While driving all the way from Stuttgart to Calais, we listened to a radio documentary about 2pac, the hip hop artist that was gunned down a long time ago. He introduced the ridiculous phrase thug-life, and then later on Mallorca, we bumped into a group of thug-lifers, thus the phrase became a bit of a meme inside our trio.
The Elegant Tern was the sole reason for us going to Valencia. We had earlier given the Tern 2 days, driving all the way to Calais and dipping was hard. Furthermore, when we were in souther Spain, in the Gibraltar area an Elegant Tern was reported in the harbour of Cadiz. That was just a single report, so we decided to not go for the Cadiz bird.
When we arrived at Valencia thing started to go sour, first the car rental agency under performed, then we got news from Ricard Gutierrez from Rare Birds Spain that the reserve where the Elegant Tern roosts during day was closed during weekends. Very strange. Secondly on our way to the booked hotel, we call them and they say that they have no rooms. Later we get an SMS from that same hotel, where they say that they have another house for the same price. Fine we drive there only to be told that the house is not available. Booked another hotel, arrive there and there is no booking, nor any available beds. Bad start on the Valencia twitch.
Saturday morning, we park ourselves on the beach, between the litle lake with a Sandwitch tern Colony and the sea with the idea of catching the terns when they move between the nesting colony and the sea. Lots of Sandwitch Terns pass by between morning and noon, no terns with orange beaks though. Lots of Common Tern though. Mediterranean Gulls and Audouin’s Gull are patrolling the beach. Different age classes.
After lunch we decide to break into the nature reserve by jumping the 2.5 meter high wall.
We walk silently and slowly through the thorny forest – then Marten whispers – people, I see people. We hunch down waiting, I see them and they’re just tourists. What!! We decide to act as tourists too. We speak to some folks and this part of the Nature Reserve is open on Saturdays until 2 pm, it’s the wrong lake though. The lake in this part hosts a colony of Common Terns. We’re back on square one again.
We drove by the entrance and there are guards with batons there, so we decide to wait until after 2 pm when the guards are no longer there. We took position on a nearby road where we can sometimes get a glimpse of a Sandwitch Tern. A couple of Little Bitterns are calling from the reeds.
Suddenly Erik calls out – I have the bird. Crappy UTV (Untickable View) Not good enough, so we decide to drive around and jump another wall, this time to the right part of the reserve.
At the inside, we climb a small sandy hill and – the Elegant Terns are down there, roosting. What a twitch.
We’re on a Euro trip, picking off birds here and there. Lithuania, Poland, South Germany, Calais France, back to Germany, Gibraltar, Mallorca, …..
The first bird was Aquatic Warbler in Poland. It was a close call that we went for the Albatross that had been seen regularly on Sylt, north-west Germany but the Albatross decided to leave just as our Euro trip started, so we went to Poland instead.
Our original plan was to try for the Aquatic Warbler during migration. We were told that it’s reasonably easy in Portugal during migration, late August. It’s also a possibility in Holland during migration. We felt this was a bit random and decided to twitch it at one of the breeding sites in Poland instead. Flew to Lithuania and drove to Bialystok in eastern Poland. Arrived late at the site and slept in the car. At dawn the warblers were singing in the marsh and we were able to locate a singing male fairly easy.
Off to Germany and their two iconic Cat-C species. The Yellow-headed Amazon in downtown Stuttgart and the Swan Goose in downtown Heidelberg. Both were easy to find.
At this point, we had a few options available. A White-winged Scooter in Scotland, the possibility of the Albatross becoming twitchable again as well as an Elegant Tern that had been very stable close to Calais on the English Channel. We opted for the tern. This was also close to forests with known populations of Reeve’s Pheasant. We twitched the pheasant easily. Our friend PAC said that these pheasants are not tickable, however other birders (on Netfugl) tick Reeve’s Pheasant around Calais and until some French birding committee says that these birds are cage birds we tick it. The former population on Îles d’Hyères is apparently extinct.
These birds, the pheasants are assisted by humans. They are bred and released for hunting. OTOH, so are Ring-necked Pheasants, all over Europe. We tick the Ring-necked Pheasant without hesitation (unless you are Dutch)
Then we went for the tern. It had been seen regularly amongst a colony of Sandwich Terns on a beach just north of Calais. We arrived at the beach in the evening and scanned through the Tern colony. Next day we started at dawn, and searched and walked the beaches to no avail. The Elegant Tern just wasn’t there.
Eventually we gave up on the tern and drove all the way back to Stuttgart to return the car and fly on to Malaga, southern Spain. (Today, when I write this, we see that the damned Tern is back again)
Two important birds in the Gibraltar area, the first one – where we had received a good spot from Mårtens friend Rafa Benjumea (from Ecotonobirding ) for Iberian Chiffchaff. We played our mobtape, which has proved extremely successful. No Chiffchaff appeared so we gave up and went to another spot, a spectacular cliff overlooking the strait of Gibraltar. The bird which was possible here was White-rumped Swift. We scanned the area for a few hours. An Eleonora Falcon came flying – this was a year tick and a lifer for Erik and me.
Balearic Shearwaters flying outside the cliffs, also a good bird. Far away, but identifiable.
So – with this streak of bad luck, dipped Tern, no Chiffchaff nor the Swift we had lunch. No time to relax, just push on. We eBirded another point for the Swift and went there, just north of Gibraltar. Lots of swifts in the air, and after maybe an hour, we found two White-rumped Swifts flying. We got good views in the scope but no pictures. Phuuu, at last, now it’s turning. Went to a strange hotel very close to the site for the Chiffchaff, the idea being that we jump up very early in the morning looking for it again. Just as we park the car at the hotel, an Iberian Chiffchaff shows well in the hotel garden. Dang.
Move fast, next day we flew to Mallorca. Two important birds there, the newly split Mediterranean Flycatcher which was very easy. They were virtually everywhere on Mallorca.
Harder bird to find was the Balearic Warbler. We tried first one place close to Port de Pallenca where it had been reported, we only saw Sardinian Warblers there though. Next we tried a valley close by. Walking into the stony valley, Mårten and Erik hear the bird calling faaaar away. Hyper-hearing. It’s in the bushes, and they sort of hear it maybe calling very low. I cannot hear a thing, but we make our way through the thorns and suddenly we flush a small dark bird. It lands maybe 100 meters away and we can see it, it’s the Balearic Warbler. It came in closer as we playbacked the song and the call and we got excellent, but short views.
Mallorca cleaned up, next stop before we go to Corsica is Valencia where a pair of breeding Elegant Terns appears to be possible.
We decided to go to Svalbard quite some time ago. There was a twitchable Ivory Gull in Germany this spring, the bird was slowly dying on a muddy field in Germany and we wanted better. The Ivory Gull is the breeding price bird of Svalbard, all the other species are in theory possible to get at other, more easily accessible places. Thus, we went for 3 full days of birding on Svalbard.
First day was spent birding in and around Longyearbyen and we fairly quickly racked up all the expected species – except Ivory Gull. First bird was Snow Bunting, singing through the hotel windows. Common everywhere.
A walk along the estuary at Longyearbyen is awesome birding. Fairly few species but high quality birds. Unexpected – to us – was the amount of Purple Sandpipers, they were everywhere. All time high for all of us on that bird.
Many of them ringed by local ornithologists. Barnacle Goose were abundant as well as Pink-footed Goose.
You are not allowed to wander around by yourself on Svalbard due to the Polar Bear hazard. We never saw any Polar Bears during our three day visit, they are further north where the pack ice is. Regardless, in order to walk about you need a gun. We had brought a gun from home and were thus free to walk around as we wanted.
Other birds along the estuary were both Phalaropes, Dunlins, Glaucous Gull, Kittiwake, Arctic Skua and Common Eider.
The Common Eider were nesting just along the road, next to the gravel.
Just as we stood looking at the cute Ducklings, and Arctic Fox turned up and smartly snatched one of the Ducklings.
After Lunch we walked the valley Björndalen, west of the village. There we found our first close and possible to photograph, King Eider.
Later we found a few female King Eiders too, they have a nice smile in their appearance contributing to our smiles.
On the way back from Björndalen we saw our only Ptarmigan on the trip. These Ptarmigans are clearly bigger than the ones we have at home. We heard that the Norwegians have already split it, calling it Spetsbergsripa.
No Ivory Gull though, there were quite a few recent reports of Ivory Gull from Longyearbyen and we searched all the Dog Kennels and the harbour to no avail.
Next day we went on a boat trip some two hours north of Longyearbyen. The goal was a known herd of Walruses. Birding on the sea from the boat was spectacular and we got excellent views of the sea birds. Especially the groups of fast flying Little Auk were nice.
Other sea birds were Brünnich’s Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Norhern Fulmar.
We saw two Blue Whales in the distance and went closer. This is one impressive mammal. Eventually we arrived at the place for the Walruses. As from now on, we’re in love with Walruses, they way they look, move and fart is world class.
On the way back, close to Longyearbyen a Long-tailed Skua was resting on the water.
Still no Ivory Gull though. In the evening we took another walk up the valley from Longyearbyen. Pectoral Sandpiper had been reported there recently but we never found any.
Next, and last day, we took yet another boat trip, this time much further away to the most northerly village in the world Ny-Ålesund. Ivory Gull had been seen there just a few days by our friend Jens Wikström who works as a guide on ships that cruise Svalbard. This time the weather was even better than the day before, the sea was completely calm and the sun was shining giving us even better views and photographs of the sea birds. When we finally see the village we’re hyped to max, expecting the Ivory Gull. Just as the boat enters the harbour, I’m squeezed in by other passengers, Mårten is inside putting on his shoes, then Erik screams IVORY GULL. Any .. yeyyy, it came flying in.
Mission complete. We then spent a couple of hours in the village and never saw the Gull again. We were lucky – again. On the other hand someone once said that if you’re lucky all the time – then it’s skill.
The last leg of our long trip that started with Alexandrine Parakeet in a park in Amsterdam in March is a trip to the Ural Mountains.
It’s a wild mostly inhabited area with large spruce forests. The mountains themselves are not especially high, more like the mountains at home, the Swedish Fjällen.
We went by night train from Yekaterineburg to Serov, and then by bus to Severouralsk where we were picked up by Victor the driver/camp master and Galina, camp cook from heaven. We packed all the gear into their UAZ and drove to the first camp site, just below Kvarkush plateau. White’s Thrush and Red-flanked Bluetails singing whenever we made a stop. We spent in total 5 nights at the first camp site. Around the camp, one of the most common bird was Arctic Warbler, singing everywhere.
Day two we hiked up to the plateau, good birding along the path as well as up there. Weather was bad though, rainy and cold. We found a nest of Little Buntings along the path.
Up on the Plateau we spread out and searched for Grouse. Soon we found a few Willow Grouses.
The Siberian Rubythroats were singing from the bushes, their throats shining inside the grey foliage.
Great Snipe was displaying in the rain, and with playback we got to see one very well.
The bad weather forced us to go back. In general here, the weather was usually good or even very good early in the mornings, with heavy rain in the afternoons.
In the late afternoon we birded the lower areas around the camp. Black-throated Thrush was reasonably common.
Next day we drove with the UAZ to an area with an open marsh and wet forest. The habitat was ideal for Rustic Bunting and we split up into two teams searching. Nutcrackers were abundant in that area, flying around in loose groups making ruckus.
Eventually we hear the Rustic Bunting singing, and we’re able to get to the bird.
The next day we made yet another hike up onto the plateau. This time going further up. Singing Bluetails on the way up.
This was a bird very high up on my want-to-see list. Almost twenty years ago me and hacker/math/computer friends of mine started our first Internet company and we named the company Bluetail. Now I finally got to see the bird.
Once above the tree line, we stumble onto a family of Weasels.
And just shortly after that, a large Brown Bear stands on its hind legs looking at us, it takes off running and three cubs follow. Stunning.
We go higher, aiming for an area that from a distance looked good for Dotterel. We never found any Dotterels, however we found both a singing Lapland Bunting and Rock Ptarmigans. The Bunting is very rare in the area.
Next camp site was close to the Ridge. Here Bluetails were singing constantly around the camp. The price bird on the ridge is the Black-throated Accentor. First day was just rain, we walked halfway up to the ridge anyway and found a nest of White’s Thrush.
Next day, we hiked up towards the ridge and soon hear singing Yellow-browed Warblers. This is a species we thought would be common in the area as a whole but it was only here, just below the ridge it was common.
We started to search the forest which is known to hold the Accentors, and fairly quick, we hear a bird singing. It responds to playback and we get exceptional views.
This is a very good WP bird, and to be able to see and hear it singing at the breeding site is a privilege.
With Black-throated Accentor in the bag, we were now almost done in the Urals, only Siberian Tit remaining. The forest around our camp, and also along the path up to the ridge looked like ideal habitat for Siberian Tit. Next day we split up from the camp and started to search for the Tit. We haven’t even begun the actual search when Raul calls out, he found a pair just 50 meters away from our camp.
Cleanup in the Urals. We thought that maybe we had allocated too much time for our Russia trip, we hadn’t. It takes time to find these species. Also, quite a lot of time in Russia was lost due to rain and bad weather.
Night train back to Yekaterinenburg. Arrived early in the morning and this time, a friend of Sasha had located a nest of Azure Tit. It felt really good to be able to finally get the Azure Tit which we had searched so hard for. Cred to Ural Expeditions here, they knew we craved this bird, and found a nest in Yekaterinenburg for us.
This is last birding day in Russia, and we attempted a long shot. We went back to the place where we earlier had a few hybrids Yellowhammer/Pine bunting. No Pine Buntings, but quite a few Oriental Turtle Doves close to Monetny.
The Russia trip has been a success, we have found everything we wanted to find and more. Spent the last night in the city drinking copious amounts of vodka in bars and playing chess with Russians.
We’re in Russia, and we love it. This country rocks. Putin may do strange things, but what we see, this sure looks good. We have a setup here with a full-package deal from Ural Expeditions. This is sort of required to do a proper Ural tour, expensive but good. In the Yekaterinburg area we have a van, a driver Igor and our guide, Sasja.
First day of birding we went straight to a famous site close to the airport, packed breakfast and dawn. The first Booted Warbler sung as we opened the car doors.
These marshes held a plethora of new WP birds for us, and just in a few hours we ticked off Grasshopper Warbler, Thrush Nightingale, Long-Tailed Rosefinch and a fast over flying Oriental Turle Dove.
Other nice species at the Airport marshes:
After a wonderful breakfast in the lingering morning, we went to another spot close by which held a number of breeding Great Snipes.
Nice little wetland with breeding Godwits and Red-shanks
Keep at it, we went to another local site called, Monetny which is an amazing site, with a dirt road passing thorough prime marsh habitat. First thing, we came into the habitat and we heard River Warbler calling, next we hear Greenish Warbler and then Lanceolated. Dream birds.
Oriental Cuckoo called from far away and we found the first of hopefully many Olive-backed Pipits. The site is famous for Azur Tit, we didn’t find any though.
At the end of the day, we had picked up 11 new WP ticks. We remember when we had the pelagic in April in Kuwait, we had 10 new ticks that day and Paul Chapman said, this was probably the last day you had 10 new ticks. Haha, he was wrong.
Day two, started out early in a park close to the city, Lake Shartash where Sasja had seen the Azur Tits just two weeks ago. No tits there. Tried a few other spots, and finally went to a spot an hour north of the city. This was the place where Sasja had seen Yellow-breasted Bunting two weeks ago, a known nesting site. Fairly long walk through woods and moor, and we arrived at the spot. Entirely different habitat to what we believed was the right habitat for the enigmatic bunting. The spot was a classical Swedish/Russian taiga marsh with small Pines and Cloudberries. We split up, and after half an hour Mårten calls on the Walkie and says – WE HAVE THE BIRD. Raul and I run there but when we arrive, the bunting is gone. We walk back and forth, searching, no Bunting. Eventually the bird responds to playback and flies over, Raul and I see a Bunting, but that’s all. Sigh. One hour later, after thorough search we connect with a male. Poor pics, but better video. What a bird.
Day three, rain. We’re sleeping in a wonderful camp full of well behaving children on some sort of Russian wilderness course. We eat with the kids and it’s just great – apart from the rain which pretty much rules out birding. Nevertheless we ignore that and walk along a swampy area for a couple of hours searching for Rustic Bunting. None there. Back to camp and drink coffee and read. Eventually, bored out of our sculls we go out again for a walk. Mårten and Erik gets to see a Capercaille!! The infamous Difference List is finally empty, it hasn’t been empty since January 1 when Mårten saw a Moustached Warbler and Erik and I did not.
Day 4 in Lower Urals, this is Azur Tit day. We’re on a quest. Started out really early in Monetny, walking slowly playbacking the darned Tit. Apart from not finding the Azur Tit during the entire day, we had some fantastic birding this day, with sightings of Oriental cuckoo and much more. Best, and a bit unexpected were in total three Siberian Ruby-throats.
What a stunner. Pretty wasted after a long walk through the marshes we come back to the van, the driver, Igor, sees us and waves – come come. A Great Grey Owl has parked just by the van.
Another good bird on this second visit to Monetny was White-backed Woodpecker, quite a few individuals were seen and heard.
We gave up on Monetny and tried a few other sites nearby for the Azur Tit. Tricky bird, the current theory is that due to the late spring, they had failed nestings and are now sulking in the woods.
On a field, on the way back, we heard Yellowhammer/Pine bunting song and stopped to investigate. A few Yellowhammers, but also a number of clear hybrids. Interesting to see such a clear mix of two species.
Tomorrow it’s going to rain, and we’re having Azur Tit panic.
Kazakhstan is mostly steppe, that is also the main reason for visiting the country. The steppe habitat is, grass and scrub continuing for endless hours in the car. Before going north from Atyrau, we revisited the place on the Ural river where we found a Black-headed Penduline Tit, the goal being better pictures.
Headed north towards the little village Inderbor. This is a good place to stay a couple of days, it has an old-school soviet-style hotel which was just great.
Next day we headed out onto the steppe. We drove a long round about towards north west of Inderbor. We had received good information from the unthreatened WP king, PAC. Larks were abundant, especially Short-toed Lark. We estimated the number of Short-toed Larks seen in the day to 7000. White-winged Larks were reasonably common all day too.
After a few hours driving west, we soon found the first Black Larks. They were common in an area along the dirt track stretching approximately 10 km. The steppe favoured by the Black larks was possibly more sandy than other parts of the steppe. We counted all together 104 Black larks.
The Black Lark is a bit of a dream bird, it stands out like a beacon of want in the Collins Guide. We drove on heading towards a lake on the steppe. The lake hosted quite a few Dalmatian Pelicans which were easy there.
We heard a Bittern at the lake, possibly uncommon. Soon we also found our first group of Demoiselle Crane, altogether we saw 4 different groups of Demoiselle Crane, one pair nesting with chicks.
Turned east after the lake, continued to bird from the car with numerous stops and short walks. Pallid Harrier and Montague’s Harrier were fairly common, also Steppe Eagle was fairly common.
Halfway between the lake and the main road, a group of 3 Saiga Antilope runs across the dirt track. A very rare and strange animal indeed, threatened on the brink of extinction. Later, one more ran along the road.
Next day was spent searching villages and disturbed areas along the road back to Atyrau. There is always the possibility of that rare bird from far away. Rosy Starlings were seen a couple of times.
Our last day in Atyrau, we went back to the Ural Delta. We had gotten all psyched up on the possibility of the Lesser Short-toed Larks in that area actually being Asian Short-toed Lark. We photographed several individuals. The Advanced Id Guide, says that t6 should be almost entirely white.
We concluded though, slightly disappointed that the birds in the Ural delta most probably are not Asian. This complex needs further investigation, and we have heard that Per Ahlström is conducting just that right now.
Kazakhstan, western part of the country is part of WP. This is an area which not especially easy to access. The city to go to is called Atyrau, and there are AFAIK zero car rental agencies in the city. We opted for a solution organised by Yekaterina Dotsenko (email@example.com) which has turned out to work well, albeit expensive. The setup is a UAZ bus with one driver, one guide and one translator (I guess this explains the price)
Nevertheless, we arrived yesterday and took a day privately with a taxi driver, birding some of the parks in the city and also some nearby marshes. Long-tailed Shrike was found breeding in Victory Park, Atyrau last year. This was our first target, and we birded that park and nearby shrubbery along the Ural River. No Shrike, but quite nice birding, especially in the shrubbery.
After the park, we took the all-day-cab to a sewage pond north-west of the city. Lot’s of Caspian Gulls, lots of ducks and warblers.
In the shrubbery next to the sewage, we found a few Red-headed Buntings.
Drove on towards wetlands just north of the city, plenty of Black-winged Pratincoles there. We sort of ignored a few sightings of the Pratincole when we were in Kuwait, the idea being that we should get the Pratincole here. This was right, Black-winged Pratincole is common here.
The next day, we had a date with the Kazak team, 5.30 outside our hotel in Atyrau. The destination was the Ural delta. This area is possibly difficult to visit. We have heard of groups who lately had problems getting access to the area. There was a military checkpoint, but our guide just spoke to them and we had access. The area is covered with dirt roads, and a 4WD is required.
Anyways, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, just 100 m prior to the checkpoint, we search bushes and reeds, and found at least two Black-headed Penduline Tits. This is MEGA, and AFAWK a first for Western Palearctic. The distribution maps for the Tit shows that is should occur in the Ural Delta, but no one has to our knowledge ever reported it. Poor pics, but it sure looks good.
With this gem under our belt, we entered the Nature Reserve, the Ural Delta.
Birding in the area was excellent, the salty steppe combined with reeds, canals and marshes.
On this leg, the Kazkhstan and Russia, Raul Vicente joins up with us. Raul in the middle on the picture above. So far he has called out two WP ticks for us, more to come !!
A wide variety of species, waders, ducks, Sykes Warbler, Red-headed Buntings, Calandra Larks, Short-toed Larks and Lesser Short-toed Larks in the delta.
After a few hours, we also found a few White-winged Larks.
Cyprus has three specialities, one we’d already seen in Israel, the Cyprus Warbler. The other two are the Cyprus Scopes Owl and the Cyprus Wheatear.
Arrived late in the evening in the North/Turkish part and made a short stop close to our hotel. Heard the owl calling on our second stop.
Second day we went birding on a point into the sea, the idea being that once we had picked up the Wheatear, we could do some sea watching. The sea was completely empty and in retro perspective, the short stop we made close to Antalya before the Romania Amur Falcon twitch, was a lucky strike. Then we had good views of both of the two occurring Shearwaters in the eastern Mediterranean, Scopoli’s and Yelkoan Shearwater. Without those two bagged in Turkey, especially the Yelkoan, we would be in Shearwater-panic-mode now.
The Wheatear was a bit tricky to find though, we saw one individual from the car briefly. Eventually, at one stop where we flushed a Little Owl we got it.
The Little Owl woke a whole lot of Sardinian Warblers, and also a Cyprus Wheatear. They all were very irritated with the owl, including the Wheatear which was then easy to photograph close to the Owl.
Late in the season, birds here are already breeding and birding is generally poor. Slightly interesting was the lightly coloured subspecies of Hooded Crow.
We never had any views of the Warbler, on the other hand we didn’t search that hard.
After dinner at night, slightly drunk, we went owling again. This time we not only heard the cool little Scopes Owls, we got good views. Sneaked into a graveyard and whistled the calls.
Listen carefully to the two-note-call, this is what mainly separates it from the normal Eurasian Scopes Owl which has a one-note call.
Last day here, spent by the pool, emailing and planning the remainder of the year. Lazy.
Quite a few people suggested that we should have skipped Cyprus, or maybe shortened it and gone twitching the famous Albatross on Sylt in Germany. Lucky thing we didn’t, the Albatross is gone again (as far as we can see on Internet) . Had we hurried like crazy from Milan, we would have arrived on June 6, and dipped the Albatross. Much better then to drink beer by the pool in Cyprus.
Finally, Northern Cyprus appears to be an undiscovered gem. The three of us generally hate tourist resorts. For example the Lago d’Orta in Italy, the lake with the Muscovy Duck. That place was crawling with tourists, horrible place. Not to mention Hourgada in Egypt … brrrr. The coast of Northern Cyprus is beautiful and very relaxed. Well worth a visit.
The category C species is a constant topic of conversation in the car as we travel. Since we wanted to know more about it we asked our friend Paul Chapman, British birder, who we met on our second trip to Kuwait to make matters more clear. Paul is now “guest blogger” here and wrote the following informative and entertaining piece for you all.
LAST CHANCE TO C
Nothing is more likely to produce a gasp from a competitive lister than to realise that he has missed a species which he’ll now never get. In a Western Palearctic context, this would seem reserved for Slender-billed Curlew and the like, but in fact, a new series of blockers has started to appear. There’s always that dream that you’ll get a chance at Aleutian Tern or Ascension Island Frigatebird – mythical birds like these can always recur – but with tighter regulations on bird imports and a heightened approach in many countries to preventing invasive species taking hold, will there ever be another self-sustaining population of Lady Amherst’s Pheasant? For those that have visited that same farm near Rilvas, Portugal to be greeted by the revelation that there aren’t any Black-headed Munias any more or walked those same streets near the shops in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, Israel only to see Ring-necked after Ring-necked Parakeet rather than their Nanday cousins, they will be aware of that feeling.
Howls of derision are directed towards self-sustaining feral species – Category C species. They are often referred to in slang as ‘plastic’. Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts that I have seen over the years ironically entitled ‘Plastic Fantastic’. In fairness, few words rhyme with plastic.
But for a WP lister intent on a 800+ life list or a 700+ year list, they are difficult to ignore. In a WP context, not far short of 5% of the species likely to be seen in a year will be Category C species. I counted 33 species which I believe are only on the Western Palearctic list as a result of feral populations. These can be broadly broken down into wildfowl (6), gamebirds (6), parrots (5) and cagebirds (16).
For the wildfowl, the species are generally located in northern Europe – a day out in the Netherlands and Germany should get you a clean sweep of Black Swan, Bar-headed Goose, Swan Goose, Mandarin Duck and Ruddy Duck. Probably the admission that has caused most howls is that of Muscovy Duck. Recently added in Northern Italy, this species was also considered to be self-sustaining in Britain before an intervention on that population.
The gamebirds are more problematic. It is far more difficult to tell if a species routinely released and artificially fed is really self-sustaining. California Quail requires a trip to Corsica. Northern Bobwhite can be targeted in Northern Italy as well as still in France and also available in France (and perhaps the Czech Republic) is Reeve’s Pheasant. Whereas Golden Pheasant clings on in Britain but for how much longer, two species now appear to have become ultimate blockers being Lady Amherst’s Pheasant in Britain – a victim of golf courses, increased disturbance and loss of understorey – and Erckel’s Francolin which never really took to Italy. I’m not sure how many listers got to the forbidden ‘orgy island’ Zannone (as CNN described it) before the demise of the species. Maybe if they saw that headline then they would have tried but lets face it, birders aren’t normally known for that type of thing.
The parrots again are in the main an easy enough bunch. Ring-necked Parakeet is found in a number of countries and Monk Parakeet is heading the same way though despite fulfilling self-sustaining status according to the bird committee, it was prevented from admission to the British list and control measures are in place. Alexandrine Parakeet has recently been admitted in the Netherlands and Yellow-headed Amazon in Germany. Nanday Parakeet is a problematic one. The true extent of the Israeli population – now lost – has always been unclear and its Canaries and Barcelona populations are part of a whole bunch of parrot species which occasionally escape and breed – Blue-crowned, Red-masked and Mitred perhaps most notably. Indeed, Blue-crowned has bred in the Britain. One species admitted and then removed is Fischer’s Lovebird. Many took the trip to the stunning backdrop of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat but eventually the cages and the feeding proved just too much for the list compilers….. The species is now totally erased – a mistake in time eradicated from all lists. At least you could always have a seawatch from the nearby headland.
So then you get the ‘true’ cagebirds. In the main, these split between the Iberian Peninsula and the Middle East. The former with planning should produce Red-billed Leiothrix (also in France and Italy), Crested Myna (Portugal), Black-headed Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Common Waxbill (also on the Atlantic Islands) and Red Avadavat. Black-headed Munia (Portugal) has reached blocker status with the birds apparently being recaptured for the bird trade – an ironic twist and a reminder to move fast.
The Iberian Munia puzzles are probably not over yet though as various species have a tendency to get themselves established at least temporarily and perhaps Scaly-breasted Munia will slip seamlessly into the list in the next decade. Otherwise the Middle East adds Common Myna (increasing throughout), Bank Myna, White-cheeked and Red-vented Bulbuls and Ruppell’s Weaver (Kuwait) and Vinous-breasted Starling (Israel).
At least four of those appear to have pretty restricted populations. This leaves Vinous-throated Parrotbill – one species to chase despite some earlier listing confusion – mainly in Italy and as a recent vagrant from there to Switzerland but also with a population in the Netherlands, Red-billed Leiothrix in France, Spain and Italy and Indian Silverbill in at least France, Israel and Kuwait.
So there you have it, 33 species and 4 of them already likely to be extinct in the countries in which they were admitted.
Is that the end of the matter? Well not really. Four species are pretty much exclusively ticked as Category C species though they continue to occur (or at least occurred) on a Category A basis. Egyptian Goose and Ring-necked Pheasant are most often seen in their feral European populations and I doubt that many would twitch a Sacred Ibis in the Middle East having seen the European ones. Also, Helmeted Guineafowl is now extinct as a Category A species and listers resort to the Cape Verde introduced populations. Further, where does House Crow sit on this list? A slightly different proposition being human assisted in its arrival rather than escaped or released but nevertheless as a result, this is seen by many as a variant on the Category C conundrum. So that takes us to 38!!
It then gets really murky. Ironically the Eurasian Collared Dove expansion, that has made certainty of identification of African Collared Dove in its former haunts including Egypt and elsewhere difficult, has also confused the identification of the feral populations in at least the Canaries and the identification of vagrant Snow Goose and Greater Canada Geese from their self-sustaining feral relatives is more a matter of art than science.
So why have these species got such a poor reputation amongst ‘serious birdwatchers’? Often by their nature they are tame, some are brightly coloured and some just look out of context. Another reason is that there is no clear definition of what self-sustaining means and by their very nature, it is difficult to separate recent escapes or supported populations from truly self-sustaining ones. In Britain, the Lady Amherst’s Pheasants in North Wales were considered untickable whereas the ones in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire were counted. In France, arguments continue over which are tickable populations of Reeve’s Pheasant. In Kuwait and indeed in Israel, a species seems more likely to be officially accepted onto the list than elsewhere. Does one well at Jahra Farms really support a self-sustaining population? At least the Bank Mynas have moved wells in the last few years! I once had a conversation with a member of the Israeli committee who was genuinely surprised that Nanday Parakeet was on their list. So at times, it does really seem a lottery.
What next? Do any of those Indian Peafowls breeding in Britain tick the boxes? What about the Greater Rheas in Germany? Those Scaly-breasted Munias and maybe Pin-tailed Wydahs in the Iberian Peninsula or the Red-whiskered Bulbuls on Fuerteventura may be next let alone the next parrot off the conveyor belt?
Although not to everyone’s tastes and certainly beset with problems of interpretation and confusion, Category C species are an intrinsic part of any geographically limited list. I know British listers who count Capercallie for their British list but will only admit it to their World List when they have seen a Scandinavian bird. That said, this is a species with at least some European assistance and reintroduction programmes so at times you cannot really tell the origin of the bird in front of you. In reality, whether it is a Houbara at Merzouga, a Double-spurred Francolin at Sidi Yahya des Zaer or a Red Kite in Oxford, if you scratch the surface, in an overcrowded world with the impact of man at every corner, the position is a lot less straightforward than some with absolute views would like to think. I am far less fussy. I’m not sure when I first saw my Category A Red-legged Partridge or Little Owl away from Britain and I wouldn’t know where to start in working out a Category A British Mute Swan. My personal view is just enjoy the birds for what they are unless they are causing an environmental impact. In an average year, a WP year lister may well end up with 37 Category C targets, a furrowed brow over some extinct friends and a bit of insurance to acquire over a few that may soon be joining the party.
Since we were able to finish our Turkey trip way ahead of time, we went twitching in Romania, but we also rescheduled our summer trip to Italy. This coincided well with a Black Heron rarity in Puglia, Southern Italy.
Arriving in Rome Italy, we immediately headed south towards the reported Black Heron. Ticked number 600 en route at a gas station, trash bird. It would have felt good to have the Amur Falcon as 600, but then again you can’t have everything.
Arrived at the sleepy little Mediterranean city of Porto Cesaro. We had received pretty good information from Italian friends, and we were able to find the Heron just after a few minutes scanning the bay.
This is an African bird, as far as we know, 7th find in WP, very good. On the shore there were also some normal Mediterranean birds, such as Yellow-legged Gulls, Audouin’s gulls, a few Little Terns and a lost Little Stint.
Slept in Porto Cesaro after a spectacular full-on Italian dinner. Now, this is a country with food culture. Morocco, eat your hart out.
In the morning, drove north, long drive towards the mountains north-east of Lucca, close to Pisa. Camped late at night, high up. Early start, searching the steep wet slopes for Red-billed Leiothrix, an Asian bird introduced, probably by mistake as result of cage birds fleeing their captors. We found quite a few after maybe an hour of searching. Quick birds, hard to photograph.
Went from Lucca to the little village of Deiva Marina (where incidentally I were a few years ago, a bicycle race started from there) There were eBird reports of Moltoni’s warbler from that village. We found a pair almost immediately, too easy. This was a bird we had worried a bit about.
It’s not as hard to distinguish from the regular Subalpine warbler as you would think, the call is entirely different and the song has a different twang to it. Also, the coloration is pinkish, not red. However, the main distinguishing feature is the wren-like call. Some things are harder when you read about them than when you actually do them.
Tick on – drove further north, ticked Sacred Ibis from the highway. Abundant in the rice fields. Arrived in the afternoon at Lago Orta which hosts a category C population of Muscovy Duck. These birds were surprisingly hard to locate and we also feel uncertain of the actual category C categorisation of these birds. Anyways, the Italian ornithology organisation has deemed these birds wild.
Italians don’t speak english. Traveling Italy without being able to speak Italian you have to get by with body language. When we had ticked the ugly ducks, we got into a conversation with an Italian couple that just – well – spoke a lot of Italian. A lot. I couldn’t hold back and countered with Paperi Poperi
Drove to Milano and made a late evening attempt at Northern Bobwhite before crashing in hotel. Tried another site in the early morning and walking into the right habitat at dawn, we could hear the Bobwhites displaying inside the thick bushes. These birds were hard to see, hadn’t it been that the Bobwhites were calling we would never had been able to find them. Thus, it was lucky that we were able to do this Italy trip now in June, instead of as originally scheduled in July when we believe they are silent. Excellent birding in general at that site with singing Nightingales and Melodious Warblers everywhere.
Drove on, this time into France and the Alps. Arrived in the afternoon with spectacular weather over the Alps.
Birded the slopes of the mountain roads north east of Modane and shortly found the Citril Finch.
Started to walk the mountain slopes and found a displaying Rock Partridge after a few hours. The call is surprisingly loud.
Drove down the mountain in search of a camping spot and a Spotted Nutcracker flew over the road. We were able to tape in the Nutcrackers and got good views.
Woke up in the morning in rain and complete mist. Bad weather just came in. In this weather the Partridge would have been impossible, probably the Citril Finch too.