bush but I snapped the other bird on the bush out of instinct without even seeing what it was before hand. I am quite pleased because warblers are more difficult to photograph than wheatears.


whinchat en route

My final shot is of a whinchat. It wouldn't look me in the face however its a good picture to show you how spotted-looking their lower back can be. The supercillium differentiates it from a stonechat anyway but even without seeing that characteristic its "spottiness" is a dead give away.

Three other notable birds also seen en route but poorly photographed were hoopoe, common buzzard, magpie and cuckoo.

Next time I review this walk I challenge myself to bring you back photos of golden oriole.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

A walk in my local valley

Once again I am birding regularly. I was knocked out of my stride when I left Benghazi. There was much to do to re-organise my life. I'm comfortable that's under control so birding is finally taking its renewed priority.


It's not a moment too soon. I am not as fit as I was. Birding on foot for 8 hours a day  - one or two days a week is a surprisingly relaxing way to keep fit. I used to do it. I need it now.


Yesterday, I walked, just for a couple of hours, in the valley near my village. The valley eventually makes its way down to the Black Sea. I can see the sea from my balcony. However yesterday I combed the upper valley.


Last summer I recall the most obvious bird sounds and sights in the valley were the bee-eaters. They haven't arrived yet but it can't be long now. I saw my first golden oriole near here two days ago and orioles don't arrive much before bee-eaters.  

 male yellow wagtail (feldegg)

In the middle of the valley is a meandering stream. It was along the stream that I spotted the yellow wagtail above. I am pretty sure it is a local breeding bird because the feldegg sub species doesn't venture much further north than here. This is the end of its migratory journey. He seemed keen to drink. I'm guessing he hasn't been back long.

the valley with the Black Sea in the background

Without the bee-eaters, the most obvious birding presence were corn bunting. Plenty were singing individually on on tree tops but there was also a mobile flock.


corn bunting

The corn bunting above was not really typical. He was slightly yellow tinged and the throat pattern was not very pronounced. The yellow bill ruled out yellow hammer so I am stuck with the conclusion it was just an atypical corn bunting.

male northern wheatear

The northern wheatear above was also a little bit atypical. No sign of any buff on the chest. Although there are four types of wheatear in my area- pied, black-eared, isabelline and northern, only northern wheatear comes close to look of this bird.

goldfinch

Plenty of goldfinch were present. Some of them were flocking with linnet. Some of the linnet had paired off. I had seen mixed flocks of goldfinch and linnet a lot in Libya and was pleased to see it again here.

male linnet

In the more sheltered parts of the valley are many trees. Two of the more common birds here appear to be great tit and long-tailed tit.

male great tit

I have seen great tit in other wooded areas around the village (and in mid winter too) but this was my first sighting of long-tailed tit here.

long tailed tit

Another bird in the wooded area was whitethroat.  I have'nt seen this bird much in my birding career. In Libya I have seen many spectacled warbler. My first reaction was that a whitethroat is just a slightly larger version of a spectacled warbler. Like all warblers the two I saw wouldn't keep still and evaded my camera -this time! 

A group of whinchat also escaped my camera. I can't tell for sure whether they were on passage or some of the local breeders. However, my instinct tells me they were on passage are they were still a loose flock and there has been poor weather in south eastern Europe this season. The poor weather has persuaded many birds to take it slowly on their migration north.


crested lark

Finally there is one bird I seem to see almost everywhere I bird within the western palearctic (I saw it in Senegal too). I would have thought this valley was too green and lush for a crested lark but I would be wrong.  There is at least one. Looks a lot greyer than the type we got in Libya but its definitely here.  


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring at home

Armed with my new replacement camera, required because of my mugging in Windhoek, Namibia, I went for a short birding walk in my village today.


It's my first birding near my adopted home in a Bulgarian village north of Varna since Christmas (see blogs) and much has changed.


For a start its now spring, albeit a very late one. The weather this year has been very cool and bird movements have been delayed.


Three or four days ago I heard a cuckoo for the first time this year. Today when I went on an early morning birding walk it was one of the first birds I saw barely 40 metres from my house.


local cuckoo, 40 metres from my home

Other signs of spring were plentiful. I glimpsed a nightingale and heard it continually in a near-by wood.

near-by wood graced by a nightingale

Nightingales are very common here in summer. Somethings haven't changed since Christmas. The wood still contained jay , blackbird, great tit and blue tit. 


local corn bunting

Another summer breeder which has come back and was present in numbers was corn bunting. I saw several on top of individual trees singing their hearts out.

locol ortolan bunting

I think I got more pleasure seeing an ortolan bunting than the cuckoo. This was the first time since I left Azerbaijan three years ago. It is supposed to migrate through Libya but I never saw it there.

In the same field there was a sylvia warbler, probably a garden warbler, though I didn't see it for long enough and I have very little experience with them.

local starling

There are definitely more starling around in winter. This time most birds are paired off and in breeding plumage.

local tree sparrow

Tree sparrow are numerous but house sparrow numbers are very large indeed. Most of the village houses have nooks and crannies which make excellent nesting sites.

house sparrow on my house

The house sparrow above was on my roof in the company of many house sparrows around the house.

tree pipit on passage

Although I didn't see any of the wintering birds still around, I did see a tree pipit which is on passage. It's possible the ortolan bunting was on passage too but it is a known local bird. I'll keep a eye on it.  

Good to be back blogging with pictures!  


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Visit to south western Africa

Having been evacuated from Libya, I treated myself to a birding holiday in Botswana and Namibia at the end of March and the beginning of April.


My streak of bad luck continued as I was mugged in Windhoek and relieved of my camera two days before the end of my holiday. This was not good news for my birding records, this blog or the Namibian tourist board!


I had intended to produce six blogs or so, complete with wonderful pictures of habitat and birds. Now I am condensing all I saw into one blog for the record. Shame!


Armed with a new camera, the next blogs will be on Bulgarian birds in my neighbourhood. There will be plenty of pictures I promise you.




Birding philosophy
Despite my misfortune I really enjoyed my trip and I saw over 60 "lifers" (marked * in the table below). I could have added many more species to my list if I had employed a different strategy but my approach is usually to stay in one area for days rather than gad around chasing numbers. My philosophy is to treat an area as if it was my local patch. My belief is that I am more likely to remember the new birds I see by birding this way. By-the-by its also a cheaper way of birding!


Travel and accommodation tips
Nevertheless you can't go to south west Africa for a cheap birding holiday. The travel costs from Europe are going to be of the order of 1500 euro whatever happens. 


My birding was in the Okavango delta near Maun, Botswana, near Windhoek, Namibia and on the road to Swakopmund, Namibia.


I flew to Maun via Frankfurt and Windhoek while most people fly via Johannesburg. My experience of Jo'burg airport in the past has been very bad. Its the only airport in the world where I have lost my baggage. This was along with all passengers (going to Dar e salam) in a baggage handlers scam. I avoid the place at all costs!


Birding in Botswana like all tourism in the country is for the rich or at least that's what the government want. They don't want mass tourism and they make it difficult for middle income people (like me) to bird there. I understand the desire to maintain the environment by limiting tourist numbers. However it is possible for people like me to go there if you are clever!  Accommodation within the national parks in side the buffalo fence is incredibly expensive. People typically pay 300 euro a night for a lodge and 40 euro a night for a tent pitch. It's because the government charges a fortune for a concession and the hotels have to pass the charge on.


My trick was to stay in a place which was just outside the national park area but which was still in the Okavango. I stayed at Backpacker's, Old Bridge, Maun. The accommodation is the same quality as the national park lodges but it costs less than ONE TENTH of the price! The habitat is very similar to the national park area too and I believe the birding is just as good.



hippo pool from Backpackers, Maun

Furthermore, many local people use the hotel bar so it has a real community feel rather than a tourist place like the lodges.  The web address is http://www.maun-backpackers.com/  

a typical tent at Backpackers' Maun


My accommodation in Namibia was not so brilliant but was adequate - mostly at the Protea hotel in Winghoek.


Birding in the Okavango
I birded a small patch from the old bridge over the Boro river. I intensively visited the river valley up to 3 kilometres south and 3 kilomtres north on foot and up to 20 kilometres north by boat (up to the buffalo fence). I have no regrets about this.


You didn't need  to leave the grounds of the hostel itself to see plenty of birds. The hippo pool was full of pied kingfisher and african jacana. There were three types of dove in the yard - cape turtle dove, african mourning dove and laughing dove.The most common bird there was arguably burchell's starling. The most interesting was probably a pair of swamp boubou regularly up in the trees near the bar. There was a very relaxed family of arrow marked babbler resident in the hotel gardens too.


Very near-by you could here and see a variety of herons and their relatives- grey heron, purple heron ,black crowned night heron, african openbill, hamerkop and cattle egret.


The small birds included different types of waxbill and finch as well as their nest parasites. Examples included blue waxbill (southern cordonbeau) a cousin of the red cheeked cordonbleu I saw in Senegal.


It made me feel at home to see several western palearctic migrants - European bee-eater,  spotted flycatcher, red backed shrike and a lone wood sandpiper which frequented everyday a pool very close to the hostel.


Two birds particularly interested me for totally different reasons. The first one was african fish eagle which gave me a prolonged show from the top of the tallest tree in the area.The second was a pair of rosy faced love bird.


After showing the pictures at the hostel to guides and locals there was a big debate. They knew it is not a local bird. Its range is charted to come no closer than the Namibian border 200 kilometres away. One hotel worker had seen 3 the week before for the first time in his life. Others had never seen them near Maun. Rosy faced love bird is a popular cage bird and my observation will suffer the same fate as that of all attractive birds found outside of their known range. It will go down as an "escape". However I would love to know if anyone else has seen them between Maun and the Namibian border. Its ironic really because I didn't see any in Namibia.


Birding in Windhoek
In Namibia I spent much of my time in a rural area which intrudes very close to the centre of Windhoek. It was here I was eventually mugged. Apparently the spot it happened is a favourite vantage point for people to photograph the city and muggings of cameras are not uncommon - particularly on Sunday mornings when the city (except for the townships) is largely deserted. 


I liked this location alot before the incident. It is dense savanna on hillsides. There were new species every time I visited.  There were plenty of waxbills and finches including violet eared waxbill. There were also very large numbers of white browed sparrow weaver. See the table below. 


It was a very good place to see sunbirds. More accurately one particular flower (don't know the name) was like a magnet for them. I identified three species - amethyst sunbird, scarlet chested sunbird and marico sunbird. Possibly my biggest regret on losing my camera was losing their pictures along with those of a mystery sunbird. This one was dark and which gave occasional flashes of orange. I dint get a chance to take it back to compare with the book but it looked very like an orange tufted sunbird. The only problem with this ID is that Windhoek is 300 kilometres south of its charted range. However in all honesty nothing else comes close to matching what I saw. 


Prize for the most striking bird went to crimson breasted shrike (gonolek)


Road to Swakopmund
I had one day out to Swakopmund.  This involved driving west out of Windhoek to the coast. The habitat becomes drier and drier. The terrain slowly changes from Savanna through Sahel to desert (Kalahari). However it has rained exceptionally hard in Namibia this year - perhaps a record - so a great deal of the desert had been converted into grassland. En route I saw a small number of new species including my first namaqua dove near a river bed and a distant brown snake eagle on a tree top. In the semi desert and grassland I came acorss large numbers of pink billed lark


In Swakopmund itself I came to realise that sparrow identification is more difficult down there. There are more species to choose from! As well as house sparrow I saw my first great sparrow and cape sparrow. The three species were often in mixed flocks too.


Along the coast there were plenty of sunbathers who may have dissuaded many birds from using the shore. However I did see several ruddy turnstone in breeding plumage (I have only seen them in winter plumage in Libya and Morocco before). Two cape cormorant were resting and I saw a lone great white pelican flying north. Cape gull were all around.  


See the table for my full list. Following my visit to Senagal last August, I believe I am just beginning to get a reasonable feel for Afrotropical birds. I have an ambition to understand two world regions - western palearctic and Afrotropics. I rally can't believe there are people in the world that can have a good knowledge of more than two? Am I right or just jealous?


The next blog will be on local birds in my Bulgarian village  - complete with pictures!  Lets see how the birds have changed since my last blog on them around Christmas.


Bird
Boro river valley, Maun
Windhoek near Anderson Road
Swakopmund
Cape cormorant *


x
African darter *
x


Reed cormorant
x


Hamerkop *
x


Purple heron
x


Grey heron
x


Cattle egret
x


Black crowned night heron
x


Great white pelican


x
African openbill*
x


Fulvous duck
x


White faced duck *
x


African fish eagle *
x


Brown snake eagle *


x
Helmeted guinea fowl
x
x

Red billed spurfowl *
x


Black crake
x


Common moorhen
x


African jacana
x


Water thick-knee *
x


Blacksmith lapwing *
x


Black winged stilt
x


Whimbrel
x


Wood sandpiper
x


Ruddy turnstone


x
Cape gull *


x
African mourning dove *
x


Cape turtle dove *
x


Laughing dove
x
x
x
Emerald spotted wood dove *
x


Namaqua dove *


x
Rosy faced lovebird *
x


Grey go-away bird *
x
x

Levaillant’s cuckoo *
x


Senegal coucal
x


African palm swift *

x

Little swift

x

White backed mousebird *

x
x
Red faced mousebird *
x
x
x
Woodland kingfisher
x


Pied kingfisher
x


Southern carmine bee-eater *
x


Swallow tailed bee-eater *

x

Little bee-eater
x


European bee-eater
x


Southern red-billed hornbill *
x


Acacia pied barbet *
x
x

Pink billed lark *


x
Barn swallow
x


Cape wagtail *

x (in city centre)
x
Fork tailed drongo *
x
x

Carp’s tit *

x

Black faced babbler*
x


Arrow marked babbler *
x


Southern pied babbler *
x


Dark capped bulbul *
x


African red eyed bulbul *

x

Kurrichane thrush *
x


White browed scrub robin *

x

Zitting cisticola

x

Marico flycatcher *
x
x
x
Spotted flycatcher
x


African paradise flycatcher *
x


Pririt Batis *

x

Chinspot batis *
x


Red backed shrike
x


Common fiscal *
x
x

Swamp boubou *
x


Crimson breasted shrike *

x

Greater blue eared starling
x


Burchell’s starling *
x


Cape glossy starling *

x

Amethyst sunbird *

x

Scarlet chested sunbird*
x
x

Marico sunbird*

x

Orange tufted sunbird?

x

House sparrow

x
x
Great sparrow*


x
Cape sparrow*


x
Red headed finch*
x


Scaly feathered finch*
x


White browed sparrow weaver*

x
x
Sociable weaver*


x
Southern masked weaver*

x

Red billed quelea


x
Red billed fire finch
x


Blue waxbill*
x
x

Violet eared waxbill*

x

Black faced waxbill*
x
x

Village indigo bird
x


Eastern paradise whydah*
x


Yellow canary*
x
x

Black throated canary*

x

Cinnamon breasted rock bunting*

x