Friday, 4 August 2017

Ringing Barn Owls

One of the most memorable days of the year was being invited to help ring a brood of Barn Owls near Montgomery. The four chicks were well fed and healthy: one male (with pure white underwing) and three females (with black spots on the white underwing). I have never been a ringer but was delighted to be asked to come along.  

Paul Roughley is up the ladder, passing out the chicks of the nest-box one by one through the inspection door. In the hand the chicks were very placid and mostly silent. One hissed a little and occasionally clacked its bill. On the left is trainee ringer Ceri, holding a pole with a baffle to cover the entrance hole. This has been a good year for Barn Owls in Montgomeryshire, with more pairs than usual reported. In our area, most choose nest-boxes or natural tree cavities rather than barns or other buildings. Barn Owls are classified in their own family, Tytonidae, while all other European owls are grouped together in Strigidae. 

Having ringed, weighed and measured each one, Paul hands them to me for a few moments before carefully returning the precious cargo to their nest. The floor of the box is piled high with pellets regurgitated by the parents, containing the fur and bones of small mammals. As the parents break up the pellets with bill and feet, the bed becomes a dry compost heap that helps to warm up the chicks - very important when they are first hatched and at their most vulnerable.    

 Here's an overview of the scene, showing triangular box on a mature oak in a landscape of lightly grazed parkland, ideal for hunting Barn Owls. Paul wisely recommended we don't put these photos on social media, so that we can't be accused of treating wildlife like cuddly toys. So, please don't share this blog! Many thanks to Mike and Sarah for the top three photos.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Finland

I am recently back from Finland, where I co-led the Ornitholidays tour. We spent most of our days in the Oulu and Kuusamo areas, just south of the Arctic Circle. We were surprised by the lateness of the season: Oulu Bay was still  full of ice on 20 May, and many inland lakes were still frozen. One result was that Waxwings were more visible than usual - they were an everyday bird for us in the north. 



My co-leader Pirita worked very hard to find us the special birds we hoped to see. Here, at a sunny lunch break near Kuusamo, we were discussing where to go next. Unfortunately, a shortage of voles in the area made owls hard to find. We had one spectacular success.....
Pirita led us unerringly into a pinewood where this magnificent Great Grey Owl was spending a solitary spring, with no mate and few rodents to eat. Luckily it was settled in its daytime roost and not perturbed by our presence. I took this photo on my phone, through the scope.




The spruce and pine forests of the Kuusamo area are renowned for grouse populations: this male Capercaillie allowed a close approach. With snow only just melting, they were having a late breeding season this year. 


The Siberian Jay is often elusive in June since they retreat into spruce forests to breed. They survive all the year in the far north, becoming confiding around human habitations, like their close cousin the Grey Jay (or whiskyjack) in the Canadian north. 


Finland is a land of thousands of lakes. Where they were beginning to thaw, large numbers of duck often gathered on the ice-edge. The birches were still not ready to bud even in late May.  


Most of the duck were Teal and Goldeneye, with smaller numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders. There was antagonism among the drake Smew for territory, while the chestnut-headed females took no notice and continued preening. The wild songs of Greenshank and Wood Sandpipers were regular accompaniments to these scenes. Many thanks to Ross and Alan for the photos that were not mine.  



Monday, 10 April 2017

Antarctica Feb-Mar 2017

Humpback Whales are often inquisitive - this one especially! It visited each of the zodiacs in turn. I had to resist the temptation of stroking the barnacles on its chin. (I wasn't using any zoom on my pocket Nikon Coolpix). This was just outside Orne Harbour, in the Gerlache Strait, on a cloudy day in February.   

Between the zodiacs you can see the top of the humpback's head, and under the water the white form of its left pectoral fin - which can grow to almost 5 metres in length. In my experience humpbacks are very gentle with small boats, sometimes swimming underneath them without touching them or alarming the passengers. 

Another day, another friendly humpback. Still no zoom on my lens! This time the kayaks were on the water too, and it swam between them too. How did I take the photo? Well, it was just a fluke! 



We had a few cloudless days during these two voyages, though generally it was cloudier than in November and December. Along the Antarctic Peninsula - our area of operations - the climate is warming, with an average of 90 days less sea-ice than a century ago. However, most other parts of the continent are south of the Antarctic Circle, and have a stable climate - i.e. seriously cold! 

Zodiac cruises may be for wildlife watching or just admiring the amazing ice formations that Antarctica throws at you everywhere. In this photo (click to enlarge), we are looking at another zodiac through a great hole in a huge iceberg. 

By the beginning of March, Gentoo Penguin chicks are almost fully grown. Here the chick - on the left - is making a polite request to its parent for another feed of regurgitated krill and fish. As the chicks begin to lose their down and moult into their first waterproof plumage, the adults stop feeding them. Hunger soon forces them to the water where they have to learn for themselves how to swim and catch food.

During an excursion to Hannah Point in the South Shetlands, we came across this Macaroni Penguin, one of three in a large colony of Chinstraps - one has its head visible in the bottom right. Although it's the world's most abundant penguin. most of its colonies are further north, and inaccessible (being on steep slopes of scree or tussock). Every year a few try to nest among Chinstraps in the South Shetlands.

A visit to an Antarctic Research Station is always popular. This is the bar of the Ukranian Vernadsky Station, formerly the British station Faraday, at 65 degrees south. The bar itself was built by a British carpenter, Keith Larratt, out of wood intended for a new dock. His work has ensured that visitors and residents have a warm welcome, with homemade vodka usually on offer. Famous as the base where the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, the scientists here continue important work in meteorology, atmospheric studies, zoology, etc. 

Finally, a look back to Christmas Day on the Vavilov deck. Ceilidh and Madeleine dance for the passengers while Julia and I play Morrison's Jig on fiddle and cunbus, a Turkish banjo-mandolin I bought in Istanbul in 1984. Many thanks to staff photographer Jeff Topham for sharing this image. The other photos are mine. 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Mexico January 2017

Clare and I had a great two-week holiday in Mexico. One of the highlights was escaping from our coastal resort near Puerto Vallarta and exploring inland with a hire-car. We stayed two nights in the small (and very picturesque) town of San Sebastian del Oueste, seen here just catching the first rays of morning sun. 

Just above the town is a hill, La Bufa, rising to 2400m, well forested in native pine and oak. A good track, much of it paved, leads right to the summit. We explored various altitudes and found the birding easy and productive. The lower slopes turned up species such as Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Mountain Trogon, and Black-vented Oriole. We even saw a Lesser Roadrunner, but it was too shy to stay for a photo. 


We spent most time between 2100 and 2200m. Here we found this White-eared Hummingbird, along with Red-headed Tanagers, Aztec Thrushes, Transvolcanic Jays and a covey of Long-tailed Wood-Partridge. Bunches of orange mistletoe attracted Acorn Woodpeckers and various orioles and tanagers. We often heard the bizarre songs of the Brown-backed Solitaire, but they remained hidden.

 Back at our coastal resort, good dry scrub-forest extends right to the shore, between the hotel developments. Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Royal Terns and Heerman's Gulls are always flying by.
Eight species of waders visited the rocky shores and sandy beaches below the hotel. They included Wilson's Plover and this Surfbird, one of a wintering flock of five. They come south from breeding grounds in Alaska to feed in the splash zone, like our Purple Sandpipers. 
Just up the road is the fishing village of Punta de Mita, where small boats go out to watch the Humpback Whales that breed in the bay. Judging from the frenzies of the Brown Pelicans and Heerman's Gulls, there's no shortage of fish: in some spots the surface of the sea seemed to be boiling!

Across the main road from the hotel, a quiet road leads inland which we called Bunting Road, since four species of buntings can be seen here, including the lovely endemic Orange-breasted. The orange-barked tree is the gumbo-limbo, (Bursera simaruba), often known as tourist tree for its peeling red bark! Walking here between 8 and 10 in the morning is still cool, and turns up different species on each visit. We have found 16 Mexican endemics along this road, though not all at once! 

Among the most common is Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, but I could equally well have chosen Yellow-winged Cacique. San Blas Jay, Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Broad-billed Hummingbird and Citreoline Trogon are also regulars. More challenging are shy skulkers like Blue Mockingbird and Red-breasted Chat. 

Another endemic that we enjoyed watching were these Mexican Parrotlets, as they fed in an acacia. Usually they only appear as a tight flock whizzing past and calling. 

We also visited Rancho Primavera, an hour south of Puerto Vallarta at El Tuito, for two nights. Here we self-catered in a comfortable chalet near a lake. Our hostess Bonnie Jauregui made us feel very much at home and told us what birds to look out for. 

Primavera was the only place we found Russet-crowned Motmot posing for photos. It seemed to be a haven for wintering North American warblers - we saw 9 species. We also found the beautiful Rosy Thrush-Tanager turning the leaf-litter in the woodland here. 

This young Black-throated Magpie-Jay was a little too friendly, pulling my ear! It had been taken illegally from a nest, confiscated by the authorities and given to Bonnie to join the wild magpie-jays on the ranch. It also took a pen from my pocket and showed every sign of preferring human company to that of its own kind. Many thanks to Clare for the photos and for a great holiday!


Friday, 20 January 2017

Antarctica through MY lens, part 2

Here are some of my images from the latest voyages. Better ones (taken by other passengers with fancier cameras and kindly shared) can be found in the blog below "Antarctica Nov 2016 - Jan 2017. 

Chinstrap on remote camera, Orne Harbour








Chinstraps on their highway up to the ridge above Orne Harbour. (click on image to enlarge)












The kitchen at Port Lockroy, just as it was in the 1950s when it was a British research station, studying ionospherics. It is now a historic monument, complete with post office, gift shop and Gentoo Penguin colony.









Two Gentoos hurry downhill from their nests to the sea for more krill.










 A Leopard Seal rests on an ice-floe as we start a zodiac cruise. Passengers are lining up ready to go down the gangway into the boats.











Zodiac cruises are just as much about admiring the ice as looking for wildlife. We had many calm, sunny days during November and December 2016.










A fiery sunset adds a splash of gold to the usual Antarctic colour spectrum of white, blue and black (where rock is exposed).











Adelies rest on a sunny floe with a huge ice-cliff behind.












Lonely Adelie!













We ended our last full day with a two spectacular days in West Falklands. Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatross nest together in tight mixed colonies. There are frequent squabbles between the masters of the air and their distant relatives which can't even fly!








 Our penguin scientists Melissa and Steve: Melissa is showing off her ring, soon after Steve's proposal among the seabird colonies of New Island!










Portrait of a Black-browed Albatross, Westpoint Island.












On January 6, most of the albatross chicks were about a month old. They will make their first flight at the beginning of April.






















Thursday, 19 January 2017

Antarctica through MY lens, part 1

All too often I post other people's photos! Here are some of mine from my latest Antarctica season with One Ocean Expeditions. Young bull Elephant Seal, South Georgia.







  

Snow Petrel on nest, Brown Bluff. 'Digiscoped' through the ship's scope, hence the vignetting in the corners.  I only carry a Nikon Coolpix that fits in my pocket!









Our kayakers paddling past a small part of the huge Adelie colony at Brown Bluff. (Click to enlarge the image). 











Adelie in zodiac. Occasionally they mistake our boats for black rocks. My colleague calmly reacts by taking out his camera. It soon jumped off again. 












On one of our visits to Elephant Island, conditions were so calm that we were able to take a zodiac cruise at Point Wild, where Shackleton's crew were marooned for four months awaiting rescue. This is the monument erected by the Chileans to Pilotto Pardo, the tug captain who effected the rescue in August 1916. The Chinstraps that nourished Shackleton's men (or rather their descendants) are still there!


 Vavilov dining room! Home of three fine meals every day! 













My homework! I can never stop finding amazing things out about penguins!













Turret Point, with the Vavilov at anchor. This is the majority of the failing Adelie colony. It used to number thousands, but is now down to a few pairs. Taking Antarctica as a whole, Adelie numbers are stable, but here in the South Shetlands they are on the edge of their range. Successful Adelie colonies are always close to sea-ice (under which the krill feeds on the phytoplankton). Decreasing sea-ice here as the climate warms makes longer and longer foraging journeys for the Adelies. 




Close-up of the same colony, with half-grown soot-coloured chicks.













Two friends and staff colleagues: Tammie and Hilary. 













Warm enough to sit outside? The stern deck BBQ makes a chilly change from the dining room. 












Chinstraps in the sun: Orne Harbour. 














Idyllic Antarctic scene - descending from the mountaineering Chinstraps at Orne Harbour. 

Part 2 will be posted soon!