Hotspot Birding: In and out of lockdown

After strict lockdown was partially eased I had justifications for being out and about: our allotment needed watering, weeding and sowing, and that was in Bovera, some 40 kilometres from our apartment in Lleida. Furthermore, the self-employed were allowed out to go about our business. Now although clients – and hence paid work – were going to be rarer than Black Vultures from our balcony I could still make observations and take photos for publicity reasons and social media, and carry out my own bird counts and check out new areas. That at least is what I was going to explain if stopped by the police!

Late April and early May just had to be good for wader passage, and that meant checking out 3 main sites: (i) Lo Clot d’Unilla to the north of Lleida, as just enough rain had fallen to keep this temporary lagoon with an area of open water; (ii) the muddy patches around the edges of Estany d’Ivars; and (iii) the ricefields of Fondo de Llitera.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole photo by Tom Verhuist

However, best laid plans … and all that. (i) Lo Clot d’Unilla had a smallish area of water that SHOULD have attracted more waders, but despite a Collared Pratincole and 22 Bar-tailed Godwits (a rarity for the area), Little Ringed Plovers and a few Wood Sandpipers I came away feeling disappointed. (ii) Even more disappointing was the Estany d’Ivars, with virtually NO good wader habitat. (iii) Checking past notebooks and making several dashes for the ricefields had me frowning and scratching my head: Why hadn’t they flooded the fields yet, even in early May?

On the positive side my search for passage Wood Warblers was successful, with 2 in a tree on the edge of the Alfés aerodrome, along with Bonelli’s Warbler and Willow Warblers, and a nearby Garden Warbler thrown in for good measure! And on what must have been the latest date possible to see the Wood Warblers.

Western Orphean Warbler

Western Orphean Warbler photo by JM Breider

Just half an hour later I had seen a handsome male Ortolan Bunting on the edge of the aerodrome too, so it was a memorable day indeed. Then for most of May I was pretty inactive, until Florinda convinced me to go for a walk with her on the outskirts of Lleida, and we managed to set eyes on one of the country’s rarest breeding birds: the Lesser Grey Shrike. That was followed by a roadside Red-footed Falcon near Alfés, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Western Orphean Warbler in the north of the Hotspot, a couple of Squacco Herons in the heron and egret colony at Rufea, 2 Eurasian Jays in the Sierra Llarga, a male Spanish Sparrow and a Common Tern at Alfés, and a brief flyby Eleonora’s Falcon in mid-June.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Black-bellied Sandgrouse photo by Jordi Bas

Running total 205 species. It wasn’t going to be a record year, but at least some of the difficult target birds had made it onto the list. And perhaps I could still pick up Little Stint, Common Whitethroat, Tawny Pipit and Osprey in the autumn migration period.

Hotspot birding: lockdown

Lockdown balcony birding

Lockdown balcony birding

In Catalonia, as in Spain, we were under strict lockdown for more than a month, from mid-March. Some exceptions were phased in, such as allowing access to non-commercial allotments, followed by a return to mobility for work purposes.

In practice that meant that the only safe birding to be had during the peak spring migration period was balcony birding. I have to say that it was enormously frustrating, but not without its interest. If only I had maintained my balcony list which I started when we moved into our apartment, more than 15 years ago!

During that time I would spend many an hour pacing up and down our balcony, scrutinizing the sky for anything that moved. There was always something, if only Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves and Greenfinches. It was also interesting, and at times a little unnerving too, to compare notes with other birders doing the same from their balconies around Spain via the Facebook Covid-19 birding page.

Birding from home

Covid balcony birders

Inevitably those birding in the south of Spain would have announced the arrival of birds such as Common Swift or Willow Warbler well in advance of us birders up north. Nevertheless, we usually caught up in the end, and once again I was extremely grateful that our balcony view to the north has relatively wide-open views, because of the public square where no buildings have been erected.

Balcony birding in Lleida

Balcony birding in Lleida

The only unique Hotspot species that I added, and still have yet to see elsewhere, was a surprise Black Vulture. But raptor interest was the main ingredient of my diligence, with quite remarkable observations of no fewer than 4 eagle species, with Bonelli’s Eagle, Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle and Short-toed Eagle! Then there was a distant Merlin, a Peregrine (thanks swallows for alerting me to that one!), three Goshawk days, a couple of Alpine Swifts, Stone Curlews and Hoopoes, a single male Common Redstart, and calling Scop’s Owls and Red-necked Nightjars. The last species of note was a Purple Heron, and small flocks of Honey Buzzards heading north on the 1st May.

Red-necked Nightjar

Red-necked Nightjar photo by Eva Solanes

One morning Florinda said “The only thing that gets you out of bed early is your balcony birding”, and you know, as usual, it was true.

Hotspot birding: pre-lockdown

February was a quiet month,

and I must admit I failed dismally in seeing any of my more “remotely possible” target birds I had set for the month – things like Yellowhammer, Crossbill, Jack Snipe…

Nevertheless, there was a good show of migrating Common Cranes, including a flock or two migrating over our dwelling in Lleida as night fell. Red Crested Pochard was the only noteworthy new species until the arrival of March saw a change of pace. First of all I made a local “twitch” to see a male Ferruginous Duck on the extreme western edge of the Hotspot, and on the same day went to check on the Moustached Warblers, to see if they were singing – and they were.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard photo by Beat Rüegger

My first Zitting Cisticola of the year made me wait until the 8th March, and then the next day I was out on the job, guiding Vreni, a nice lady from Switzerland, around my home patch. That meant I was able to rake in many of the early migrants – swallows, house martins and the like – as well as a single Black-tailed Godwit at the Estany d’Ivars.

Egyptian Vulture

Egyptian Vulture, photo by Beat Rüegger

On the 11th March, again with Vreni we had a good run on the plains, with singing Dupont’s Lark, and at least 6 Lesser Short-toed Larks, 2 sprightly and entertaining Great Spotted Cuckoos and a Short-toed Eagle. The next day, and the last for Vreni, the Hotspot list grew with 2 more species: Garganey and Egyptian Vulture. With the total now at 148 things were going smoothly, and then, well then the world changed for us all with the lockdown announcement…

we had a good run on the plains, with singing Dupont’s Lark, and at least 6 Lesser Short-toed Larks

Giving indications to other birders – and following them too!

A familiar exchange betweeen birders in the field:

“Where? Where is it?”
“Well, see the green tree?”
“Which one? They’re all green!”
(Impatiently) “The one I’m looking at!”

How can we avoid this situation, where the birder-with-the-bird is giving poor indications to another birder-without-the-bird, and furthermore, the birder-without-the-bird is not making the right moves to line up and look in the right direction?

If you are interested in some tips about giving indications to other birders in the field, then read on…

Birding and finding the bird

Birding and finding the bird

Clockwork

  • 12 o’clock is usually agreed to be “straight out” (ie from inside a car looking out the windscreen, from the shore looking out to sea, etc) and not “straight out from me” or “the direction I’m looking”!
  • The direction you are trying to communicate is used by giving its relationship to the position of 12 o’clock. So for example, 3 o’clock will be at a right angle on the right, 9 o’clock will be at a right angle on the left, 6 o’clock will be behind you and opposite 12 ‘clock, etc.
  • For more precision you can also use half hours, if the audience can take it. So for example, you can say between 1 and 2 o’clock, at about 1.30.

Landmarks

  • Then, when you have people looking in the general direction, use land marks or more obvious features of the landscape, and come down, go up, etc. For example, “See the red and white mast in the distance? Come down a bit and then go one binocular width to the right of that”
  • When giving indications look for descriptive markers in the foreground and the background, and not just on the same plane as the bird is on.

Distance with binoculars and fingers

  • A binocular width is your field of vision when looking through binoculars. It’s not exactly the same for everybody, but gives an idea, especially when there are few features to use.
  • Alternatively, and especially for “up” or “down”, try using “fingers” or “hands” to mark distances. You do this by fully extending your arm, closing one eye and measuring and communicating the distance between the objects with fingers or hands.

Look where I’m looking!

  • And when someone is looking in a certain direction and trying to explain the position of a bird, don’t look in a different direction! It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised, it’s almost as if some people look at where they would like the bird to be! To help this process stand beside or directly behind the observer to try and get the same line of view.
  • Watch and follow instructions with or without binoculars, according to what the observer tells you e.g. if he/she tells you to look without bins then do so!
  • Avoid pointing using rapid and obvious hand movements, as most birds are sensitive to this, don’t like being watched and may feel that they can be harmed. This may make them fly off.
  • If the bird is moving in one direction call a point just ahead of where it is going to be.
  • Be willing to help others in the group, it will make the guide’s job much easier, gives everyone a chance to see the birds, and frees time to see more birds.
  • Make sure the starting point is clear to all: if you get the wrong bush/rock/tree from the beginning it will be very hard to get on your mark.
  • Acknowledge when you see/can’t see the bird, when you have followed instructions successfully or not, so that your guide knows if you’re on the same page.
  • Laser pointers are of great use in the tropics, but less so in open steppes, or wetlands. When using them be sure not to shine them on the birds themselves, but rather focus the point below, to the right/left of or above the bird.

And of course, may the birds be with you!

What birds to look for in July

binoculars in hand

What to look for in…

July is a quiet month on the birding front – if what you are looking for is thrills of new species. Here in Catalonia many birders will switch to low-maintenance opportunistic birding, family holidays, perhaps with the odd morning excursion to be back home before the heat of the day kicks in. Others will focus more on butterflies.

That’s not to say that things aren’t happening in the bird world all around us though. You just need a little more imagination and dedication to dig out the rewards. For example, postnuptial wader passage makes a discrete start, with species such as Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover making up the volume, with sprinklings from species such as Ruff, Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit and Little Stint, if you can find suitable habitat (read “mud”).

Wood Sandpiper

Look out for Wood Sandpipers (photo by Steve Lane)

At open-water wetland sites look out for Garganeys – however, they won’t be males in breeding plumage, so you will have to look close to avoid confusion with eclipse plumage Eurasian Teals. White storks will also be passing through in number, although these days it’s difficult to discern the abundant local birds from those just passing through.

Family groups are another key element of the month. It’s still worth the while getting out and about in the fading evening light, especially in suitable dryland areas, where you have the chance of encountering the less clued up young of Long-eared Owl, usually giving themselves away by their squeaky calls, and even Red-necked Nightjar, which will often sit on sandy tracks and let themselves be watched in your car headlights.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl, Asio otus. Photo by Jeremy Bradshaw

Then large communal roosts of bubbling Bee-eaters will give you a taste of  the months to come.

2020 Hotspot birding summary 1: January

Birding my Lleida-based Hotspot …

Birding my Lleida-based Hotspot throught the month of January I have reached 128 species, spent 65 litres of fuel, done 16 birding excursions – January’s a quiet month on the work front. Also 13 different Hoopoes seen, as I’ve started counting them individually!

But birds are not numbers… birds are colours, calls, encounters, walks, contemplation, countryside, frustration, satisfaction, and balance. And more…

Bonelli’s Eagle, Aquila fasciata

It surprises me that with Lleida shrouded in fog for most of the month I actually managed to see some of these birds, as what springs to mind above all are the mornings of frustration when looking out the window into thick, stagnant, fog and feeling it was hardly worth getting up.
However, there have been many highlights:

  • A Saturday morning with Florinda at the extreme north of the hotspot, watching Dippers in the river, a Wallcreeper flit across the rock face, a perched Peregrine and a small flock of Rock Buntings.
  • All the “normal” wintering species, including Brambling, Siskin, Fieldfare, Redwing, Hawfinch, Merlin, Hen Harrier
  • Regular white-spotted Bluethroats in the extreme east, most in delightful colourful plumage
  • Goldcrests, Coal Tits, Bearded Tits and a huge bunting flock in the extreme south
  • A Herring Gull and a Black Stork at the city dump
  • The local Eagle Owl perched in its regular spot after 3 blank look-ins
  • Flocks of Little Bustards, Stone Curlews and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a single, solitary Bonelli’s Eagle

Love to love Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Pterocles alchata

Eagle Owl, Bubo bubo

I had a couple of half-hearted attempts at locating the Common Gull reported on the Estany d’Ivars – without luck – as well as a single Jack Snipe at the same location. But winter’s not over yet, is it?

Hotspot 2020 diaries: Not a good day for eagles

Here we go again…

This is getting repetitive: Florinda and I woke up early to go out birding in the Hotspot, this time to the north of Lleida, pulled up the blinds and… fog. Again, here we go again. However, I was determined to give it a go, as the increased elevation at the rocky hills we were heading to could well play in our favour, and take us out of these damn groundclouds.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to drive too far before we emerged into the sunshine, getting a glimpse of how other people must live. Our destination was a reservoir set into craggy scenery, and at the northern extremes of the Hotspot. It was cold, below zero, so we wrapped up in our “Iceland” gear, and walked down to the crystalline stretch of river. In less than a couple of minutes we were enjoying marvellous views of a White-throated Dipper, Cinclus cinclus, probably of the cinclus race. We watched at our leisure as the Dipper perched, swam, walked under water and flew, enjoying every moment.

Florinda enjoying a Dipper

I shouldn’t forget to mention that before reaching this point I had already spotted a couple of Rock Buntings, another Hotspot “target” species I was anticipating having to search high and low for, so the overall satisfaction was enormous.

Then there was also Crag Martins, Rock Sparrows, a Hawfinch, before we followed the upper road to overlook the reservoir. Things were calm, except… well, I’ll talk about that in another post. For now let’s stick to the birds.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes. Photo by Franck Renard.

Several Griffon Vultures sat hunched up on the rocks, and didn’t look like they were going to go anywhere fast. Even those in the shade couldn’t be bothered to move to a sunnier perch. I scanned, high and low, not really daring to hope for a Wallcreeper, but the thought was certainly in the back of my mind. I went one way and Florinda another, and I had just spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched on a rock and was scoping it when I heard Florinda calling my name. What, did she have the eagle (Bonelli’s Eagle) I thought, as I whipped up my scope and ran back to where she was?

“Where were you? I’ve been calling!”

“I couldn’t go any faster!”, I replied, panting lightly. “What is it? The eagle?”

“Wallcreeper!” she answered.

But by the time I had understood and followed her directions there was no sign of the Wallcreeper. Take it with philosophy, Steve, I thought.

“Want to see the Peregrine?” I asked, after some more fruitless scanning.

So we went to see the perched Peregrine Falcon, which by that time had also decided to go somewhere else. Result: no Peregrine for Florinda, no Wallcreeper for Steve.

“Oh well, I’ll buy you a coffee and a croissant, how about that?

She accepted my offer and we walked back to the car. The car – no birder who has not seen a key bird he/she’s been looking for can’t get back into the car without having “one last look”, right? Well, I had that one last look, and open-mouthed found myself watching a Wallcreeper flying across my binocular vision and disappearing around a crag, its wing tips flashing white in the sun.

Then we descended into the fog once more, and I had already forgotten my promise to buy Florinda a coffee and a croissant.

Postcards from Marvellous May

Marvellous May Tour

For a change we invite you to just sit back and enjoy the pictures…

Ebro delta sunrise, el Fangar

We stay at the bird-rich Ebro Delta for 2 nights…

Hosteria de Guara, in the Sierra de Guara

… and then, alas, only one night at the lovely Hosteria de Guara in the Sierra de Guara…

Marvellous May: fields full of poppies

… but we make up for it, by staying in the Roncal Valley for 3 nights …

An old bridge in the Roncal Valley, Navarra

Follow the green Roncal Valley into the Pyrenees

… and we finish in style in southern Navarra, with steppes, wetlands and forests.

The Bárdenas Reales, Navarra

Another paradise lost

Things aren’t what they used to be…

Utxesa reservoir aquatic census 17th January 1998:
34 Coot
13 Great Crested Grebe
11 Teal
37 Mallard
11 Grey Heron
264 Great Cormorant
68 Shoveler
76 Common Pochard
1,800 Black-heded Gull
1 Ferruginous Duck

Another foggy day at Utxesa

A visit to Utxesa this January 10th 2020 (22 years later)
3 Moorhen
1 Black-headed Gull
11 Mallard
2 Grey Heron
5 Mute Swan

And no, it wasn’t because of the fog!

Hotspot 2020: the first week

Fog.

Here in Catalonia Lleida is well known for its fog. And deservedly so. This week the sun came out for about half an hour, setting off memes and whatsapp funnies about the inhabitants of Lleida seeing the sun again after weeks of fog.

Understandably, birding in such conditions is a challenge, not just for the eyes, but also for the observer’s enthusiasm. Nevertheless, in a period with little work I’ve been able to get out and about on a few occasions, boosting the Hotspot list to 95 species.

The Black Stork at the Lleida city dump gave me a run for my money, and I was close to despair when at first a second visit to search for this bird drew a blank. There were hundreds of White Storks, but no Black Stork – that is until a car speeding around inside the dump put up a lot of the birds there, one of which was the Black Stork. The bird flew into the most conspicuous spot possible, making one think that “How could you possibly miss it?”.

White Storks and Black Stork at the local dump

Combining this with a quick visit to the Alfés plains and Aspa revealed Hawfinch and a good number of Redwings, two of the winter species I was keen on seeing.

The next sortie was to the western fringe of the Hotspot, with the hope of a Ferruginous Duck on a reservoir where it has been frequently recorded. A male Tufted Duck took its place, which tempered the mild disappointment of not finding any Ferruginous Ducks. Of note were 35 Shelducks, a juvenile Goshawk and about 15 Ruffs (no, they weren’t Golden Plovers) in an alfalfa field – in January!

Then the last visit was to Utxesa. I planned an early visit but when before dawn I pulled up the blinds to look outside the fog was dense, and I had to wonder if it was worth the effort. I soldiered on though, not one to appreciate the virtues of getting up early if it wasn’t for birding.

Birding in the fog

The fog did not lift. Walking under the pine trees at Utxesa was like walking around in the cloud forest, with the trees dripping rain drops. I could see virtually nothing, but by call picked up Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper. The birding highlight of the morning was a group of about 15 Siskins, which allowed me to approach within 10 metres. Something to enjoy before beating a retreat and planning the next excursion.

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