Thursday 30 June 2011

What is helmeted guineafowl doing here? Albania trip report part 2

On two days of my Albanian trip I stayed in Durres. It is a coastal resort near Tirana.  The location gave me a chance to do some garrigue birding along the coast.

The city

Durres is a city of about 200,000 and is the second largest in Albania. It has a port which is surrounded on both north and south sides by beaches and associated hotels. It doesn't have the best beaches in Albania but it is the most popular resort. I think there are two main reasons for this. The first one is that many of the holidaymakers are ethnic Albanians from Kosova and Macedonia and it happens to be the closest seaside resort to their homes. Two, it is close to Tirana and attracts holidaymakers particularly at the weekend from the capital city.

Like Tirana it has many cafes. It possibly has more hotels despite its smaller size. I think its main attraction for holidaymakers is the sea and sand. Unlike Tirana I was aware there were very few non-Albanians there and I was a bit of a novelty.

Getting there

When I took the international bus from Skopje (Macedonia) to Tirana it passed through Durres. Even at 3.30 in the morning I was aware that many passengers got off here. I now know they were ethnic Albanians from Macedonia on holiday. Likewise most international buses into Albania from the north or east pass through Durres before reaching Tirana.

Just as many people reach Durres having been to Tirana first. You have a choice of four ways to get there. Minibuses go every half hour and buses go every hour for just under a euro.  A taxi will cost you the equivalent of about 20 euro and the train about 60 euro cent! but it is the slowest method. In short, Durres is well connected with Tirana. You biggest problem is finding where the relevant start points are for each mode since bus stations don't exist. The train stations do exist but most foreigners forgo this "experience". I did.

Don't even think about car hire. The driving is the worst in Europe and I have been to Azeribaijan to compare it!

Choice of hotel

With a couple of exceptions most hotels are around two star. I didn't book in advance and chose my hotel "Ferrara" on one basis only. It was on the northern edge of the coast and was the nearest one to the coastal garrigue. I am pretty sure no one else has used this criterion before. Indeed by the reaction of the staff having a foreigner there was quite rare. Nevertheless I was happy with my choice. It cost 25 euro a night and was in a pleasant aspect near the yacht club. I was able to walk out of the hotel and start birding in the countryside after no more than one hundred metres.  

The centre of Durres tourist quarter

The birding

I birded by literally walking out of the hotel and walking along the coast northward. Like Grand Park in Tirana and unlike Shkoder and Dajti (my other birded places in Albania) this walk is not a recognised birders venue. It's definitely off the beaten track and was arguably more fun because of this. 

The first day I birded from 11am until 5.30 and saw very little! The second day I birded from 8am until 12 and then again from 5.30 until 7. Then I saw tonnes. The moral is that many garrigue and marquis birds don't venture out in the heat.

view from part of my walk

What follows is an account of what I saw but it is not in chronological order. I'll start with the most shocking sighting first.

helmeted guineafowl near Durres

At about 9am on the second day when it was still relatively cool, I saw a sight straight out of Africa. Two helmeted guineafowl were browsing in an area of long grass. They didnt seem too bothered about me and behaved just like the birds I had seen in Botswana and Namibia. I was gobsmacked. I thought they were only wild north of the Sahara in Morocco and also introduced in southern France. Nobody told me to expect this.

Trembling, I sent SMS messages to two friends. Both responded quickly. One suggested I record the sighting officially and the other told me it had been introduced into Albania just like it had been in southern France. The latter text message sobered me up but since coming back I still haven't found any reference to their introduction to Albania on-line. Certainly for example, the BirdLife International monograph doesn't mention it.

house martins on a wire

One of the few birds out in the middle of the day was house martin and there were tonnes of them along with a few red rumped swallow and even fewer barn swallow. This trio never seems to worry about the heat wherever in the world I see them. Three other birds were obvious all day long whereas all the rest were more picky about there activity. Magpie and house sparrow were once again prevalent just like in Tirana. The third "heat tolerant" bird was much more interesting. There is a colony of lesser kestrel up high in the cliffs above the coastal path. They seemed to be giving the newly fledged house martin a hard time although I've never heard birders talk about lesser kestrel showing interest in such fast birds.

Until mid- morning and again late in the evening the warblers come out "to play" (or more likely eat).

sardinian warbler

I am fairly confident that the most common warbler in the area is my old friend the sardinian warbler. This bird reminds me of Libya were it is much more common than any guide book gives it credit in summer as well as winter. I was very pleased about getting this picture because I took it blind into the shrubbery, having lost sight of him a few seconds before. I knew it was somewhere around but couldn't see it. I shot and then scanned the picture and there he was!

eastern oliveaceous warbler

Now I have to make a confession. Birding is a relatively new if intensive hobby for me and I have never seen an eastern oliveaceous warbler before. The books say it is quite common near my Bulgarian home but as luck would have it my first sighting was 3 metres in from the sea at Durres, Albania.

black eared wheatear

Very near to this place I saw a black eared wheatear. Actually this area was a purple patch because the helmeted guineafowl was also found very close too. When I see black and white wheatears I try to see their backs and fronts. The ears aren't that important to me. If the back is all pale then its a black eared wheatear.

second "more traditional" view of a black eared wheatear. 

In Libya near Tripoli some of these birds breed but most pass through. In Benghazi all pass through.I can't help thinking this bird passed through Libya since Albania is directly north of my old stamping ground.

white wagtail

White wagtail are also very numerous in Libya in winter and the bird above probably wintered there but this one summers just north of Durres, Albania. He was seen just as it was getting cooler one evening and was a greenfinch.

collared dove

I have noticed many collared dove close to Albanian settlements of any size and this was certainly again the case along my coastal walk.  Have you ever realised how much the eyes of a collared dove can look like a drop of blood! I hadn't until I took this picture.

yellow legged gull

Finally from a birding perspective, I was reminded from time to time that I was at the seaside when the occasional yellow legged gull would fly past.

very large locusts

I just want to finish by writing a few words about the other fauna along the coast. First I can say I observed some of the largest locusts I have ever seen. My mind started boggling at what sort of birds should have been around and would enjoy this meal. I suspect they are the main part of the diet of the lesser kestrel which probably has much more success with the locusts than with young house martin.

And finally from all perspectives, a kind thank you to the goats, sheep and cattle which kept me company during my walks. They were every where! Shame about the shepherds' dogs which also intruded every now and again

goats along the way

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Grand birding at Tirana Grand Park - trip report to Albania part one

The next four blogs will be written like a trip report since they will report on my visit to Albania. 

The country, people and birds

Albania is visited by relatively few tourists and if you asked the average Briton (or American for that matter) where it was, they probably couldn't tell you. 

It should be visited by many more people because it has a blessed climate, extremely friendly people and a wonderful café society. It is a green version of Greece which is its southern neighbour.  It's also a less expensive place to visit than Greece by a factor of about 2. Furthermore, it is a Mediterranean country with the full variety of Mediterranean birds and should see more bird watchers too. Birders rave about Spain as a warblers paradise but I bet there are more warblers per square inch in Albania than Spain. Come and visit it NOW!

central Tirana

Getting there and accommodation
I took a busman's holiday there last week. I went by bus via Sofia and Skopje in Macedonia. The round trip cost me a meagre 120 euro in bus fares but this mode of transport is not for the faint hearted.  Each way took 24 hours and I didn't stop over in Skopje. 

Northern Europeans and Americans might wish to fly there. The good news is the low cost Italian airline "Belleair"  now flies in and out of Tirana to Italy, Greece and the UK.

I stayed three nights in the Hotel Nobel in central Tirana then two nights in the Hotel Ferara in Durres on the coast and one final night back at the Hotel Nobel.

The Hotel Nobel has rave reviews with trip advisor and Lonely Planet and it deserves them.  They treated me well beyond what I could have expected. 

I had planned to get into Tirana bus station at the timetabled time of 5.30am and wait in the waiting room before checking in early at the hotel for the next day. Things went wrong! The bus arrived early at 4.00 am and Tirana doesn't have a bus station (no really it doesn't - not bad for a city where nearly every one uses buses to get around there and the rest of the country - more about this later). 

At the moment I realised my problem at being in a foreign city in the early hours like a homeless person,  I began to curse the whole idea of the trip. However I took a taxi to Hotel Nobel and woke up the nightwatchman who happened to be the owner.

What wonderful help! He understood my problem. He didn't have a twin room for single occupancy which I had booked for the next two nights. I feared he didn't have a room at all. However he had one free and it was the biggest. He gave me the biggest room in the hotel for the single rate of 44 euro. Furthermore, the hotel said I could stay in the same room for my further nights too at the low rate. This rate includes breakfast by the way.

Birding plan

The birding schedule which evolved was quite simple. 

In the Tirana area, I birded the Grand Park with its huge wooded grounds and lake. I also looked at the botanical gardens and when it got too hot one day, I took the cable car (teleferik) up to Dajti for some mountain birding. I understand that Dajti is a recognised birding location where organised trips go whereas the park isn't. Well more fool the birding tour companies! The birding in the park was first rate.  

On other days I stayed over at Durres which is a near-by coastal resort to do some garrigue birding.

And on the final day, I took an inter-city bus north to Shkoder on the border with Montenegro. The fresh water lakes here are also on the list of most birders who visit the country.

I'll say more about getting to and from these other locations and of course about the birds in later blogs. I'll also say a bit about eating out in Tirana too.

Meanwhile this blog will concentrate only on what I saw on two long visits on separate days to Grand Park,Tirana. Its only 20 minutes walk from the main tourist area and my hotel so no transport costs and once again my budget wasn't threatened.

part of Grand Park, Tirana

First thing to notice about the Park is that it is big. It covers 55 hectares (139 acres). It is a mix of broad leaf trees and (less) pines with a lake thrown in. Its easy even on Saturday to avoid the crowds and cafés if you want to and get down to some serious birding. 

I am sure that many visitors only notice the house sparrow and magpie which are almost everywhere. I wonder why some goshawk hasn't taken advantage of the huge magpie population? It would get very fat.

You only have to look a bit more closely and you realise there is much more to the park.  

Warning, the events that follow are not in strict chronological order.

One of my prize sightings were some strange looking birds eating among the sparrow so close to many people. In fact at first I overlooked them. There was a family of very tame wryneck.

very confiding wryneck in Tirana Grand Park

The wryneck family allowed me to get within two metres. I could probably have got closer still if I had wanted to push it.

wryneck really do look like a piece of wood bark!

I presume they are so tame because they are so used to people and those people don't disturb them. I can't find anything in books about it being so easy to approach and I have always had trouble before.

video footage of wrynecks in Tirana Grand Park

They even allowed me to video them eating ants from the ground at close quarters. I will savour this memory.

another wryneck elsewhere in the park

While strolling aimlessly about 100 metres from where I saw the family of wryneck, I heard the tapping of a woodpecker. I headed towards the sound.  Just before I reached the area, I looked up in a young tree next to the path. I couldn't believe it but there was another family of wryneck this time allowing me to view them from under. 

syrian woodpecker

Clearly the park keepers knew about the woodpecker because they have put some plastic tape across one path to stop people going too close. Its ironic that they have noticed the woodpecker but failed to protect the wryneck which I guess they missed.  

The woodpecker gave me a good display from my vantage point behind the tape anyway. It was a Syrian woodpecker. Normally I look at the face marking to decide between it and greater spotted woodpecker but the light on the neck was unclear. However its very long beak and its (only) pale red vent area mark it out as Syrian.

short toed treecreeper in the park

The woodpecker was near a place where two days before I had sat down on one of the many tree stumps that the park has made into seats to quench my thirst.  I had drunk a huge bottle of water and I suddenly became aware of a buzzing noise on a near-by tree. It was a short toed treecreeper - so close to a main path!  I have studied this photo several times and I still can't decide whether the short toed treecreeper is actually feeding very small young with their mouths wide open. Am I imagining it or are there two or three young there?

I am 95% confident it is a short toed treecreeper not treecreeper which is a shame since I've already got a picture of short toed treecreeper near my Bulgarian home where it is the only summer species. Both birds ranges overlap in Albania but my shaky confidence is based on its call, the fact it was on a broad leaved tree (not conifer) and that its supercilium is not very white. 

great tit in the park

Of course there were more "ordinary " birds in the park too. One of the more common ones seems to be great tit. They too are quite tame compared with those I have seen in other countries including Bulgaria.

One of the things wrong with the Collins guide in my opinion is its description of both song thrush and blackbird as confiding birds. Well they may be in British gardens where they have been give free food for centuries but not in many other countries especially when they are more woodland birds.

very young song thrush

There were plenty of thrush family members - nightingale, blackbird and song thrush in the more bushy parts of the park. Most were quiet but the one above was very noisy presumably begging for food. Its another tricky ID too between juvenile song thrush and juvenile blackbird. In the end with advice from a friend I'm going for song thrush.

house sparrow

There were no such problems with the ID of the two commonest birds in the park - house sparrow and magpie.

magpie in the park

Throughout Albania I was struck how common the collared dove is. Each settlement seemed to have a group of them. The park had several.

collared dove in the park

The park descends and at the bottom is a lake originally man made which is rather pretty in places with a couple of lakeside cafes but rather trashed in other places. However overall it is natural enough to satisfy a different set of bird species from the more wooded areas.

a view of part of the park's lake

The swallow family were numerously hawking the skies and water for insects. all three main species from the area were present - red rumped swallow,  barn swallow and house martin.  I was incredibly lucky to get one photo with one representative from each three species resting at the same time on the same branch.

one of each- barn swallow, house martin and red rumped swallow

The cover around the lake is not very tall but is obviously good enough for little grebe to breed. I was privileged to see a hatchling on the back of its mother. I have never seen this before. It was quite a sweet sighting.

little grebe mother and hatchling

The whole family is together in the next shot.

mother,  hatchling and probably father

Where there is water in the balkans there are wagtails. Here were several yellow wagtail. Like in Bulgaria there are of the sub species fledegg. I had to walk all the way round the lake to the far side for these.  The cover is higher on the far side and things are quieter. Its a little muddy in places so it doesn't get many people visiting but was ideal for my purposes.

fledegg - yellow wagtail

Lots of signs of local breeding of this bird here. Not least were the number of fledglings around.

yellow wagtail fledgling

Some new birders mistake a yellow wagtail fledgling for a grey wagtail. The irony is that the yellow wagtail fledgling is greyer than a grey wagtail. The moral is don't read too much into a name.

white wagtail

One or two white wagtail were present too. There didn't seem to mind being a bit closer to people and were mostly on the peopled side of the lake.

On my first day at the lake a couple of local people tried to strike up conversation. They could see I was a bird watcher and used their three words of English and ten words of Russian (they can speak it about as well as I can - poorly) to tell me a pelican which thankfully is same word in most languages was seen there the day before. 

In summer this can only mean a dalmatian pelican in these parts. 

Needless to say it didn't turn up on either of the two days I visited the lake. However two large water birds did arrive when I was there on the second day. They were on the secluded side of the lake where the men had said the pelican had been.

one of two cormorant at the lake

Two cormorant and two grey heron waited patiently to fish in the well- stocked waters. Its lovely to see such birds in the middle of a city of 750,000 people. They didn't seem phased by it all. 

one of the grey heron

I wasn't expecting many large water birds in a public park in the city so they were a real treat. However I saw many more of the heron and cormorant family at Shkoder which is the subject of a later blog. Stay tuned.

While I hadn't really expected wetland birds I had expected more warblers. My sightings were restricted to a sardinian warbler in the scrub at the non-peopled side of the lake. However my visit to other parts of Albania more than made up for this including one "lifer" warbler for me. Again I'll report on these in another blog or two.

Sharing the scrub in the general area of the sardinian warbler were a small number of stonechat which were once again very tame allowing me close proximity. 

stonechat in Grand Park, Tirana

In the next blog which will be part 2 of the trip report, I'll take you to Durres on the coast for some garrigue birding. Here I saw a "lifer" in the shape of a hippolais warbler. The blog is called "What are helmeted guinea fowl doing here? You'll have to read it to find out why.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Can nestlings eat seeds or fruit?

I have seen a lot of black headed bunting recently. Like all buntings they are classified as seed eaters.

male and female black headed bunting near Klimentovo

Yet, every time I see a female black heeded bunting she has got insects in her mouth.

female black headed bunting

These green crickets seem to be very popular. After seeing this a few times,  I have realised that the diet of their nestlings must be insects.

second look at female black headed bunting

Over the last three days or so I have taken a look at other buntings too. It would appear their nestlings' diet is almost identical. Here (below) is a local ortolan bunting seen a couple of nights ago just before dusk.

local ortolan bunting

Finally last evening I saw a corn bunting with the same food.

local corn bunting

So the penny has finally dropped with me. Bunting nestlings don't eat seeds and I began to wonder if it means all nestlings don't. I'm a late starter at birding but I have gone through a few years without looking closely at what food is being brought to nests.

I couldn't find a great deal on google on the general subject of nestlings' food but I did find that a few birds such as zebra finch can be reared on seeds. However even with them a better diet includes some insects..

I'll have to research whether more types of nestling can eat fruit which is a much more viable transport proposition than seeds! 

young stonechat

In this hot weather I am noticing a lot of bird activity is crammed into the two hours before sunset so I am religiously going out then. Talking about young birds, I saw two family groups - one of stonechat and one of semi-collared flycatcher in the same cluster of bushes catching insects just before dusk. I presume the young birds are nearly fully fledged and are getting some last minute training on catching insects before they go their own way?

This blog so far has been about bringing up young birds.

However, you know I'm still enthralled by my new habit of taking video with my camera. Here's one to finish. It's two house martin preening on a wire outside my house.

local house martin preening

Tuesday 14 June 2011

A long walk and armchair birding

There were only a couple of routes away from my village which I haven't birded. After today there is one less- the off road and most direct direct route to Oreshak. Today I gave it a try. It's mostly wheat and arable fields but it edges the Batova forest.

As well as exploring a new route out of village, I had a second objective today. Following my successful video of a short toed eagle last time out, I wanted to try out videoing more birds. It's a bit of a youthful excitement and I'm sure this phase will pass but at the moment I'm enjoying a new challenge! 

The walk out along the off road track was not especially eventful - plenty of skylark, black headed bunting (see how blaise I am about this bird now) and yellow wagtail. I was amazed how forward the wagtails were. They even followed me from the air. Has anyone else ever noticed this habit? Its like they are very nosey.  

With the exception of the wagtail behaviour, the edge of the forest was more exciting. Plenty of red backed shrike and lesser grey shrike and obviously the ubiquitous corn bunting , and sounds of nightingale, golden oriole and blackbird from within the forest. Then eventually there was a chance to use my camera as a video recorder again. Hurrah! I walked straight through an area thronging with a warbler which I mistook as  whitethroat but which birding friends have told me is a barred warbler. I assume they were a family with newly fledged birds because as far as I know they are not great flockers.

barred warbler between Klimentovo and Oreshak

The video is below. I couldn't place the harsh rattle noise they were making. I had assumed the noise they are making was a whitethroat's alarm call . They refused to fly away from a cluster of three trees. They stood their ground. I am assuming its because the fledglings won't fly any further at the moment. However I could have read this completely wrong.

barred warbler near Klimentovo

Someone has got to come up with a better way of describing birds sounds. Collins describes the whitethroat's call as a nasal vaihd, vaihd, vaihd and the alarm as a drawn out, hoarse chaihr. Now I know why neither seemed to fit the call I heard because my birds are barred warbler. The yellow eye which is diagnostic for barred warbler is really obvious I don't know how I missed it.

cute skylark fledgling seen last week locally

My background bird noises this time of year are skylark and corn bunting. These noises are everywhere. To be honest the fun begins when you here something, anything different. Nevertheless just for reference especially if you live in a place where there aren't one million skylark in near-by fields, I recorded a skylark today.

singing and flying skylark today

More excitement on the way back. The goshawk which has been terrorising (and depleting) the local magpie population flew over low, at speed, and in front of me like a stealth bomber from Batova forest. It's mission was almost certainly to deplete the magpie population even more. I don't fancy the chances of one of the three magpie I saw out there (and I'm sure the goshawk saw) before they went to cover. I stood waiting for a scream and a return flight but whatever route the goshawk took it didn't come back passed me. Shame.

The other slightly unusual moment was the loud noise from within the wheat field at the side of the track. Following my recent trip up the Rhodopes, I now know the sound as a corncrake but there wasn't a snow ball's chance in hell of seeing it.

Sometimes you have to work really hard to see birds but other times you don't even have to try,  they just appear. These times are baffling.

with friends at launch of a new bar at Osenovo

Last week I attended the opening of a new bar in Osenovo with friends (good luck to Bill and Celia with the bar by the way). I was sitting in the chair marked with a white circle and officially off birding duty but still with camera for social pictures.  

I wasn't even on the look out for birds, but with absolutely no effort and not moving from my seat I saw plenty of bee-eater almost posing for me. 

Bee-eater at Osenovo

Taking a photo of a great tit from my seat was the least likely happening. There aren't in the open that often.

great tit at Osenovo

The other birds were much more likely I suppose. A corn bunting - they are everywhere and a starling which breeds in big numbers near-by

corn bunting photographed from my seat

starling photographed from my seat

The truth is that Osenovo is a very good birding area and this its way of telling me. I've made a mental note to go back there again soon.