Wednesday 21 May 2014


This Black Stork in the Tsiknias River got our Lesvos week off to a great start. I was there leading an Ornitholidays group, from 3 to 10 May. Black Storks are mostly passage migrants here, but a few pairs stay and breed. I saw one a few years back carrying a stick for a nest in the craggy Lardia Valley. On their migration they are often indecisive, circling over likely feeding areas for minutes before choosing either to stop or continue.  

This sleepy Scops Owl was one of three adults roosting at a traditional grove of eucalypts not surprisingly known as the scops copse. Their camouflage is often brilliant, but this one gave us a chance. They are also summer visitors, wintering in Africa, south of the Sahara but north of the Equator. At night their repeated piu call is a distinctive Mediterranean summer sound.

This female Little Bittern was one of the highlights of our week, as we watched it hoovering up large tadpoles in a river near Sigri, in the west of the island. As with many of the Lesvos migrants, it's hard to know if it would stay and breed, but probably it will fly on to larger reedbeds near the Black Sea. But with the river seething with tadpoles, it would be in no hurry to move on! 

Back to owls! We met a farmer tending his olive grove, who invited us in to see a special family that has taken up residence. This Long-eared Owl is one of two
chicks raised in nearby pines in an old Hooded Crow nest. Still covered in down and three-quarters grown, they call at night for food like squeaky gates. Resident in the UK in small numbers, they are much more numerous in Greece, and usually strictly nocturnal.

This Orphean Warbler was a surprise, since I saw it in the road and stopped to move it. It had probably suffered a glancing blow from a vehicle, but luckily it flew away strongly. So called for its rich song, it is named for Orpheus, the mythical bard famous in ancient Greek legend. Normally it takes more patience to obtain close-up views and photos of this fine warbler, a larger relative of our Whitethroat.   

This Woodchat Shrike perches on a sign that means 'keep the environment clean.' It's another example of the excellent migration that passes through Lesvos in late April and early May. Most of the birding groups visit in late April, but there are still many birders around in May. Almost all of them are only too happy to give and receive news on what's about. 

But a May visit to Lesvos isn't just about birds. It's also superb for wild flowers, with a riot of colour along the roads and on the hillsides. The landscapes are superb too, with pine forests in the east, oak parkland in the centre, and treeless rocky ridges in the west. The friendly locals and the superb Greek food in the tavernas help to make a week here even better. The flowers (along the north shore) and the owls are my photos; but for the others, many thanks to Brigid Campbell.   

Saturday 17 May 2014

Taiwan - a few birds

Swinhoe's Pheasant can be found on the lower slopes of the mountain forests of Taiwan. Formerly it was common throughout the lowlands too, but development has left little room for them there. There are well-known spots where photographers tempt them out onto the verges to feed on grain. The female is also beautifully patterned, in various shades of brown - more suitable for staying hidden during incubation. 

The Pheasant-tailed Jacana is widespread in south-east Asia, but needs large areas of freshwater with water-lilies. In Taiwan it only hangs on in one small area, which was threatened by a new railway development. Luckily local conservationists started a campaign - ultimately successful - to divert the railway round the jacana's lakes. It is now a reserve popular with local photographers and schoolchildren. Males and females have similar plumage, but only the male incubates the eggs and protects the young. 

We came across this Bronzed Drongo making a nest a few feet up above a farm track. Drongos are an interesting family of fly-catching birds, spread throughout Asia, Australasia and Africa in both open and forest habitats. This small, glossy drongo inhabits forest edge, while a larger and more widespread species, Black Drongo, is also common on the wires above Taiwan's many paddyfields.  

After Swinhoe's Pheasant, the Taiwan Blue Magpie is the island's most colourful and spectacular endemic. They fly through the lowland forest (or forest edge) in small family groups, often descending to the ground to feed. The long patterned tail ends in a characteristic curl. This is the only Taiwan species known to nest co-operatively: the breeding pair are assisted in feeding the young by other members of the group, presumed to be the previous year's young. All of the group help build and defend the nest. 

Up near the tree-line, at about 2600 metres, the White-whiskered Laughingthrush is the most conspicuous and confiding bird. It is a very easy endemic to observe as it approaches the walker hoping for crumbs. Laughingthrushes are not in the thrush family, but belong to the enormous family of babblers which have radiated into 309 species, of 84 genera. Most are in Asia, but some also in Africa. The Wrentit - found in California - has also recently been shown to be a babbler. Of Taiwan's 24 recognized endemics, half are in the babbler family. 

 Here is an endemic robin, also up near the tree-line. Formerly called Collared Bush-Robin, it is now known as Johnstone's Robin. This is the more brightly coloured male. It is instantly recognizable as a robin by its behaviour, so similar to our familiar European species. Interestingly however, it is placed in the genus Luscinia (with the nightingales and Bluethroat) not in Erithacus like 'our' robin. 

Many thanks to group members Ken, John, Richard, Edna and Iain who have all contributed a photo or two to these two Taiwan posts.   


In April I led the Ornitholidays tour to Taiwan, a friendly and fascinating country with superb mountain forests. In this first blog, I'll deal with a few aspects of the country; and soon follow it up with another blog of the bird life that we encountered. This photo shows a scene from the mountains of Dasyueshan, where we spent three nights. The higher altitudes - up to 3000m - are clothed in mixed coniferous forests - cyprus, hemlock, and spruce - while lower down there is a greater variety of deciduous trees including many rhododendrons just coming into flower. Up here is where we saw the majority of the endemic species. (Click on any photo to enlarge).

The Taiwanese are very efficient at land-use in the lowlands. Rice is widely cultivated, often on a small scale without much mechanization. The lowlands on the west side of the country are also where most of the factories producing the 'Made in Taiwan' goods are produced. In April, the weather becomes warm and humid: a prelude to the monsoon rains that follow in June and July. 

Here a gardener tends his patch of vegetables on the outskirts of the capital Taipei. We stopped here to watch three endemics: Taiwan Whistling Thrush, Taiwan Scimitar Babbler, and the country's national bird: Taiwan Blue Magpie. However, most of the 24 endemics that are currently recognized live up in the mountain forests. As more DNA work is done on relationships, many more of the 60 or so endemic subspecies will be elevated to species status. 

Here's a typical urban scene: the town of Dongshi that was established as a timber centre as it is situated below Dasyueshan's mountain forests. Barn and Striated Swallows are totally at home in these settings, and find places to nest above the streets. Sometimes they can be seen hawking for insects at night thanks to the street-lights. 

Not all is rampant materialism in Taiwan. There are many ornate temples, like this Tao temple on the forest edge at Huben. There are also many Buddhist temples: and an easy relationship between the two religions. Adherents observe each other's festivals and visit each other's temples. The decoration inside some of the temples and on the roofs is wonderful: