Monday, 24 May 2010

Ouzel perusals

 Blob on a rock, masquerading as a male Ring Ouzel

Friday being a day off, Na asked if I could do her the favour of accompanying her onto the moors to do some work. We started with a quick check of the Pied Flycatcher boxes: two more of the females caught and their rings checked; one ringed as an adult in May 2008, the other a bird ringed back in 2005 on western Dartmoor, which we've also caught once at Meldon. Nice to see that experience pays off!

We then headed up onto the moors to check on work being done to investigate the decline of Ring Ouzel on Dartmoor. If you don't know them, they're effectively the montane version of the bog-standard European Blackbird - they don't have quite as nice a song, but they look pretty classy. A larger bird than blackbird, with a big crescent of white across the chest and rather silvery wings - there's a picture of one at the start of this post. Dartmoor used to have them in some abundance when I was a child, but they've gradually declined and disappeared from many of their haunts. We managed to bump into no fewer than five Ring Ouzel, as well as finding Grey Wagtails with dependent young, Wheatear all over the shop, a handful of Cuckoo and a singing male Redstart.We also managed to find such nice things as Emperor and Purple Bar moths, caterpillars of the Drinker moth and a small patch of Beech Fern:

Purple Bar moth

Emperor moth

Beech Fern Phegopteris connectilis

Saturday was again a birdy day. We spent a while doing some nest recording (two lovely Willow Warbler nests, each with six eggs) and found a pair of Tree Pipit already feeding small young. They seem to have been in the country for such a short time, and yet they will soon have raised their young and be thinking about heading off again. Such a short season... We also saw good numbers of Pearl-bordered Fritillary; this is a site where the numbers have been climbing steadily over the last couple of years, in defiance of the recent long-term national decline. Hooray...

Some pictures from the weekend.

Looking up the Okement river, up on the North Moor

Common Cottongrass flowering

Hare's-tail Cottongrass going over...
Common - or Viviparous - Lizard clinging to the toe of Na's boot

Black-a-tor Copse from the walk back over Kitty Tor

Looking downstream along the Okement river, above Black-a-tor

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Spring: Bluebells

It's spring, and the woods are alive with the sound of people cooing over the bluebells...

For once, a picture of bluebells that I'm reasonably happy with. Shaptor Woods, near Bovey Tracey, 16th May 2010.

We also headed out to Na's Pied Flycatcher boxes for her second visit of the season. Disappointingly, the numbers are down on last year (just), but a couple of females already sitting: one new, another ringed as an adult last year.

Anyone following the Black-headed Gull saga may be interested to know that the two Swedish-ringed birds proved to be from the same park in Malmo, one ringed in 2002, the other ringed in May 2005 - both last seen in Exeter at the end of January. I'll look out for them again this winter... always something to look forward to in life, eh?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Spain... a long blog.

Naomi, establishing the difference between a variety of poppy species

Feeling somewhat like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, here I am again. A short while after concluding our wedding, we set off south for the more friendly climes of southeast Spain, where we intended to spend our honeymoon in a leisurely fashion; lolling on the patio with a book and a glass of something daze-inducing, perhaps a little light apres-dinner amble along the track to bolster a flagging appetite; you know the kind of thing I mean. Anyone out there who knows us will be aware that that was about as likely as Labour winning the general election by a landslide.

No sooner had we left the airport than the newest Mrs Barker pointed out the massed bands of House Sparrows in the trees by the terminal, vying to be heard above the scream of swifts, the whistle of Spotless Starlings and the throaty scream of a Ryanair jet arriving. We made the run to the house without incident and paused by the front door to relax and enjoy the peace of a Spanish night, punctuated by Scops Owls and an insomniac Cuckoo...

1. House Sparrow
2. Common Swift
3. Spotless Starling
4. Scops Owl
5. Cuckoo

April 24th - shopping and wandering around the house. Chilled... relaxed. Books were read. Sun was bathed in... we also managed to stretch our legs up the track behind the house, to the tune of a typical selection of local birds: Serin and Corn Bunting jangling avarywhere, Crested Larks twiddling and wailing, and everywhere the trills of Chaffinches and the funky dance-inspired beat of the Spanish Great Tit (must be the weather: no British Great Tit would dream of singing 'tea-tea-tea-tae-cher-teacher-teacher-teacher'; not at all the done thing). Having promised that we would see a Hoopoe or two during the trip, one duly obliged on the first morning (pic, above), leaping up from a tangle of plants underfoot to sit on the neighbouring wall, clutching a fat caterpillar and staring down at us, raising and lowering its crest as if we'd tried to goose it. A cruising speck of raptor high overhead resolved itself into a Griffon Vulture, shortly followed by low-flying Short-toed and Booted Eagles.

 Short-toed Eagle

 Mallow Skipper
Nonea (Nonea pulla)
6. Pallid Swift
7. Northern House-Martin
8. Red-legged Partridge
9. Green Woodpecker
10. Hoopoe
11. Bee-eater
12. Woodpigeon
13. Collared Dove
14. Griffon Vulture
15. Short-toed Eagle
16. Common Buzzard
17. Booted Eagle
18. Common Kestrel
19. Peregrine Falcon
20. Woodchat Shrike
21. Jackdaw
22. Blackbird
23. Mistle Thrush
24. Stonechat
25. Wren
26. Great Tit
27. Barn Swallow
28. Crested Lark
29. Wood Lark
30. Chaffinch
31. Serin
32. Greenfinch
33. Linnet
34. Corn Bunting

Barn Swallow

At around 4 a.m., we were rudely awoken by the bursting of a pipe, so after a frantic half-hour or so mopping buckets of water out of the house, we were not in a fit state to do a great deal - as well as waiting for the plumber to call! A short walk along the track opposite the house produced both new birds for the trip (take a bow, Feral Pigeon!) and some more Mediterranean goodies new to Na, such as Red-rumped Swallow and Sardinian Warbler. Crag Martins zipped past too rapidly to catch up with properly, but the show was stolen by a Nightingale, who was singing quietly - almost absent-mindedly - in a thick tangle of hornbeam and bramble. We spent more time looking at plants as well: not finding anything to shout about, but enjoying the lush tangle of arable 'weeds' sprawled under the olives and the almonds.

 Hollow-leaved Asphodel (Asphodelus fistulosus)
Arable weeds under olive trees. Within a week they had all been ploughed in.
35. Feral Pigeon
36. Turtle Dove
37. Jay
38. Carrion Crow
39. Raven
40. Golden Oriole
41. Nightingale
42. Black-eared Wheatear
43. Crested Tit
44. Crag Martin
45. Red-rumped Swallow
46. Sardinian Warbler
47. Pied Wagtail
48. Goldfinch
49. Cirl Bunting
Spanish (Scarce) Swallowtail Iphiclides (podalirius) feisthameli

Fritillaria lusitanica
As the 26th dawned bright and hot and the plumber had a key for the house, we decided it was time to head for the hills. We wound our way up to the Sierra de Espunja and found a promising-looking track - with a map - at the La Perdiz recreation area. The road led gently uphill between two vertiginous escarpments, offering neck-cricking scenes of beauty, though the bird chorus was fairly subdued. What it lacked in quantity was made up in quality (for a Brit): Firecrest vying with Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit trying to drown out Bonelli's Warbler. We were in the right place at the right time as well: a burst of hysteria from a party of Choughs pointed us to a young Golden Eagle drifting down the valley, Alpine Swifts hurtling past above. We finally clambered up off the road onto a path, past a patch of Fritillaria lusitanica and onto the Collado Blanco, where the view was quite simply stunning. We lolled out of the wind for a while, admiring a large flock of Barbary Sheep grazing on the slopes, whilst Red-legged Partridges crackled and chuckled around us, before strolling back downhill to the car.

Barbary Sheep

Sierra de Espuna - view back along the valley towards the La Perdiz end from Collado Blanco

Red Squirrel - the endemic subspecies in the Espuna is quite fetching.
50. Cattle Egret
51. Quail
52. Alpine Swift
53. Sparrowhawk
54. Golden Eagle
55. Red-billed Chough
56. Robin
57. Short-toed Treecreeper
58. Coal Tit
59. Long-tailed Tit
60. Firecrest
61. Bonelli's Warbler
62. Dartford Warbler
63. Red Crossbill
64. Rock Bunting

Black-eared Wheatear

Another short trip on a bakingly hot day. We drove up to the Embalse de Alfonso XIII, where the landscape is arid and water-worn. The land surrounding the reservoir is quite saline, the vegetation reflects this (sea-lavender is abundant along some of the streams feeding into the reservoir, for instance!) and the birds and invertebrates are worth a visit. The old 'Where to Watch...' book suggests Black-bellied Sandgrouse are in the area, but I've never seen them; however, the site has plenty of other things to offer.

Blue-eye (Erythromma lindenii)
The day was so hot and airless, though, that after admiring Bee-eaters, Red-rumped Swallows and Black Wheatears, we were soon driven into the shade of a pine tree to wait out the heat of the day. On our way there, we were fortunate to see a cracking Red-necked Nightjar, which floated up from the trackside and away round a corner. Down by the reservoir, a small selection of dragonflies and damselflies patrolled the waters' edge - Black-tailed Skimmers and Red-veined Darters, accompanied by Iberian Bluetails (Ischnura graellsii or perhaps hybrids with I. elegans) and a number of Blue-eyes (Erythromma lindenii)- once known less enchantingly as Goblet-marked Damselflies. The heat was enough even to dampen the enthusiasm of the frogs...

When the heat began to abate, we headed out again. A few birds were moving: Cattle and Little Egrets and Grey Herons passing to and from their colony in the eastern arm of the reservoir, a Southern Grey Shrike poised on a dead tree, but the day seemed to have sapped the energy from everything, so we headed home for a beer and a book.
Iberian Wall Lizard avoids death by notebook

Embalse de Alfonso XIII
65. Mallard
66. Red-necked Nightjar
67. Moorhen
68. Coot
69. Green Sandpiper
70. Common Sandpiper
71. Yellow-legged Gull
72. Little Grebe
73. Great Crested Grebe
74. Cormorant
75. Little Egret
76. Grey Heron
77. Southern Grey Shrike
78. Magpie
79. Black Wheatear
80. Cetti's Warbler
81. Reed Warbler
82. Great Reed Warbler

Cockscomb Sainfoin (Onobrychis caput-galli)

Short-toed Eagle
We stretched ourselves a little on the 28th, with a trip down to the coast to look for wetland wildlife at the Santa Pola salinas and El Hondo nature reserve. We started out bright and early, with a chill still in the air and a mist lurking in the valley bottoms in a most picturesque fashion. We soon found ourselves driving round the outer fringe of the El Hondo reserve, and taking the opportunity offered of a safe place to park, hopped up onto the cycle track and up the bank to peek in to one of the ponds. A couple of Pochard were loafing in the middle, but behind them was the more welcome sight of a drake White-headed Duck. The air was ringing with the songs of Great Reed and Reed Warblers, with an overlay of Zitting Cisticolas - doing exactly what their name suggests: 'zit...zit...zit...zit' overhead. As we headed back to the car to carry on along the road, a trio of Squacco Herons flew over, adding a little more pleasure to the day!

We continued round to Santa Pola salinas, where a few straggling Greater Flamingos were lurking as far back as they could get from the road. Fortunately there were plenty of interesting birds close to: Whiskered, Little and Common Terns fishing industriously in the roadside pools, Yellow-legged Gulls incubating on the paths between the salt pans and a couple of bright Yellow Wagtails snatching flies off the carpark surface. A trio of Marbled Duck also paddled out across a small pond, picking their way between Black-winged Stilts and Moorhens.

Collared Pratincole
Eventually we returned to El Hondo, where the gates were now open - this being past the civilised hour of 9 a.m. - and we strolled around the short visitor trail. The skies were alive with Collared Pratincoles, Whiskered Terns and Mediterranean Gulls, with singing Great Reed, Reed and Sardinian Warblers all around, and a fine selection of waders, ducks and herons to sort through. Stopping to watch the pratincoles as they strutted around a harrowed field, we noticed a Lesser Short-toed Lark singing; then a Great Spotted Cuckoo flopped up onto a fence, and finally a young Short-toed Eagle drifted low overhead - all quite a nice combination when compared to our standard UK species!

Again the sun forced a retreat, this time to the shade of pines at La Marina, on the coast. The day was soured here when someone forced the lock of the car to rifle our belongings, but fortunately none of our belongings appealed to whoever it was. We still managed to have a quick look at the salt pans here - which now have some decent hides and a walkway system - where we added great views of Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls, Sandwich and Black Terns, Kentish Plover, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint... A serendipitous Roller (left) put the finishing touch on a fine day.

Pitch Trefoil (Psoralea bituminosa) - as the name suggests, the plant smells of bitumen
83. White-headed Duck
84. Gadwall
85. Shoveler
86. Marbled Teal
87. Red-crested Pochard
88. Common Pochard
89. Great Spotted Cuckoo
90. Black-tailed Godwit
91. Black-winged Stilt
92. Pied Avocet
93. Collared Pratincole
94. Black-headed Gull
95. Montagu's Harrier
96. Black-necked Grebe
97. Squacco Heron
98. Zitting Cisticola
99. Lesser Short-toed Lark
100. Shelduck
101. Roller
102. Common Redshank
103. Turnstone
104. Sanderling
105. Little Stint
106. Curlew Sandpiper
107. Grey Plover
108. Kentish Plover
109. Audouin's Gull
110. Slender-billed Gull
111. Whiskered Tern
112. Black Tern
113. Greater Flamingo
114. Spoonbill
115. Sand Martin
116. Yellow Wagtail
117. Stone-curlew
118. Black Kite
119. (Northern) Wheatear
Violet broomrape species (Orobanche purpurea?)
Valley of the Rio Mula, from the Via Verde

Knapweed Fritillary
To counter the amount of driving on the previous day, we decided to cycle the green road (Via Verde) from Bullas to Mula. We weren't expecting a wide variety of birds, so spent a lot of time concentrating on the flora and invertebrates of the trail. Being an old railway line, it's a fairly gentle route to cycle, though the uphill return to Bullas is somewhat relentless. We did manage to find some obliging Crag Martins, a couple of Rock Sparrows and a pair of Melodious Warblers, as well as a calling Water Rail in the thick clumps of Sharp Rush along the Rio Mula. We also happened upon several Southern Damselflies (Coenagrion mercuriale), including a mating pair, and a female Mediterranean Bluet (Coenagrion caerulescens) laying her eggs into submerged waterweeds. Butterflies were conspicuous too - Common and Scarce Swallowtails, a very fresh Knapweed Fritillary and a hyperactive Spanish Festoon were all very pleasant sightings.

Mercury Bluet (a.k.a. Southern Damselfly), top, and Mediterranean Bluet, above.

120. Stock Dove
121. Water Rail
122. Melodious Warbler
123. Rock Sparrow
Locust sp.

Another day, another trip. The lure of new scenery dragged us north, to Laguna de Petrolá, near Albacete. Our journey was enlivened by a stop-and-search, courtesy of the Guardia Civil, who were decidedly civil to us both. Had we been carrying the drugs or firearms they claimed to be searching for, I think they would have missed them anyway, but it made an entertaining 10-minute break in the trip. The lagoon was quite different to my previous visit (in 2005): it was full of water and birds. We sat in the hide and scanned through the Black-necked Grebes to find Red-crested Pochard, Shelduck and another couple of White-headed Duck. Gull-billed Terns constantly floated past, with a single Collared Pratincole joining them. The furthest end of the lagoon had a small collection of flamingos, which were so deep in the water as to be swimming and upending for food. We took on the challenge of walking all the way around the lagoon, and were treated to a short, but point-blank, flypast of our target bird: Black-bellied Sandgrouse as a reward. Two or three Lesser Kestrels hawked insects overhead, and Quail sang in the barley. All quite Spanish really...

Red-crested Pochard
Laguna de Petrolá with associated flamingos
124. Black-bellied Sandgrouse
125. Greenshank
126. Wood Sandpiper
127. Little Ringed Plover
128. Lapwing
129. Gull-billed Tern
130. Honey-buzzard
131. Marsh Harrier
132. Lesser Kestrel
133. Spotted Flycatcher
134. Whinchat
135. Subalpine Warbler
136. Calandra Lark
137. Skylark
138. Tree Sparrow

Moorish Gecko

We finally rounded off the honeymoon with a couple of walks into the Sierra de Espuna. The first, from near El Berro up to Las Minas (about 18km round trip) was scenic beyond all expectation, particularly passing into the valley beyond the water-bottling plant.

The second, from the highest pass in the park, was less successful, mainly through the interruption of a spectacular hailstorm, which drenched us to the skin in a very short time. However, our early return home to dry out on the patio paid off with the wholly unexpected sight of a young Golden Eagle hunting low up the valley, several times passing straight over the house.

139. Little Owl
140. Blue Rock-Thrush
141. Pied Flycatcher

A couple of views of the Sierra de Espuna

Beautiful Flax (Linum narbonense)
Other stuff what we saw on our holidays:
Dragonflies & damselflies (Odonata)
1. Mercury Bluet (Southern Damselfly) Coenagrion mercuriale
2. Blue-eye (Goblet-marked Damselfly) Erythromma lindenii
3. Iberian Bluetail Ischnura graellsii
4. Mediterranean Bluet Coenagrion caerulescens
5. Lesser Emperor Anax parthenope
6. Southern Skimmer Orthetrum brunneum
7. Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum
8. Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii

Star Clover (Trifolium stellatum)
Reptiles & amphibians:
1. Moorish Gecko Tarentola mauretanica
2. Ocellated Lizard Lacerta lepida
3. Iberian Wall Lizard Podarcis hispanica
4. Iberian Water Frog (or Perez' Frog) Pelophylax perezi

1. Red Fox Vulpes vulpes
2. Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris
3. Iberian Hare Lepus granatensis
4. Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus
5. Barbary Sheep Ammotragus lervia

Butterflies (will it ever end?):
1. Dingy Skipper (right) Erynnis tages
2. Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alcaea
3. Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina
4. Spanish (Scarce) Swallowtail Iphiclides (podalirius) feisthamelii
5. Swallowtail Papilio machaon6. Wood White Leptidea sinapsis
7. Large White Pieris brassicae
8. Small White Artogeia rapae
9. Green-veined White Artogeia napi
10. Bath White Pontia daplidice
11. Moroccan Orange-tip Anthocharis (belia) euphenoides
12. Clouded Yellow Colias crocea
13. Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni
14. Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas
15. Mazarine Blue Cyaniris semiargus
16. Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus
17. Brown Argus Aricia agestis
18. Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
19. Painted Lady Vanessa cardui
20. Knapweed Fritillary Melitaea phoebe
21. Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria
22. Wall Brown Lasiommata megara
23. Western Marbled White Melanargia occitancia
Toadflax sp. (Linaria aeruginea)

 Iberian Wall Lizard

Golden Eagle