Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Austria - part III

Where have I got to? OK... We continued on the bicycles for the 27th, by which time we were a bit fed up with them for two reasons: the first that our bums were as sore as a very sore thing, the second being N's attempt to embed me in the tarmac of the BDA-Prellenkirchen road using a blunt instrument (articulated lorry - taking the piss somewhat, I think) - all for the sake of a flock of Tree Sparrows, for pity's sake! No harm done in the end, beyond a bit of blood and some shaky legs, so... We made a circuit of the Spitzerberg this day - yet another calcareous grassland/scrub mix, by now concentrating on plants and butterflies, particularly searching for the Hermit (Charaxes briseis); which again I failed to find. Oh well. Maybe next year? The butterflies and birds were much the same as the previous couple of sites, so I won't bore you with them any further.

Our route around the Spitzerberg

The morning of August 28th saw us hit a couple of sites for Great Bustard (Otis tarda) and Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). We managed a couple of female bustards lurking in their usual field, but the eagles - along with most other raptor species - remained frustratingly elusive. We did see a Black Woodpecker in a slightly unexpected patch of woodland, so that made up for it a bit. The type of woodland made the sighting unexpected, not the woodland itself: we'd been sat in its shade for about 2 hours by that stage, so that would just have been plain stupid. Obviously something we're not.


We then returned to the house and gathered our crap together for an extended stay at the Vogelberingungsstation on the Anlandebecken at Hohenau an der March. In plain English, that's the bird-ringing station at the settling ponds at Hohenau. The Kuehlteich - previously such a cracking site for birds in this corner of the world it was designated part of Austria's Natura 2000 network, is now dry for the second year in a row, and in the process of being turned into a carp-fishing pond. Presumably this will mean the site is de-listed, which will only add to Austria's problems in terms of lack of designated Natura 2000 sites, but I digress. The upshot is that the site is far less attractive to waterfowl and waders, so our highlight in this respect was the continual presence of a pair of Ferruginous Duck (Aythya ferruginea) on one of the 'zwischenlagen' and a Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), which promptly hoofed it after our first day. N and I made a quick tour of the net-rides so she could familiarise herself with the site and some of it's birds, and we began to settle in.

Thrush Nightingale and Common Nightingale - a comparison

The standard fare over the next few days was pretty normal: small numbers of Black Storks (Ciconia nigra) passing south over us, a variety of soaring raptors each day; including Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), Red and Black Kites (Milvus milvus and M. migrans) and White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla), and a steady passage of Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) and Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava). The first weekend also provided a few decent birds to spice things up a bit: daily groups of Bee-eater and a cracking Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia) in the nets on the first morning - handily coming in with a Common Nightingale (L. megarhynchos) to provide a nice comparison! Red-backed Shrikes (Lanius collurio) appeared to be trundling through steadily and the resident pair of Great Grey Shrike (L. excubitor) were frequently hunting in the field opposite the cabin. Blah, blah, blah...

We decided to stay at the ringing station between the two weekends' work, so we could explore the surroundings in a little more detail. This takes us to September 2nd: a cycle tour into Slovakia.

I've always wanted to know what the countryside was like on the eastern side of the river March. Now I know: it's bloody beautiful! Far less industrial agriculture than on the Austrian side, the floodplain hay meadows on the Slovakian side are a Ramsar site in their own right (see http://ramsar.wetlands.org/Database/Searchforsites/tabid/765/Default.aspx for the Ramsar site overview). Our short foray into the country yielded 61 species of bird, including 5 woodpecker species (Black, Great, Middle and Lesser Spotted, and Green; we also heard Grey-headed at Hohenau), numerous Bee-eaters, a late juvenile Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), 9 species of raptor - including White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and Saker (Falco cherrug) - Black Stork, Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) and Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)! We also found ourselves cycling the ominously-named 'Iron Curtain Cycle Route', which was rather beautiful, in the end.

'Bird of the day' title went, however, to the rather confused-looking young dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) that we nearly flattened on the road. Who said dormice don't ever touch the ground?!

Caterpillar of Comma Polygonum c-album
On the 3rd of September, we opted to try the other neighbouring country: the Czech Republic. We headed north of Hohenau, across the Berhnardsthaler platte to the village of Bernhardsthal. The route was designed to take in what is a stunning area for soaring raptors. The prime target was Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca)... The first birds to appear when we hit the plateau were Marsh Harrier, quickly followed by both Red Kite and Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo). A pit-stop was suggested by N, which was rapidly turned into an extended raptor-viewing session: a pair of adult Imperial Eagles began to circle up from the fields in front of us, to be joined by Common Kestrel, Buzzard, Marsh and Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus)! When we tore ourselves away and headed north, we were treated to a further 3 Imperials - all juveniles - and a trio of Saker, all accompanied by a slew of more common raptors and the odd Black Stork here & there.

Montage of 2 juvenile Imperial Eagles, Bernhardsthaler Platte

We trolled on into the Czech Republic (second new country in two days for me) and made a quick circuit in the countryside south of Breclav. Nice, but somehow not as superb as the Slovakian day trip. Instead of the lush hay meadows and deciduous floodplain forest, we were travelling through young pine plantation and oak woodland on somewhat sandy soil. Rather like parts of Spain, in my experience. The return route was uneventful, travelling down the Thaya and the March to Rabensburg, then back along the road to the ringing station.

N returns to Austria, from the Czech Republic

The second weekend at Hohenau was much as the first; a more autumnal feeling was in the air, with the first Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and Dunnock (Prunella modularis) turning up in the nets. I was also able to take up an opportunity of joining a student working on the dragonfly diversity of the floodplain forests of the March, who took me round four transects in Droesing. Our total of twelve species included one new to me - Lestes virens - and one new to her - Sympetrum flaveolum.

Western Willow Emerald (Lestes (or Chalcolestes) viridis)

Female Small Spreadwing (Lestes virens)

Cricket sp (Phaneroptera falcata?)

Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina)

I'll post a full trip report with species lists at some stage on www.jerbarker.co.uk...

Monday, 15 September 2008

Weekend update

Pfff.... Briefly, spent the weekend helping on a ringing course at Slapton, which coincided with the largest ever catch of birds at the site - we ringed a total of 732 birds, with 60-odd recaptures and a French-ringed Sedge Warbler also caught. Busy times, coping with all that and about 10 complete novices being trained in some of the basics of ringing! Much of the catch was Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), about 400 of them, in fact. The only reasonably scarce bird caught was a Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia). A couple of highlights away from the birds in the hand were a flock of Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) flying past to the north on Saturday, then another flock of 16 close ishore on the Sunday - these identifiable as Pale-bellied Brent (B. b. hrota). The first flock of Wigeon (Anas penelope) arrived on the Ley on Sunday and a couple of Hobby (Falco subbuteo) were hunting hirundines and invertebrates each morning. Best of all, however, was to round a net on Sunday and come face-to-face with an Otter (Lutra lutra)! We're seeing them increasingly on and around the Ley now, so it wasn't that unexpected, but very pleasant nonetheless.

Star bird from this morning is this female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus): the first I've ringed in this country. Feisty girl, that one!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Austria, part II

August 25th: Hundsheimerberg.

We continued in our surprisingly low-carbon efforts by cycling down from Bad Deutsch Altenburg to the Hundsheimerberg, where we intended to explore some more calcareous grassland for the morning. A pleasantly early start ensured that the temperature wasn't too high as we trolled up the hill, yet was high enough to be quietening the bird activity by the time we arrived. We wandered up to the meadow just beyond the village and managed to spend the entire four hours just in this area. A wide variety of flowers were still in evidence, again encouraging a nice selection of butterflies, with at least 13 species including a nice Wood White (Leptidea sinapsis) and Little Blue (Cupido minimus), a smattering of Great Banded Grayling and a host of Silver-washed and Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries (see previous post for scientific names).

Wood White Leptidea sinapsis

Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia
As-yet unidentified flower - answers on a postcard, please!

Birds were fossicking around the scrub, with plenty of Blackcap and Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia atricapilla and curruca), Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus trochilus and collybita), and single juvenile Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) and adult male Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). We were also treated to a quartet of Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) and a troupe of about 30 Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) overhead; the latter particularly satisfying!

We returned to BDA to borrow Regina's car and head to Marchegg for an afternoon's walk around the forest. This turned out to be far more rewarding than I'd hoped...


We followed the short 'Biberweg' (Beaver trail - shown in pink on map above) around through the forest and back along the flood embankment, as shown in the map above. The WWF reserve here is a superb patch of solid old floodplain forest ('Au' in German) with perhaps nine of the ten European woodpecker species present in season. It's one of my favourite sites for finding a number of species, including Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) and Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis).

Good old-forest oxbow with significant amounts of dead wood, both standing and fallen.

We heard the former and saw the latter, so that could be viewed as a result, but orioles remained elusive - in part the time of year is to blame! We managed to notice a wide variety of other species, including a couple of European Beaver (Castor fiber) on a quiet ox-bow lake. Either they're increasing or these were particularly hungry; I've not seen them before at this time of day. Other species of note included Western Scarlet (Crocothemis erythraea), Western Willow Spreadwing (Lestes or Chalcolestes viridis) and Small Red-eye (Erythromma viridulum), Lesser Purple Emperor (Apatura ilia), Map (Araschnia levana), Large Copper (Lycaena dispar) and European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis) - the latter presumably one from the recent reintroduction attempt.

Western Willow Spreadwing Lestes (Chalcolestes) viridis

We spent the 26th in Vienna in search of touristy things, Lippizzaner horses and an elusive friend of mine, who indeed failed to appear! Aside from the ever-present Red Squirrels (Scuirus vulgaris) and a Collared Flycatcher in the gardens of Schoenbrunn, we didn't see a great deal of wildlife. The tourist stuff was fine for a while, but palled after about 4 hours - enough city crap for a while. Back to civilisation!

Further info will follow...!

Back again... Austria aftermath

Sooo... back from a rather hectic few months in all, with a two-month contract on the Isle of Man for the planned new breeding bird atlas, then a week in Cornwall with the Seawatch SW project (http://www.seawatchsw.org) and then a couple of weeks ringing and holidaying with N in Austria. I know I only posted a couple of grotty pictures from the first two sections, but I propose to tell you further about Austria in this and future blogs. With pictures.

The mysterious - as Mr. Lewis refers to her - Na and myself headed off to Vienna on August 23rd of this year, in order to have some holiday time, ring some migrant birds, investigate the eastern parts of Lower Austria and catch up with some friends of mine. Not all were accomplished with equal ease; the latter in particular. What the hell, though, that's life - three out of four ain't bad in any case.

So. Tedious bits first. We flew with BA from Heathrow T5 (it's far better than it's made out to be) to Vienna Schwechat, from where we travelled in to the zoo to meet Regina and Karl, the friends with whom we stayed. We footled around and did a little sightseeing within the zoo, including a rather fortuitous meeting with my old boss who gave us a special tour of the 'new' penguin house, where we were preened by Rockhoppers - to the envy of the contingent of young Austrians peering through the windows at us. Tough titty!! Amazing to see how much has changed in the years since I worked at the zoo...

We headed on to Bad Deutsch Altenburg to our accomodation and prepared ourselves for a spot of 'naturalisting'. Not to be confused with naturisting, obviously.

24th August: Braunsberg. We cycled our way steadily up from Bad Deutsch Altenburg to the local hill, the Braunsberg.

The Braunsberg as seen on Google Earth. Hainburg an der Donau is the nearest town.

By bicycle it's a steady haul up the hill to the carpark for migrant soaring birds, which unfortunately resulted in our seeing feck all, apart from a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus). Compensation came in the form of a Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) flushed from grass at the top of the hill, and a fantastic selection of butterflies nectaring on thistles and scabious spp away from the rather strong westerly wind. We managed to note Dryad (Minois dryas), Chalkhill Blue (Lysandra coridon), Weaver's (Clossiana dia), Silver-washed (Argynnis paphia) and Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries (Issoria lathonia), Common, Pale and Berger's Clouded Yellows (Colias crocea, hyale and alfacariensis) and Great Banded Grayling (Aulocera circe) as the most interesting species for us Brits (OK, half-Germans too...!).

Chalkhill Blue Lysandra coridon

Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia

We then pedalled on down through Hainburg, passing a German who was obviously so much in love with his new Ferrari that he needed to photograph it against the backdrop of the Braunsberg, to Bad Deutsch Altenburg and then along the Danube to Petronell Carnutum, to spend time we generally dodging mozzies and loafing in unaccustomed sunshine.

The time of day and the temperature mitigated against much variety of wildlife, but we did have a nice show from a juvvy Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) and picked up a variety of odonates: Blue Featherlegs (Platycnemis pennipes), Common Bluetail (Ischnura elegans), Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), Lesser Emperor (Anax parthenope) and both Ruddy and Common Darters (Sympetrum sanguineum and striolatum).

Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis - a strongly cropped image, I'm afraid. The rather grubby orange breast and brownish feet help age it as a juvenile.

More later...