Wednesday 27 July 2011

Local patch birding

When Paul Bowden and I toured Eastern Bulgaria a couple of weeks ago, we alternated long journeys and short ones every second day. So every second day we birded relatively close to home.  Some of the short trips were only a walk away from my house.  

This blog is about the "local patch" birding we did. We all have an idea in mind as to what defines a "local patch". My definition is somewhere I could have walked to but didn't necessarily travel that way!

Here are some of the places that met that specification and which we did.
  • hiding under a tree as camouflage in a copse in the middle of the village
  • visiting a water trough in local fields on the edge of a forest
  • travelling to neighbouring Osenovo to bird the wooded valley of the stream there
  • visiting a tailor-made bird hide in the wood at Albena resort
  • and even just walking out of the front door of my house to the village road

very young scops owl on a walk very close to my house

One of the first places we visited on my local patch was the neighbouring village of Osenovo in area known for its diversity of birds. 

We didn't get anywhere near Osenovo before we stopped. We "had to" stop close to the link road from my village to the main road less than two kilometres from starting out in the car. We turned off having seen a long legged buzzard resting in a tree with a newly captured vole.

local long legged buzzard

After a while it flew off to seat on a post only to be disturbed by a car on the main road close by. We tracked it in the air but things got confused as there was at least one other bird of prey airborne at the same time.

long legged buzzard in flight

The moral is to focus on one bird at a time. We had also sighted an eagle in the air which landed in the next field along. 

probable lesser spotted eagle

This was mid afternoon in the searing heat and the last thing I wanted to do was walk through the tall grass to get a closer look at the landed bird. The idea had been to shelter in the shade of Osenovo wood!

By our observations in flight at great distance and its "gizz" in the field we can only tentatively declare it as a lesser spotted eagle. This species does breed in this area and has been spotted in fields near Albena (ie close by) according to a recent birding trip report.  Of course during passage there are hundreds which pass this way.

local hare seen two weeks ago

There is plenty of food about for such an eagle.

We finally got to Osenovo more than  hour later than planned.

green woodpecker

This spot is especially good for woodland birds though the roar of quad bikes ridden by holidaymakers from the village's holiday complex must disturb them somewhat.  I'm not going to list every bird seen but they included bee-eater, starling, greenfinch, white wagtail, great reed warbler, greater spotted woodpecker and a first for me at this venue - green woodpecker.

On another day we visited baltata wood within Albena resort. This was more leisurely woodland birding. We walked to the three storey bird hide and stayed there for a couple of hours.  

I have to tell you the hide is dangerous. I know it was built to hold tour groups and Albena is on many bird trip itineraries. However,it only just about felt safe with two people on the top level. There was lots of sway and there is no way a tour group could mount it at the same time..  

Adding to the birding difficulty, there was a steady stream of beachgoers walking along the road near-by.

Despite all this, patience paid off.  I am grateful to Paul Bowden for the next two photographs. He has superior photographic equipment to me which particularly made a difference in the strong dappled light in the wood that day.

lesser spotted woodpecker by Paul Bowden, Albena

One of the highlights of this "mini trip" was the sighting of two woodpeckers I haven't seen in my village or at Osenovo.  There were both lesser spotted woodpecker and middle spotted woodpecker.

middle spotted woodpecker by Paul Bowden

A cross section of other birds included both great tit and blue tit, wood pigeon and spotted flycatcher.  If you want a full list then please wait until the trip report for the week's birding!

This section of woodland is a well known place to see semi-collared flycatcher during spring and summer. Indeed it was the first place I ever saw this bird in company of expert birder, Dimiter Georgiev.  We did see black and white flycatchers there but without a prolonged view we can't say with 100% certainty they were semi-collared. However it would be very early indeed to see returning pied flycatcher or collared flycatcher which breed in more northerly latitudes.  

Syrian woodpecker in a copse in the middle of my village

That wasn't the end of woodland birding, On another occasion, during a hot part of the day, we walked round the corner from my house onto the village road and then stepped out into a copse. 

We waited under a couple of trees which allowed us cover and views of the rest of the copse. It is here that I can often see golden oriole meet ahead of their journey to a roost later in the evening. I have blogged about this place recently.  

Once again, the orioles showed up but not for as long as I had hoped.  You can't train wild birds to turn up on demand!  We saw long tailed tit, great tit, garden warbler and Syrian woodpecker. We heard several blackcap. The Syrian woodpecker was videoed. Please see above. Ironically it was on exactly the same tree as a greater spotted woodpecker seen a week before.

greenfinch bathing at the water trough

One day I also showed Paul the water trough in the fields north of the village. This is a great spot for three types of bunting - corn bunting, black headed bunting and ortolan bunting. The scrub land nearby suits red backed shrike too.

male black headed bunting

This is a good place to compare male and female black headed bunting. Some books describe the female as a washed out version of the male. I think this is stretching things too far. They look completely different to me! 

female black headed bunting near the water trough

The scrub near the trough has an extremely high density of red backed shrike. We counted about 20 in a small area. We lamented the fact that in England farmers don't set aside land like this between fields to allow bird life and other fauna to flourish.

red backed shrike

We probably didn't explore the full potential of the water trough. No doubt a large number of species would have come and visited for water and/or a bathe if we had been hidden better. The braver species made a visit such as greenfinch, barn swallow, the buntings and wagtails. Even a pair of turtle dove came but perhaps there should have been more. This would be a great place for a  hide.

local turtle dove which are very shy

We leant to keep our eyes open even when close to my front gate especially in the early morning or late evening. One morning we saw a little owl from my garden. This had been the first time I had seen one in my part of the village. Unfortunately it turned its head away from me.

little owl on a house close to mine

More exciting still one evening (an hour before sunset) as we walked back from a local sight, there was a very young scops owl sitting out on a telegraph pole barely 40 metres from my house. This was a special treat for me .

young scops owl close to my house

Birding with Paul in my local patch proved that two sets of eyes are better than one. I am more confident than ever that the Klimentovo area is an excellent birding venue (and the passage hasn't even started here yet)!

Monday 25 July 2011

Bourgas Lakes

One day out of mine and Paul Bowden's week long tour of eastern Bulgaria was allocated to a visit to the Bourgas Lakes.

Like Srebarna they are often on the itinerary of birding tours. While both Lake Srebarna and the Bourgas Lakes are wetlands their bird life is substantially different.

Lake Srebarna is visited by some more northerly species but the Bourgas Lakes are close to the sea and coastal birds are seen. They are also on a major passage route called Via Pontica making viewing especially interesting during the passage seasons.

We visited two of the Bourgas Lakes. The first was Pomorie. It is north of Bourgas and is essentially a salt pan with salinity similar or even higher than the sea. 

The second lake we visited was Lake Mandra. This is south of Bourgas. Although it is separated from the sea by only sand banks in places, it is less saline than the sea and attracts both coastal and fresh water species.

black winged stilt at Pomorie

We visited Pomorie in late morning and again in the evening on the way back. We saw Lake Mandra in the afternoon.

Before I continue please don't expect me to write-up  every bird seen at Bourgas (just as I haven't on the other blogs on our week's tour). I aim to give a flavour. For those keen on more detail, a trip report itemising all species seen will follow later.

Looking into Pomorie wetlands

There is no doubt Pomorie is a good place to see coastal birds. 

sandwich tern at Pomorie

Since Pomorie is a coastal site it was no surprise that most of the terns were sterna rather than marsh terns.  The largest group were clearly sandwich tern and it looks like it was a breeding colony. The Collins guide map only has this place as a passage venue for this bird which looks incorrect.

mostly black headed gull

There were plenty of yellow legged gull and black headed gull as expected. A close look at the groups of black headed gull disclosed that there were also a small number of Mediterranean gull and at least a dozen or more little gull. The presence of a little gull was one of the many indications we had there that the passage had already reached this far south for some northern breeding sea birds and waders.

one of the curlew sandpiper at Pomorie

A classic example of a passage bird from the north is curlew sandpiper. At first we saw three of these birds which breed in Arctic Siberia. All had mostly chocolate-coloured summer plumage beginning to moult. Then we saw a much larger number so they weren't a fluke!

two wood sandpiper and a little stint 

All the other main sandpipers (except marsh sandpiper) were seen - green sandpiper, common sandpiper and wood sandpiper. There were arguably more of the latter. There were one or two little stint already on passage and still in essentially summer plumage. The one above is in deeper water than usual for a little stint but is clearly not a sanderling based on size comparison with the wood sandpiper alone. Sanderling is about the same size as wood sandpiper but  little stint is much smaller.

another wood sandpiper at Pomorie

There were also plenty of tringa waders - greenshank and redshank. The latter are not necessarily passage birds.  I even used to see them breeding as far south as Benghazi in Libya! We didn't see any spotted redshank. Presumably it was just a little early for them.

ruff, reeves and one redshank

A large number of both male and female ruff were on passage. Some of the males hadn't completely lost their summer ruffs.

avocet and black winged stilt

We saw both avocet and its cousin the black winged stilt. Silts certainly breed locally and it is possible avocet does too. We saw two or three occasions where there appeared to be clashes between these two birds for reasons we didn't understand.

common shelduck

The only duck on these saline pans at this time were common shelduck.

yellow wagtail

Finally concerning Pomorie, I was surprised that feldegg yellow wagtail could tolerate such salty conditions but there were several in places. I assume the salinity isn't uniform because reeds were growing in the same areas.

The second area visited was Lake Mandra. We viewed this lake by walking out along the walk leading from the Poda Information Centre. The centre was very informative about the birds and wildlife of the area. It was however extremely difficult to find! 

cormorant nests

One of the most obvious sights as soon as you leave the Centre is the very large number of cormorant and pygmy cormorant. The cormorant seem very fond of using electricity pylons for colonial nesting sites. One series of pylons which runs straight through the reserve has no  electricity wires. I wonder if they were put up specifically for the cormorants. More likely they re-routed the pylons and left the ones in place with no electricity!

yellow legged gull under a cormorant colony

Under one such pylon we saw a yellow legged gull waiting for at least an hour for some nefarious opportunity.

The walk has two bird hides. One is a little rickety but also provides the better views! 

Near the second hide we were told we were likely to see a collection of different water species. Our informant from the information centre was right.

several species including spoonbill

Although facing into the sun we could see cormorant, spoonbill, little egret and various waders including greenshank.  I wonder what the attraction of that particular spot is given how large the whole reserve is? 

On the left of the Poda Information Centre's walk is the lake but on the right hand side is the sea. The sea shore hosts many different birds from the lake.

As I turned to face the sea from the path I was met by a little ringed plover only a few feet away. 

little ringed plover

Certainly more tame than many I have come across before. Perhaps it was one of the local breeders.

oystercatcher, northern lapwing and sandpipers

There was a mixed group of oystercatcher and northern lapwing foraging on the sea shore. Moving in and out of the group were different sandpipers and  little ringed plover

Even with our short stop at Lake Mandra I well believe the fact that more species have been observed here than at the other lakes. Its well worth a much longer visit when I get time. All our trips during the birding tour week were day trips so time spent at places as far away as Lake Mandra were necessarily short.

Lake Mandra has other biodiversity too. Paul has an interest in butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies as well as birds. I joined in the fun and photographed a scarlet darter below.

scarlet darter at Bourgas

This has reminded me I took a picture of a butterfly at Lake Srebarna I identified as a health fritillary which I am belatedly adding into this blog. I could get into this!

heath fritillary at Srebarna

In the next blog I will write about some of the shorter trips we made in my more immediate area. Two sets of eyes are better than one and I saw significantly more than I had managed alone.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Lake Srebarna

Lake Srebarna is a well known haunt of birders in Bulgaria and for good reason.  It is famous for its breeding damatian and white pelicans as well as a full range of European herons and bitterns. There is much more there beside these so it was no surprise that it was part of our itinerary when touring Eastern Bulgaria over the last week.

Srebarna is a lake in the Danube flood plain that was probably connected to the Danube in the distant past.

After an early start from near Varna, Paul Bowden and I arrived at Srebarna just after 9am.  We were met by local guesthouse owner, guide and bird information centre manager, Mike Black.

squacco heron watching me at Srebarna

Even at 9am it was already hot and hazy.  Some birds were obviously active despite the heat for example whiskered tern and black tern. We were determined to do some birding in the heat at least until it started to get roasting and sightings such as the terns gave us encouragement. 

One important bird to see was dalmatian pelican and we found one early on. It was on the far bank of an arm of the lake. Though it wasn't close, it stayed in sight for several minutes.

dalmatian pelican

At distance it wasn't easy at first to determine which type of pelican it was. We were pretty sure it was a dalmatian pelican and when it flew we were certain. There was very little dark area under its wings.

dalmatian pelican in flight

Later we had great opportunity to see both dalmatian pelican and white pelican from the Veranda of Mike's excellent Information Centre.

greylag and black headed gull 

Next to the dalmatian pelican were 60 greylag geese. A flock this large, this far south and in this heat is apparently quite unusual.

glossy ibis in flight

I'm not going to write this blog in chronological order but in order of loose groups of species. However when it comes to time, I can tell you that much of the best birding was in the early evening. With the exception of the pelicans and a small number of other species, we managed to see many birds we had seen earlier in the day but in much better light and heat conditions.

One of the best examples of this was glossy ibis.  A brief look at long distance during the day gave way to prolonged close contact in the evening. Like many birds here it is quite comfortable close to people.

video of a glossy ibis feeding

Even I managed to get decent video of an ibis feeding.

great egrets

There were great egret visible all day though they never came close to us. In contrast several little egret were seen within a few metres.

little egret

In different parts of the lake we kept coming across little bittern. I had good chance to see their characteristic behaviour of walking along the reeds near their edge of the water.

little bittern

We didn't see or hear any (great) bittern. However Mike told us that at least two bittern have been heard during a recent bird count exercise. 

purple heron through the heat haze in the middle of the day

Srebarna rivals Lake Mammoudchala in Azerbaijan as the place with the highest density of squacco heron that I have ever seen. I saw more of them at Srebarna than both great egret and purple heron. It numbers possibly rivalled those of little egret

The only disappointment of the whole visit was that we didn't see any black crowned night heron.

coots and duck

Coot was very common.

As for ducks, I didn't spend as much time on identification as I should. The picture below is a group of ducks which I nonchalantly thought were mallard without giving much attention in the field However there were no male mallard to be seen anywhere. The picture quality is poor as I made it as a quick record shot not for identification. However from it, I now think the duck could be garganey. Both female mallard and garganey have striped heads. The bill colour of the birds certainly looks dark and more like a garganey (rather than yellow or off-yellow like a mallard or gadwell). I am no longer sure I can see a small light blue patch on the females sides (indicative of a mallard) and finally the bird in the bottom right of the photo seems to have bolder head pattern than any type of mallard. With this much doubt I can only label the picture "Anas ducks"!

Anas ducks

Once again in Bulgaria the globally rare ferruginous duck was quite abundant here. They were easy to identify but one related bird we saw certainly was not.

possible cross between ferruginous duck and pochard

This bird isn't a pure ferriginous duck but it resembles the second version of a pochard x ferriginous duck shown in the Collins guide. It has a yellow eye, (much) more black on the tail than pure ferruginous duck, and contrast between a darker breast and a lighter flank. All these characteristics are in the written description next to the illustration in the Collins guide. However, a birder  with experience on these types of ducks has suggested it may well be a young (purebreed) pochard which are often mostly chocolate coloured.

Moving on to simpler things - Mike had told us there were some moorhen in the lake. We duly saw them in the evening as temperatures began to drop. As usual they were much shyer than their coot cousins.


There were also several mute swan seen which breed here.

mute swan

Both cormorant and pygmy cormorant are found here in significant numbers. After only getting glimpses in the day, we had a chance to see many pygmy cormorant close up in the evening both at the lake and along the Danube. More will be said about the Danube later.

a group of pygmy cormorant

Birds of prey proved an unexpected bonus at Srebarna. Even as early as 10 am we saw a short toed snake eagle soaring over us.

short toed snake eagle

Marsh harrier was a much more expected bird and there were several around all day.

female marsh harrier at Srebarna

The highlight among the birds of prey was probably a honey buzzard which flew close to the Bird Information centre while we were resting there out of the mid afternoon heat. Paul got a superb photograph which proved it. 

wood pigeon

The picture above proves the law of unexpected consequences. I had walked round part of the lake looking at a small number of trees over-hanging the lakes. There don't seem to be many.  I had supposed these might be good for black crowned night heron. I didn't see them but I snapped a wood pigeon. This bird is very common in the UK but not so in Bulgaria. We had seen it at a couple of woods during the week but I failed to photograph it. Then this one popped up unexpectedly.

As it got close to dusk, Mike suggested we should go to the Danube near-by. He told us many birds use it as a fly route to and from their roosts.

It was a fascinating visit. There was heavy traffic of different flocks in both directions. My favourite moment was when a flock of pygmy cormorants flew east down the Danube. They were flying a little higher than usual. Paul and Mike pointed out to me that the lead bird was a glossy ibis and the pygmies were following this strange one.

kingfisher on the bank of the Danube

A tame kingfisher let me get up close here. A surprising number of birds are quite tame around the Srebarna and Silistra area. 

white stork on the bank of Danube

Even tamer was this slightly oiled white stork. He was completely unconcerned about us, the fishermen and holidaymakers around. He has clearly done this walk along the "beach" before. 

Soon after this picture was taken it got dark and a great days birding had to come to an end.

I must particularly thank Mike Black and his wife Jerry for their hospitality and guidance.

I want to single out their new Information Centre whose full name is "Pelican Guesthouse Environmental Project & Info Centre". It's a real gem. It has charts and leaflets in many languages about the birds and other fauna. Look it up on google.

It was there I discovered that the Bulgarian word for greenfinch is zelenika or roughly "little green thing"!

The view of the lake from the veranda of the centre is superb and many locals and visitors like it.  There is opportunity to borrow scopes and binoculars here to improve your view. Its also a great place for lunch as we discovered.

in the summer it has some residents. There is a nest with a family of red-rumped swallow WITHIN the centre. 

red rumped swallow inside the Information centre

In the next few days, there are more blogs on my week's trip with Paul Bowden around eastern Bulgaria still to come. Hope you can find time to read them.