Sunday, 3 March 2019

Messina Straits-Species Focus- Pallid Harrier

It's been a long time since my last blogpost, but with a huge back-catalogue of photos to share I decided to put a few posts together, this one focusing on my time in the Straits of Messina last spring.

One of the real draws for me, and for any birder visiting the straits of Messina in March/April, is undoubtedly the pallid harrier. This bird is internationally 'near-threatened' and in Europe the population is only in the range of 300-1100 pairs. The Messina Strait being one of the most important European flyways for this migratory harrier. This species is, as well as being difficult to see in western Europe, absolutely stunning, so when I heard that upwards of 70 were recorded in the Straits each spring I started booking flights! In total I saw around 80 of these fantastic birds, predominantly second-year birds.

As with other Circus harrier species the pallid harrier is sexually-dimorphic, i.e the males and females vary considerably. The females and immature birds are an brownish with a white upper-tail, while the males are a most incredible ghostly silver with a 'shard' of jet black on each hand. This often made the males easily identifiable from a considerable distance. The size varies considerably between males and females, females being much larger than the diminutive males, while still more or less retaining the same characteristic light and bouncing flight-style. The relatively long and slender wings (compared to a hen harrier) give this bird a very elegant impression, although not as elegant as the even-longer winged Montagu's Harrier.

    I saw my first Pallid Harrier about a week after I arrived, on the 21st of March. To my delight it was an adult male! The next few Pallids we saw were adult males too, one or two birds coming close-enough, but  the majority were generally distant to my disappointment. One of the most important features of harrier migration is the differing phenology of male and female harrier movements. Basically males migrate first, likely with the aim of securing a breeding territory. Later the females and immature birds pass through. Due to some calm weather in late March just as male pallid passage was peaking we ended up seeing fewer than we would have hoped, due to the birds being able to shoot straight across the Tyrrhenian sea, in effect bypassing us in Calabria.
    All was not lost however, as during the remainder of April the conditions for the migration of the 'ringtail' harriers (female and immature) were in our favour. We ended up seeing dozens of second calendar-year birds (birds born last spring) as well as a few females. On one cold and blustery mid-April day the stars aligned, and a strong passage of second-cal pallid harriers, due to lack of thermals, was forced to pass at low altitude right over our heads! This allowed for some fantastic photo opportunities. I hope I managed to do these fantastic raptors justice with the below shots!

A slightly distant male, likely a 3rd calendar year bird, still with brown tinges to the plumage and underdeveloped black in the primaries


Probably my best Pallid shot, this bird came ridiculously close 
One of a few second calendar year birds that passed extremely close to the watchpoint


I chose to include this shot as it nicely captures the distinctive wing shape, very wide base tapering smoothly to a point, quite unlike the long and parallel edged wings of the similar Montagu's Harrier  

Pallid with a Honey Buzzard

Friday, 27 April 2018

The Messina Straits- Part 1

I've just arrived back in Ireland after 5 weeks in Southern Italy, where I was counting raptors migrating through the Messina Straits. And what a place! In total I saw nearly three-thousand raptors of 22 species, including hundreds of harriers, and dozens of the globally endangered and stunning Pallid Harrier, as well as many other fantastic species such as hundreds of bee-eaters and hordes of swallows and swifts. Over the next while I'll be posting a series of blogposts going into depth on some of the various bird families seen, but first, an overview of the project and the count.

So what on earth was an 18 year old Irish lad doing in Calabria? 
Now all birds are great, but there's something special about raptors. An undeniable draw, a certain powerful allure. As an Irish birder I often feel hard done by when it comes to experiencing these magnificent birds, we just don't have that many here. On a very good day one might see 10 individuals of 6-7 species of raptor in Ireland. There's just a sparsity of birds of prey in the country. In theory it's bad, in practice it can often be worse. Just before I left for Italy I went on a round trip from Galway to Achill, specifically with the intention of birding. A trip of nearly 5 hours and 270km... only one raptor seen at the end of the day! So naturally I was keen to get a raptor 'fix', and depositing myself in the middle of one of Europe's most important migratory raptor flyways, during peak spring migration, was just common sense!

I stayed in the region of Calabria (the toe of the boot) in a small ski-resort town called Gambarie, nestled on the edge of the impressive Aspromonte national park. The project I worked on is run by Ornis Italica under the guise of the 'Strait Observatory'. Observations consisted of 9-11 hour stints per day with at least two observers watching and counting every passing raptor from a hill-top with a fantastic view of Sicily, the Strait of Messina and the Aeolian Islands. For those so inclined all of the daily observations can be found on trektellen,

I met many great and like-minded people from all-over Europe while there, a testament to the draw of these birds, and indeed, the spectacle of migration.

Weather was more variable than anywhere I've been before. It started off mild in mid-March, with some productive days counting, before the temperature plummeted, with at least a foot of snow and freezing temperatures for the guts of a week. It slowly heated up going into April, and by the end of April it was quite warm indeed. 

Below I've included some shots of the watchpoint and environs. Keep an eye out for more blogposts in the coming weeks, there are some very nice pallid harrier shots coming...

The team on the 18th of March, minutes before an Eastern Imperial Eagle flew by

The Aspromonte Mountains

Sicily and the Aeolian Islands

The iconic Punta del Faro

Swift in a blizzard
This image perfectly sums up the second half of March...Summer birds in not so summery conditions

Marsh Harrier male with the Ski-slopes in Gambarie as a backdrop

Friday, 12 January 2018

Finland Part 2- Porvoo and Viikki

Day 2


Sunday morning and Joe and I were up early again to meet Owen. We headed east today, reaching a feeder that had been set up near Porvoo. The target species here were mostly woodpeckers. Directly after arrival we walked up to see a crowd of birders already assembled. Within mere seconds of reaching them we found ourselves watching a female white-backed woodpecker in the trees above us. While we watched this impressive woodpecker working its way around a branch it transpired that some birders to our left were watching a pygmy owl! We quickly got eyes on this little ball of attitude as it sat on a fallen branch being mobbed by various tit species, looking fairly grim. Unfortunately despite having impressive scope views this owl quickly flew off, leaving us looking for more. It wasn't to be, however some colossal black woodpeckers soon arrived and diverted our attention. We had these large woodpeckers feeding on fat balls strung from trees, a species I certainly wasn't expecting to see so tame. Also at the feeders were brambling and willow tit. 

Ural Owl

    Owen mentioned that a Ural owl had been seen in the area of late- mostly spotted in an area of extremely dense commercial spruce, immediately adjacent to the feeder site. However these tightly packed trees allowing very little light through presented an absolute nightmare for birding in. Myself, Joe, Owen and a Finn headed in to try our luck all the same, it was surely worth a shot.
    To maximise our efficiency we split up. Owen went one way, and myself, Joe and 'The Finn' headed another. Myself and Joe ended up quite close together as we entered a small clearing in the forest, the type of clearing that felt just perfect for a roosting owl...
    A flurry of awkwardly flapping large grey wings, a quick shout and utter panic, myself and Joe found ourselves watching what had to be the Ural owl batting its way clumsily away from its roosting site and further into the  dense forestry. The other two arrived at the commotion but were too late to see the bird. 
    We had a general idea as to where the bird had gone, but it was apparent that it would not be playing ball like yesterdays Great Grey. Nonetheless we headed on to try and get perched views. This time though we all split up properly, searching the whole forest. We all spent a while scanning the obscure shapes above us in the darkened canopy for any sign of life, any shape that didn't quite fit in with the surroundings. As it transpired it was I who spotted the owl next. 
   About 10 metres away, two-thirds of the way up a spruce rested a shape that stopped me in my tracks. Slowly lifting binoculars to eyes I followed the curve of the birds back, slight streaking visible, right up to the face. The bird was looking directly at me, and probably had been long before I spotted it. I just had time to absorb the facial details, barely processing what I was seeing, before the bird hopped, turned and flew off again. Although brief and slightly lacking these views were enough to clinch the bird as a Ural. I shouted in vain to try and get others on it but the owl had already disappeared. Despite further searching we could not relocate it, and proceeded on to our next location.

Rough-legged Buzzard and Eastern Black Redstart

    Next stop was a large open area where a rough-legged buzzard had been spotted during recent weeks. While in the area we stopped to check a large redpoll flock which had been holding a few Arctic redpoll. We saw several Arctics, one very well, but I'm not sure whether or not they'll be going on my list given the highly turbulent state of redpoll taxonomy at the minute.
    Owen and Joe caught a glimpse of a rough-legged buzzard sat up on one of the many pylons in the area, and we pulled around to try and see the bird with the sun at our side. Unfortunately by the time we got around to be in a position to view it the bird had disappeared, and it was looking like I wasn't going to see this species at all. Fortunately Joe managed to pick one up in a field at a later location. We got satisfying scope views of it eviscerating a vole. After some time admiring this bird we raced off back to helsinki to make the most of the remaining daylight. 
    First we attempted to twitch a three-toed woodpecker. This bird was alas nowhere to be found and despite heavy searching we continued on empty handed. We headed straight for Viikki after that with the intention of twitching the eastern black redstart which we dipped the previous evening. Immediately upon arrival we had the bird feeding down to about two metres, surrounded by an admiring crowd of big-lens photographers and birders. Despite being a charming little bird, this sighting is slightly marred by the fact that the bird was opening and closing its bill in a very unusual fashion, indicating perhaps an illness or injury of some sort. The bird was found dead a couple of days after we saw it. A sad end, but in reality this may happen to many tired migrants, and it was only due to the birds faithfulness to a small area that the body was found.
    To finish off the day we headed to the farmyard overlooking the forest at Viikki. Here myself and Joe ticked great grey shrike, and watched in amazement as it obliterated a shrew, before being completely overshadowed by some blistering goshawk flight views! What a way to end the day! 

By my tallies we saw somewhere around 50 species (the line being blurred by subspecies and what-not) out of which 13 were lifers for me. We saw four species of owl, each of which were absolutely stunning in their own right. However based on the spectacular encounter with the Great-Grey Owl I have to say that was my species highlight for the trip. Other highlights included the consumption of non-insignificant quantities of korvapuusti and glögi (Cinnamon buns and mulled-wine) as well as the good company. Massive thanks to Owen for facilitating the highly-successful weekend. 

Black 'Pecker

The feeder site at which I ticked White-Backed+Black Woodpecker, Pygmy Owl

There be Ural Owls in these here woods

Distant phone-scoped Rough-legged Buzzard

Redstart in here somewhere...

Poor shot of an incredible raptor- Goshawk

Sun setting on a chilly Viikki

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Finnish Owl Mayhem

I recently returned from a fantastic weekend in Helsinki, birding with fellow young Irish birder Joe Proudfoot and expat Irish birder Owen Foley. The trip materialised back in October, when Owen pointed out on twitter just how cheap flights to the Finnish capital were in midwinter. Myself, Brian McCloskey and Joe quickly decided to go, and the trip was booked. However unfortunately some unexpected Christmas exams were sprung on Brian and he was unable to join us. The trip was thus coined the 'sorry Brian' tour.
Sorry Brian.

Day 1

Upon meeting Owen on Saturday morning we headed straight for a black grouse lek site, in the hopes of being there at first light (9:30 or so). We arrived as the skies began to brighten and found our way quickly to the chilly bog, before waiting for the grouse to emerge and start calling. Unfortunately after some time waiting it seemed like it may just have been a bit too early in the year to see any black grouse at this site, and so we headed off into the woods behind the bog in search of hazel grouse. As soon as we began listening for hazel grouse it became apparent that the black grouse had started calling back on the bog, and so back we headed. After a short wait Owen managed to pick up a stunning cock grouse perched on the top of a spruce. A further two were spotted and reasonable scope views were had. A cracking species to start the trip!
    We continued on and searched further for hazel grouse and grey-headed woodpecker but to no avail. From there we were headed to a nutcracker feeding site in the west near Lohja, and on our way we stopped at a lake where Joe and I had our first ever smew. These handsome pied diving-ducks were to be found in small numbers on the lake, though slightly scattered as a result of a brutish white-tailed eagle flyover! Other birds present were goldeneye and some goosander. We were quickly back on the road in order to make the most of the short day. 
    We travelled through a decent amount of semi-rural Finnish countryside. The landscape was predominantly blanketed in conifers, along with frequent electricity pylons and large open areas. It was on these pylons that we expected to see our first hawk-owl, and it was not too long before Joe picked one up on a roadside wire. We pulled in and whipped out the scopes, getting great views of this dashing owl species. It was clearly perch hunting, and using its exceptional eyesight and exemplary hearing to find prey. At one stage a fairly quiet phone text-tone from one of us was enough to catch its attention, even at a respectable distance. Its head immediately swivelled in our direction as its piercing yellow eyes tried to ascertain the source of this noise. Though having a fairly comical expression, as I find many owls do, this is nonetheless not a bird to be underestimated. Those eyes are the last thing many a rodent will see, and the owls fearsome feather-clad talons a visible reminder of its predatory prowess.
    From the hawk-owl we continued on to the nutcracker feeding station. Upon arrival the table was empty, but after re-stocking it with peanuts the birds soon began to roll in. First in were the tits. We had willow tit here, which was a lifer, as well as decent views of crested tit, and northern treecreeper. It took a while before the nutcrackers became aware of the nuts, however when they did they soon started to arrive en-masse. Their raucous calls echoing over the spruce and hazel woods as they perched on treetops and looked down at us. They seemed to be slightly shier than expected, however nonetheless it was not long before a bold bird hopped down onto the table and started gorging a few nuts, possibly for stowage elsewhere. We got scope filling views of this intriguing species on the table, which would otherwise have proven much more wary and difficult to pin down.
    From there it was a speedy drive back to Helsinki to try and pin down a Great Grey Owl at Viikki (Vanhankaupunginlahti) which had been seen for the last couple of days.
    When booking the trip I imagined we might have had a shot at some other owl species, probably pygmy, maybe ural or the likes. For whatever reason I never really considered Great Grey to be a possibility. When I heard it was not only a possibility, but actually on the cards, I was brimming with anticipation.
    As we arrived at Viikki the day was already starting to get noticeably dull. This was maybe at 2pm or so. We rushed without hesitation out along the fields and boardwalks to the forest in which it had been seen, encountering droves of satisfied birders and photographers on their way home, all confirming that the lapinpöllö was still present. After a bit of searching we eventually got on the right track and discovered a small gathering of birders. Owen gathered crucial information from the snatches of Finnish thrown our way. My heart sank when one of those transpired to be saying 'it just flew' . I needn't have worried.
    The owl had just flown to an exposed dead tree and I struggled to peer through trees to get binocular views. It had clearly just begun hunting for the evening, and was perch hunting. To our great delight the bird flew back up towards us and landed in a tree which allowed for much better observation. The views of this bird in the scope were breath-taking. We were totally lost for words. I was originally worried that the bird was being disturbed by the assembled birders and photographers, but that quickly transpired not to be the case. At one point it flew towards our group and caught a rodent at Owen's feet!
    In retrospect I had really underestimated the size of this species. They're absolutely massive! I spent a long while just admiring the intricacies of the feather patterning, along with the intimidating glare it would give us occasionally. I managed a few phone-scoped shots, and a few on the dslr, however both cameras struggled with the low-light. We watched this bird for some time in the dying light, before making our way back to Viikki. Without a doubt one of the most incredible birds I've ever seen, and by far the best views I've had of any owl in its natural environment. Just incredible!
    We ended the day by attempting to twitch an eastern-black redstart going to roost. While we failed on this evening it would not be long before we got a second chance...

Northern Hawk-Owl being legend

Willow Tit

"Showing well"


So that's how I spent my Saturday...

Day 2 will be posted shortly. If you really want to see more Great Grey Owl insanity (and of course you do) I've posted videos here and here. You can also read Owen's account on his blog 'Hel Hath No Birdies'.

'Til next time

Friday, 22 December 2017

Snow Bunting

    The first day off for the Christmas period and I was cycling in to Nimmo's Pier, to meet fellow young-birder, Brian McCloskey for a bit of birding on the local patch. We spent some time birding Nimmo's and its environs, the best birds being the returning forster's tern and a sandwich tern. As we had some time to play with and there was relatively little else in the Nimmo's area we decided to head out the causeway towards mutton island. I don't go out onto the island itself too regularly, the few times I have visited have been for monitoring the breeding terns or for a bit of exploratory sea-watching, however I had, on those occasions, noticed a decent area of rough grass and shingle at the south of the island that I fancied for a scarce species of finch(twite possibly), a pipit, or perhaps a snow bunting. With that in mind we hopped the fence and made our way around the island, flushing an extraordinary amount of snipe as we went. We eventually reached my favoured sea-watching site, and as we did, up flew a pair of small brown passerines below us. Frosty snow-white flashes on the wings instantly told us all we needed to know. Snow Bunting!
    Now for a bit of context! Snow bunting has long given me the run-around. Even for a scarce bird in Galway they have been disproportionately hard for me to pin down. As recently as October while out on Inis Mór(more on that trip in another post soon) I missed out on a flighty Snow Bunting that appeared intermittently for various birders in different locations, but not for me. Along with that I've spent countless hours over many winters scanning the shingle slopes and strands of my patch in the hopes of seeing one, but to no avail. Until today that was...
    The pair of bunting settled down not too far-away, much to my relief, and we proceeded to get cracking scope views, as well as the opportunity for a few shots. Soon it became apparent that there was another bunting in with them. I have not, as of yet, delved into the aging/sexing/racing aspect of these birds. I imagine I will at some stage, but that was certainly not running through my mind while watching the little beauties!
    For me, the appeal of a snow bunting goes beyond the purely aesthetic. This small party of chirping ginger jewels so incongruous in the bleak Atlantic-winter. They carry with them the essence of the Arctic. 



Friday, 26 May 2017

Lamenting 'The Leaving', Lauding Lepidoptera

I'm sure if you've checked in on this site within the last few months you'll have noticed the lack of any new posts. This is due to my current status as a leaving certificate student. This doesn't allow me much free time due to an incessant need to study. Fortunately the exams themselves are fast approaching and soon after they conclude i'll be back birding, snapping and blogging. The exams start on the 7th of June and I will be finished by the 20th, and am already looking forward to throwing the books aside and making the most of the summer.
    I haven't been doing much concerted birding this spring, the best bird being a curlew sandpiper on patch. Of late I have of course been rather cooped up in the house, but all the same I have managed to get out the odd evening to take some photos. I've found myself drawn to macro photography in the last while as it allows me to take advantage of what's nearby, with a smorgasboard of invertebrate life frequenting the garden. Butterflies and damselflies are particular favourite subjects of mine, and can prove to be beautiful posers. I'm still relatively new to macro photography, and am continuously experimenting with various depths of field, angles and the like, but it's proving very enjoyable. I'm looking forward to the emergence of some of the more characteristic summer species, such as the stunning Marsh Fritillary butterfly, in the coming weeks. The last (and only) time I photographed a Marsh Fritillary was an individual in the beak of a stonechat, so for the sake of the local fritillary population I hope the stonechats have moved on to a different field. This particular species of butterfly has the unenviable title of being Irelands only protected insect. From what I've observed their colonies are usually found in fields of devils-bit-scabious, their food plant. A very charismatic insect.
    Another species of butterfly currently on the wing, and one of my personal favourites, is the diminutive Green Hairstreak. No larger than a thumbnail, the Green Hairstreak has plain brown upper-wings, but this is immaterial, as it is almost impossible to see them, due to the insect always resting with its wings closed. The reverse of the wings is exposed when the butterfly alights, and is why they stand out among all other species to me. The underwing is an extraordinarily iridescent emerald colour which glimmers and gleams in the sun. One would imagine such a gaudy looking creature would soon be snatched up by any passing predators. Not so. Not only does the Hairstreak choose carefully matching green leaves on which to perch, it has also evolved specialised bio-photonic crystals in its wing scales. These minuscule crystals reflect polarised light, which allows the butterfly to advertise to potential mates. However this does not divulge its location to passing predators, as birds eyes are insensitive to this particular polarised light. I was lucky enough to stumble across a perched Green Hairstreak on a recent evening bog walk, and it allowed for some close inspection. Note the black-and-white striped antennae!
    So now you know what's been occupying my mind lately. I'd imagine there aren't many leaving-certs in the country obsessing over the minutiae of a butterfly wing this May, here's hoping it plays to my advantage if a suitable English essay title lends itself to discussion of such fantastic details. Thanks for checking in. That's it from me until next month!
One from the archives, stonechat eating one of our rarest butterflies!
Green Hairstreak

Green Hairstreak

Large Red Damselfly

Green-Veined White

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Winter Birding

After a long, unintentional hiatus of basically the whole Autumn, mostly due to a lack of time (and a small lack of determination) I've decided to get typing again and put together another blog post. With good intentions I could promise more in the next few weeks however with mock exams coming up I don't know how much spare time i'll have, but we'll see. 
    I may not have been blogging, but I have not stopped birding, or taking photos for that matter. School is admittedly an obstacle, this year being that of my leaving certificate, but if I could not get out I'd surely go insane.
   By far the best bird I've seen in recent weeks was a fantastic female Snowy Owl in the wild, wet and quite remote bog west of Spiddal. The bird was picked up by Paul Troake on the 10th of December (fair play Paul!) and so I was on site the following afternoon after a hellish bike ride out from Barna. No sooner had I clambered up the sodden hill and set up the scope, than I found myself looking at the distant white speck that was oh-so-certainly a Snowy Owl. In the effort to get to within at least a kilometre of the bird, I quickly made my way across the open bog, where I met up with Dermot Breen, who i'd been unsuccessfully trying to get on the bird from afar. After cresting an unseen ridge we both managed to get pretty good views of the bird. I was so enamoured with the Owl that I went back two weeks later for seconds, and the day after again for even more! I've now gone a whole 18 days without seeing a Snowy Owl and think I might be getting withdrawal symptoms, could be time for another trip out west sometime soon...
    Patchwise I had a good December, finding a nice first winter/female type Black Redstart at Barna Pier, the first site record. Later on in December I managed to pick up a Forsters Tern at Barna Pier too, on the rocks to the west of the Pier. Although there's every chance that it's the returning bird from Nimmo's I was nonetheless utterly taken aback to see it there, another site first. 
    The past two months have been productive for wildfowling too. While out with Dermot I got to see Lesser Scaup and Green-winged Teal, although these distant birds only allow for dodgy phone-scoped record shots. 

Moving Portrait of some sedentary Granite boulders. This is about equal to the best binocular view to be had at this distance 

if you use your imagination you can just about make out a snowy owl. Scope views were actually quite amazing from even this distance
The Black Redstart at Barna Pier, a bit of a rare treat so I spent a good while photographing it

The Forsters Tern at Barna Pier. Note ringed sandwich tern to its left

Turnstones rifling through sand

Garden birding ends up becoming the staple of an exam-preparing student like myself. Nothing better to bring oneself back to the present moment like the incessant flitter of a chiming Goldcrest.