While I love this blog, I now pretty much only write on my other two blogs: BirdingBlogs.com and 10,000 Birds - I would love to see you there!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Winter birding in the Alps - Snowfinches

Trying to find birds in the thick of winter here in the Alps is not exactly easy. Tirol is covered in snow, and we don't have the influx of nordic/arctic birds that eastern Austria get. Well, that is not completely true, we do get a couple of winter visitors; mainly various ducks on the River Inn, but they are scarce and shy (but I did see a Goosander - Gänsesäger - a couple of weeks ago!).

We have had snow right down in to the Inntal for the past 5 weeks now, and the only birds I have in my garden are House Sparrows and Blackbirds (with the occassional Carrion Crow flying past).

So, last weekend I packed myself up early in the morning and headed up to one of my favorite birding areas - the Sellraintal.
It was quiet ...
too quiet...
(cue dramatic music)

reaching Kühtai, at the head of the Sellraintal, I parked alongside the Hochalterbahn chairlift station (where they have a sunflower seed bird feeder).
I am starting to get used to this.

I set up my digiscoping setup anyway, as I am pretty sure something will show up eventually.
Hand freeze.
Toes wont move anymore.
But I am pretty sure something will show up.
(pleading voice)

Suddenly, 200+ snowfinches cirlcing overhead!
What an incredible sight.
Snowfinches everywhere.

All through Summer, I had scoured the high Alps looking for White-winged Snowfinches (Schneefinken, Montifringilla nivalis), but I only ever got fleeting glimpses of small groups as they darted about with their quick, direct flight. Trying to get photos of them - I think - would have been an exhausting and fruitless endeavour.
In Winter - it seems - they congregate in much larger flocks, particularly in areas where there is a dependable food supply. Kühtai itself is already at 2020m, and almost above the treeline, and I have rarely (if ever) seen snowfinches below this altitude, so it seems like (at least here) they tend to remain in the high mountains throughout the Winter, picking up whatever food bits they can. Besides feeding on the sunflower seeds at the bird feeder, I also saw smaller flocks of a couple dozen birds going down in to a little ravine / hollow where they seemed to be feeding on something on the ground.

You would think that with a couple hundred snowfinches about that it would not be that hard to take a decent photo. Well, I actually found it quite challenging. Perched, the snowfinch is a rather drab bird - it looks more like a house sparrow than a bird that I would make huge efforts to see. But, it is in taking off and landing that they flash their luminescent white wing and tail plumage and transform to a captivating bird of contrasts.

And so, I set myself the task of trying to capture them in take-off or landing. Well, easier said than done. It brought me to discover something I had not realised about them before - they are incredibly quick little birds. Their take-off speed is incredible and I have scores of photo series' where there are snowfinches in one frame and nothing in the next. In comparison to their wanna-be look-alikes, house sparrows are practically lazy and/or geriatric flyers.

The snowfinches left me captivated by their flight.
And their colour definately added to the spectacle.
What gorgeous creatures.
How lovely to be alive.

So, it seems, there are some Winter birding opportunities in the Tirolean and Austrian Alps - you just have to work a little harder for them.

[See other White-winged Snowfinch posts here]

Happy (Winter) birding

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Birding in eastern Austria: Neusiedlersee, Lange Lacke and others

Last weekend, on our way back in from Hungary, Martin Riesing took me on a whirlwind tour of Burgenland / eastern Austria's best birding spots. We went in search of hawks and saw tons of Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus, Kornweihen), an immature White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla, Seeadler), an Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca, Östlicher Kaiseradler) and a few Kestrels (Turmfalken) but no sign of the Saker Falcons (Falco cherrug, Sakerfalke).

A quick detour to find Great Bustards (Otis tarda, Großtrappe) produced a healthy flock of individuals flying together - I had never seen anything like it: 18kg birds flying. Sure, I had seen a good number of Kori Bustards (Ardeotis kori) in southern Africa, but they very rarely take to the skies and I had only ever seen them in pairs - never in a whole flock of scores of them!

The climax of the day was spending a few hours bracing against the bitterly cold wind along the shore of Lange Lacke, where we saw thousands of Greylag and White-fronted Geese (Anser anser and Anser albifrons), a good few Bean Geese (Anser fabilis, Saatgans), a couple of Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis, Weißwangengans), and - the highlight for me - a single Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis, Rothalsgans) moving about with the White-fronted Geese. We tried our best, but could not find a single Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus, Zwerggans).

Birding in eastern Austria is obviously quite different from birding here in the Alpine region of western Austria - and there are certainly lots more species to be seen - but I must admit that by the end of the weekend I was itching to get back to the mountains to see some of our alpine birds again - Alpine Accentors, Snow Finches, Golden Eagles...

Happy birding

Thursday, 4 December 2008

On families, birding, and lots of geese

The Hungarian birder and wader expert - Szimuly (Szimi) György - speaks about the annual Tatai Vadlud Sokadalom or Wild Goose Festival in Tata, western Hungary. The birding festival was initially conceived to develop awareness about birds, birding and conservation within the local community. Over the last 8 years, festival has grown to much larger proportions. This year, about 5000 enthusiastic birders of all ages braved the cold and drizzly weather to watch the spectacle of 10000 geese, learn a little more about birds, interact with other birders, and participate in the associated "bird race" (trying to see as many bird species as possible in one day).

The Hungarian Wild Geese Festival is quite possibly the largest winter bird festival in central Europe and it certainly is great. But probably the greatest thing about the festival for me was the huge number of children and teenagers actively involved in birding - something I have not seen anywhere else in the world. Well done Hungary!

p.s. follow this link to see Szimi's own blog in Hungarian and English.

Why don't biologist parents have biologist children?

I find it a great irony that most biologists dedicate their lives to developing a love for biology and trying to spread the good word and help others see the value of their beloved science. but yet, they tend to fail miserably when it comes to their own children. Biologist parents very rarely produce biologist progeny.

I have spent a good deal of time wondering about this and I am starting to think that it might be because biologist parents really really want their kids to enjoy their passions and so drum it in to them to such an extent that the younger generation just gets sick of it and runs away from the demands of the parents. the other reason could be that youths (as with adults) are most inspired by a challenge and if the youth is always in the shadow of the all-knowing adult then the challenge and desire will soon leave them.

I suspect that something similar happens with birders and that the way to encourage the sprightlier members of our society to join in our habit (sport seems like too strong a word) is not to try to teach them about it, but to find ways to use their knowledge-sucking reservoirs of brains to get them to teach us stuff about birds. Maybe to point out behaviours, or calls, or habitat selection, or to figure out what new species could be seen at a birding venue (either a new one or one visited often).

As a kid, I spent hours and hours pouring over bird books, memorizing names and pictures and generally just trying to soak up as much information as possible. My friend played Tetris and Space Invaders and, later, "Californian Games". I also did some of this, but I could never get addicted to TV games or computer games, because birds were always way too fascinating. But the thing is that it was not only because there was a whole world of information I had discovered, it was because it was a challenge to me. getting to Level 3 is one kind of challenge, but birding just seemed to me to offer a much more multi-fasceted and richer challenge because I needed to know how the birds looked, what they sounded like, where to look for them, what types of birds I could find in a particular habitat etc.
And I think crucially, my parents were also beginner birders. They had oodles of enthusiasm but they always made it seem like my brother and I were the experts and that we would be able to figure out anything. Their encouragement was subtle and behind the scenes. They never begged us to go birding with them, they asked if we would come along to help them. they asked what species we could expect to see there. and when we were there, they asked us to help them find and identify the birds so that we could make a bigger family list.

But something else I can see, looking back, is that my younger brother is now only interested in birds (as opposed to being stupid mad about them) and I think this had something to do with me being older and louder (read: domineering). Birding was not as much a challenge for him because there was always someone else trying to be right or trying to be better (sorry Barry). I suppose this is fairly typical sibling rivalry, but if we, as adults and parents maintain a position of greater knowledge or experience when birding with children, we are almost certainly going to help dampen their flame of interest.

Eddie Callaway and the others of the Birdfreak team are heavily involved in youth birding and as far as I can tell, a good number of the team members are youngsters. Check out their post on the Delaware Dunlins Youth Birding Club and how they have a whole group of youths keen on birds. They also put together a pdf file on birding with youngsters and teenagers, both available on their blog, and both well worth reading if you are interesting in birding with the younger folk.

I think my next post will be about how the Hungarians have gotten so many young people involved in birding.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Awesome winter birding festival in Hungary

Wow, incredible! The annual Birding and Goose Festival in Tata, western Hungary was definitely a spectacle. We awoke on Saturday morning to what looked like a nice morning. It was still dark out but most of the birders were already active and starting to "hunt" birds for the bird race. But the real spectacle was happening on the lake shore. The lake was still dark (there are no artificial lights around the lake) but the geese were starting to to get restless - 20,000 of them!

Tons of Bean Geese (Ansa fabalis, Saatgans), with great big groups of Whitefronted Geese (Anser albifrons, Blässgans) and Greylag Geese (Anser anser, Graugans) and - rumour had it - a few Red-breasted Geese too (Branta ruficollis, Rothalsgans). But it wasn't only the spectacle of thousands of geese waking up that was amazing, but also the sheer number of people there to see it. Even at dawn, there was a huge line of birders and telescopes enjoying the spectable - the line of birders must have been at least about 100m long by sunrise.

One of the loveliest and most inspiring things for me personally was the sheer number of children participating in the festival. I would guess that at least 25-30% of the people at the festival were children in families. But this was not the reluctant child being dragged along on the parents' hobby outing - there were kids everywhere with binoculars about the neck looking for birds. Their enthusiasm for birding was infectious and it is really apparent that the Hungarians really know a thing or two about birding, birders and the development of our passion (and we could learn a lot from them!).

For the bird race, Martin Riesing and I were joined by an enthusiastic Hungarian birder from Budapest and the three of us trudged about in the morning's rain examining everything that moved. Into the afternoon the weather got better. I mean that in the loosest of senses for it was still flippin' cold (but it was a WINTER bird fest after all), but it just was not raining.

Our last tick for the day (and a lifer for me) was three Long-eared Owls (Asio otus, Waldohreule) which we picked up at dusk, just as they were heading out on the hunt.

All in all, about 5,000 people attended the Tata wild bird / goose festival (officially called the VIII. Tatai Vadlud Sokadalom 2008). This is even more impressive considering the poor weather. The festival was well organised (by MME, Hungary's local Birdlife International partner) and everyone was super friendly and helpfull. And the spectacle of 20,000 wild geese moving about at sunset would be hard to beat.

Swarovski Optik Hungary had a little stand at the bird fair with a video camera set up on a digiscoping setup so that people could see live images of the geese on a television screen if they did not have a telescope to use.

It really does seem like the Hungarians know a little something about birding and birders and could teach the rest of us a good thing or two...

If you would like to join the bird.at group heading to the Tatai Vadlud Sokadalom 2009 then we would be more than happy to hear from you!

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Friday, 28 November 2008

Birding Tips 2: Lens Cleaning

Like most birders, I only tend to think about cleaning my dirty binoculars when I am out in the field. The challenge, of course, is then 'how does one clean a binocular or telescope lens in the field with out scratching that seriously expensive glass?'

Using your T-shirt is certainly the most commonly used method but probably not the best of ideas. I would be a telling a filthy lie if I said I had never used a dirty, sweaty T-shirt to clean off my fancy-shmancy Swaros. But I have learnt my lesson. At some stage I realised that it really was not a train-smash if I was caught out in the field without one of those cute little optics manufacturer-designed cleaning kits. mmm, is it bad luck to talk about rail accidents when one is travelling on a train? Hope not.

Nowadays, if I really have to clean my binocular or telescope lenses out in the field then I tend to rely on one of two methods:
1. blow off as much stuff as possible; pour water over the lens to wash off most of the grime; and then use my finger to gently wash the lens; finish by blowing off excess water and then using a MICROFIBRE cloth to give a final clean
2. Blow off; Lick (yes, lick it with your tongue - it is extremely effective!); MICROFIBRE

Not having a microfibre is not the end of the world, either. Just use the first method and try to blow off as much of the water as possible (this will help reduce the water-spots on the lens). This will normally suffice until I can get home to a microfibre cloth or borrow one from a fellow birder.

Birders spend a lot of hard-earned money to have beautiful equipment and I don't think it is that hard to keep them in good nic.

Happy birding

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Birding Tips 1 - binocular harness

my entire birding life, i have stuck to using a normal carrying strap with my binoculars. when working in costa rica, I had my binoculars with me all day, every day and was always on the lookout for scarlet macaws (the species I was working on at the time). Because of the long hours carrying binoculars, I used to sling them across my shoulder (like a beauty-queen's sash). and I found that this was quite comfortable for me.

but, I have recently started to use a binocular harness (binocular suspender) and have found it incredibly comfortable. It seems that binocular harnesses are rather popular in the United States, but are thought of as completely silly most everywhere else. Well, to be honest, I still think they look silly - as though I have a kiddy/doggie lead attached to my back so that my wife can reel me in when I stray too far. (oh please, no one give that idea to my wife! that will be the end of searches for elusive Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and such like). But, at the end of the day, my neck is really starting to appreciate the binocular harness.

Essentially, in stead of having just one strap that distributes the weight of the binoculars around the neck, the principle behind the harness is that the weight is split and supported by the shoulders. harnesses are generally adjustable so they can be made to fit over just about any clothing, and their elasticated straps tend to allow for a better and more comfortable fit.

At first, I did not really like that there was tension on the elastic holding straps when I was looking through the binocualrs, but as I used it more, I started to appreciate the added stability this system gave me - the slight tension tends to hold the binoculars in place in a suspension tripod-effect.

The binocualrs tend to sit close to the chest with less pendulum than I am accustomed to with a neck strap, and the handy little quick-release clips mean that I can get the binoculars on and off quickly (particularly important when I want to lend my binoculars to someone quickly).

If you tend to carry your binoculars around for hours on end, have a bit of a hand-tremble, or tend to have neck trouble, then I would strongly recommend trying a binocular harness out.

Happy birding

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Swarovski Digiscoper of the Year 2008

1300 digiscoped photos from 40 countries were submitted to this year's Digiscoper of the Year competition and the results are now out. There are some stunning images in the final selection of 20 but my favorite has got to be the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters by Chung Han Wu.

(note: the photos on this post are from screen shots of the official website)

I have just googled Chung Han Wu (吳崇漢) to try find out a little more about him and what his background is. It seems he won Birding in Taiwan's national bird photo campaign 2006 for a beautiful image of a Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado) in the snow. More than that seems really hard to find out given my embarrasingly poor knowledge of international writing systems and alphabets. At any rate, it seems he has a good few beautiful images out there but these bee-eaters are stunning!

I also found the image of the Silver-breasted Broadbill (Serilophus lunatus) particularly powerful. But then again I have a weakness for broadbills!

The photo was taken by Sataporn Suvitvong in Thailand (another place I have got to visit!). Not only did he get a great photo, but he was only 10m from such an incredibly stunning bird.

I love photography, and digiscoping has opened up a whole new world for me (and lots of other birders and photographers). Suddenly I have the opportunity to take (passable) bird images using the equipment I have with me when birding anyway. I have had countless hours of joy and fun trying to get a decent photo of some shy little passerine, or a rail that insists on only showing itself when the light is disastrous. Digiscoping certainly adds something to our birding experience; we see details we never would have seen, we are forced to study their habits and movements, and we get to take home stories about "the one that got away" and - with a smattering of luck and perseverance - we might even be able to show our loved ones and friends what it was we saw. For a few talented ones out there, they may even be able to turn their hobby in to a business, or even better, a lifestyle.

But one thing I have noticed about photography, is that if we always look at life through a lens then some times we miss part of the joy and beauty of nature. Over the summer, I spent some time on the Spanish Costa Brava. The one afternoon, I met a Dutch birder who told me about a family of Purple Gallinules (Purple Swamphens, Porphyrio porphyrio, Purpurhuhn) at one of the hides. I very excitedly scuttled over to said hide. Hours went by as I rattled off rolls of virtual film. exciting, entertaining, captivating... way better than a Dan Brown novel.
But that evening I realised that I had spent the entire afternoon staring down the lens of a camera and not once had I sat back to enjoy the brilliant beauty of these "ugly purple chickens" (as my wife called them). It was a shame, really.
So the next day I went back again. And sat back to admire them. (but I took some photos too, I couldn't help it ;-)

Happy birding

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Nature Watch Tirol at the World Travel Market, London

The Nature Watch programme is a partnership between the Tirol State Tourism Board (in the Austrian Alps) and Swarovski Optik (manufacturers of high-quality binoculars, telescopes, etc.) to encourage ecotourism to the Alps. In particular, the programme focusses on combining quality hotels in beautiful areas, with knowledgeable mountain guides. The guides' training involves - amongst other things - mountain safety knowledge and first aid, training on how best to choose and conduct a tour, and has an extensive emphasis on natural history knowledge.

A typical Nature Watch holiday would involve staying in a comfortable hotel/guest house in a beautiful setting, and going out on a Nature Watch tour/walk designed specifically around your group's interests. To enrich your experience, your guide will show you things you might never have found by yourself: a Golden Eagle flying by, a Marmot calling on a rock in the distance, or a beautiful beetle warming itself in the sun. To add to the experience, each participant will have a pair of top-quality Swarovski Optik binoculars to use (free of charge), allowing you to see that eagle really well, and to microscope in on the beautiful insects and flowers.

For more information, check out the Nature Watch website.

Enough dryness.

London was pretty cool. It was my first trip to the place and my initial impression was that I was not wrong in thinking that England was a cold, grey place. Grey is definitely what it was. But the architecture in London was definitely special and so different from the continental architecture I had grown accustomed to. Picadilly Circus left me with the immortal words of Garth (Wayne's World): "What a horrible circus" (although Garth used more flowery language). Not a single trapeez artist anywhere. Although, the golden diving figures a couple of blocks down the road were certainly very cool.

The World Travel Market itself was incredibly large and the stands were surprisingly flashy. At least some of these people had not heard about the global financial crisis and credit crunch. Maybe they had just not been watching CNN and so were not as pessimistic as the rest of their countries.

One of the great things about such a large gathering of international people is that you get to meet so many interesting people from all over the world. Some of my favorite were the guys from the Phillipphines. So incredibly friendly. I loved their bright smiles and relaxed, laid-back way. Oh, and the birding in the Phillippines looks mind-blowing. I was looking at their bird list and it appeared that at least half of the species recorded are endemics. It blew my mind.

Happy birding

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Autumn birding in The Vyne, Basingstoke, England

Last Friday I had a couple of hours in the morning to head out to The Vyne Estate (near Basingstoke and Sherborne St John, just Southwest of London) to see what birds we could pick up in the late Autumn. The woodland paths were beautiful. Calm. With a golden carpet of beech leaves on the floor. Very few birds were about in the forest but the little pond had me cursing not having brought my digiscoping equipment with (to be completely honest it was just because I was too lazy to unpack it all out of my travel bags - poor excuse for a birder visiting a new area, I know).

On the pond, we found a good number of Greylag Goose (Anser anser, Graugans), a single Canada Goose (Branta canadensis, Kanadagans), at least five Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata, Löffelente), Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope, Pfeifente), Common Teal (Anas crecca, Krickente) and one Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Bekassine). A few Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea, Graureiher) and Moorhens (Gallinura chloropus, Teichralle) were mucking about in the shallows and a flock of Eurasian Jackdaws kept on circling overhead (Corvus monedula, Dohle).

As mentioned before, somebody decided not to bring the pretty swaro digiscoping setup with me to the forest so photos were not really on the card. That, and the weather was grey, cold and rather unpleasant anyway. As it was, I did manage to get a couple of digibinned photos, including a couple of the Canada Goose taken through my Swaro ELs with the Snapshot adapter. The photos might not be anything to write home about, but they were good enough for a few ID shots, and they certainly would never have been possible without a great set of binoculars. Gotta love that little snapshot adapter too.

It was great to see some different birds from those we normally have here in Tirol, and it was also fun to hang out with some old friends, but I must say that however lovely the landscape, it has very little on the stunning breath-taking beauty of the Tirolean Alps.

(but I may be more than a little biased ;-)

Happy birding (especially if you are in England and have to put up with all that grey weather)

Definately heading in to Winter

Birding here is proving a little tough. I got back from the World Travel Market (London's huge travel trade fair) on Friday and headed out in to the mountains this afternoon to see what we could see. The birds were quiet. So quiet. Not a peep.

But the mountains were stunning in the stillness.

My father-in-law and I went for a walk up the Vomperloch towards Gan-Alm, just North of Schwaz. The beauty of this spot is that it very quickly gets one in to the Karwendel park and away from the development and people of the Inn River Valley. Within a few minutes of walking, one is surrounded by peaceful mixed coniferous woodland and beautiful mountain peaks.

The European Beech (Fagus sylvatica, Rotbuche) and the European Larch (Larix decidua, Europäische Lärche) have already lost their leaves and added a red/brown hue to the forest floor and a sharp chill in the air would not let us forget that Winter was well on its way. The few birds we did see included Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo, Mäusebussard), Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone, Rabenkrähe), Coal Tit (Periparus ater, Tannenmeisen), and a single Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes, Tanenhäher). Not even a single woodpecker called.

Late in the evening we saw a group of five Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra, Gämse).

So, the birds were not that spectacular, but the beauty of the landscape and the refreshing Alpine air certainly make a walk in Tirol's mountains worthwhile.

Happy birding

Saturday, 8 November 2008

World Travel Market, London

I am off to the World Travel Market in London ExCel center for next week. ought to be lots of fun. i will be at the Tirol Werbung stand (part of the Austrian National Tourism Board's stand) so if you happen to be visiting the fair, come along and say hi. we will have lots of pretty pictures of Tirol, and be telling people about how cool our new NatureWatch program is. and I might even get to do a spot of birding out at the Vyne on Friday morning.

Happy birding

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Central Europe's biggest Winter bird fair

Hi all, the annual Tata bird fair is almost here - thousands of birders from all over central europe descending on the city of Tata, Hungary for a weekend of birding, goose watching, and general nonsense talking. Sorry, I meant to say: ... and lots of serious bird-related discussion.

As far as I can tell, this year's Tata fair will involve lectures/talks/workshops in the evenings with lots of cool and interesting things going on and piles of fascinating people to meet. The day time will, as you probably would have guessed, involve hours of looking through binoculars and telescopes. A bird race of small teams competing to see as many species as possible will probably be the focus of most people's day, but I dare say that there will also be a good number of people who take it a little more tranquilo and just follow the crazy-enthusiastic birders around, feeding off their buzz.

I just want to see a Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus, Zwerggans). Talking about LWfG, the other day I found a really cool website on them by the Fennoscandian L White-fronted Goose Project and an awesome LWfG photo by the Italian photographer Juza, here. It seems like the Fennoscandian guys are really doing a huge amount to try to reestablish and save this species from extinction and they are faced with an incredibly complex task. As far as I can tell, sport hunting is their biggest threat. Not unexpect, hey? But the absurdity of the situation is that the species is threatened because it looks so similar to the White-fronted Goose - the most hunted waterfowl species in Europe (Anser albifrons, Blässgans). Evidently, sport hunters are generally unable to tell the difference between the two and unwhittingly blast the poor little endangered ones along with their more common congener. But I can't really blame them. That little yellow eyering and the difference in size may not be apparent if one is not actively looking for the features.

Here is another fascinating web site showing the migration paths of LWfG with satelite telemetry packs. These little guys migrated all the way from the the Putorana Plateau in Russia through Kazakhstan and down to Iraq. If you click on the map, it will take you to GIS-lab's website with a series of google map images that show the exact routes of the various geese.

The photo of the Lesser White-fronted Goose above is by Neil Phillips who writes a blog about UK Wildlife - worth checking out.

Okay, back to the Tata bird fair - their website is only in Hungarian (go figure), but, at the very least, it is worth checking it out for its pretty pictures. Just click on the flying goose logo above. If you understand German, then you could also check out a translation of the 2006 programme on bird.at here. And if you follow that last link, it will allow you to download the "English version 2005 online".

If you do decide to come, keep an eye out for Martin and I. We are easily recognisable. We will be wearing brownish clothing, brownish baseball caps, will have Swarovski binoculars dangling from our necks and never, ever more than an arm's length away, and great big ATS telescopes/digiscoping setups over our shoulders (or attached to one or other of our eyes). Well, come to think of it, I am not sure that we will stand out from the crowd if we look like that. Then again, I dont think it will be hard to track us down ;-)

Until then, happy birding

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Birding and the value of meeting with other birders

some friends and colleagues of mine are teaching a rather interesting MSc course at the local university at the moment about online branding. it sounded interesting so i joined in yesterday's class. one of the things we touched on was LAN Parties. For the uninformed, a LAN party is where a whole bunch of people get together - all with their own computers - and play games with each other. they sit right next to each other, play with each other, but only through the semi-isolated realm of their computers.

Why, might I ask would groups of people drag large, cumbersome computer equipment around so that they can be in the same room when the same could be done quite adequately using a high-speed internet connection? Something of a mystery.

But it did get me thinking, that even though many of our hobbies are well practiced alone (and might even be more productive and enjoyable alone), there is a collective enthusiasm and - dare I say - acceptance that comes from meeting with other like-minded and equally weird enthusiasts.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I got the opportunity to spend some time with some international birders (incl the super-digiscoper Clay Taylor). To put it in to context, birding in Tirol in not such a popular past-time. Granted, there are a good number of ornithologists about, and the locals love spending time in the mountains, but birding (and to a lesser extent, its more laid-back sibling, birdwatching) is rather unknown here. So, I tend to wander the mountains, forests and streams, all kitted out with tons of optical equipment, books, cameras (and sometimes the wife) with only a smattering of company from other bird enthusiasts. And it is sooo much harder to learn about the local avifauna alone than if one is surrounded by other crazed birders (my lovely wife is reading over my shoulder and told me that she can tell me where all the birds are. if ever I want to see a sparrow, she can help me out).

Birders: that group of mildly deranged individuals that will ignore a broken leg and infected wounds if they know that a new twitch has - some time in the possibly distant past - been seen in the area. Who of us would not swim across a crocodile infested river for a rare Pitta?
(and we tell ourselves things like: well, the only ones I've seen are less than 3m long and the locals say that it is only the bigger ones that eat people).

And so we all went out to a beautiful valley off of the Sellraintal (behind Haggen) to look for late Autumn Alpine remnants ... and saw almost nothing. But how great it was to go out with enthusiasts again - I left the weekend with tons of creative birding energy and an enthusiasm that is likely to stay with me well in to Winter. A couple of things that we did happen to see were: Alpine Chough (Alpendohle), Golden Eagle (Steinadler), Nutcracker (Tannenhäher) common here, but something interesting for the British and Dutch guys) and lots of very fat Chamoix (Gamsbok).

So, I guess my take home message is that being alone in the wilderness is awesome, but the enthusiasm and shared experiences and learning make trips with other birders priceless.

btw, the beautiful pitta image is of a Blue-winged Pitta taken by the talented photographer Myron Tay. Click on the image to link to his Flickr photostream.

Happy birding

Monday, 20 October 2008

Autumn colours and mountain birding

Having lived all my life in the tropics or subtropics, I had never really experienced the wonder of northern hemisphere autumn colours. The splendour still enthralls me. Walking / casual birding around Adolf Pichler Hütte the weekend before last, the lovely reds in the grass, and a fine sugar-coating on the mountains made for a spectacular walk.

Birds were few, however, and besides a few willow tits (Weidemeisen) and flocks of Fieldfares (Wacholderdrossel), we did not see much.

Yesterday brought mildly better birding success. We spent the day exploring Kühtai and the Sellraintal for decent Autumn birding spots. We picked up a hunting Golden Eagle (Steinadler) on Kühtai's sunny slope, and a very shy three-toed woodpecker (Dreizehenspecht) behind Haggen bei Sankt Sigmund.

happy birding

Monday, 13 October 2008

Weekend birding and Autumn migrants

The weather was lovely on Saturday morning and so I headed down to the Inzinger Gaissau to see if any new migrants had turned up.

Last weekend had delivered two Wigeons (Pfeifenten), about five Pochard (Tafelenten), and a very shy group of five Teal (Krickenten). We also heard a Water Rail (Wasserralle) calling from the western-most reed beds near the railway line, and the day before, I had seen a Cormorant (Kormoran) for the first time here.

This weekend, however, there were no signs of the Wigeons, Pochards or Teal (they seem to have just been passing through), but there were unusually large numbers of Mallard (Stockenten) and a Cormorant fishing about. The Little Grebe (Zwergtaucher) numbers have now gone down again, after a peak at about 30-35 individuals at the end of September.

(a poor photo of Wigeons - they really were playing hard to get! this photo was taken in a rush, looking through a bush as they buzzed by)

There are still some Barn Swallows (Rauchswalben) about and the Chifchafs (Zilzalp) are still calling. It seems rather late for them to still be here - there are already considerable numbers of Barn Swallows in South Africa 6000km away!

The most interesting sighting of the day was groups of up to 50 Skylarks (Feldlerchen) feeding in the Maize stubble fields just to the south of the pond. This is the same area where scores of Yellow Wagtails (Shafstelzen) were hanging out in the freshly ploughed fields in spring.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Monday, 29 September 2008

Late Autumn migration over the Alps

last week we went out to the Sattelberg, a gorgeous mountain overlooking the Brenner Pass, and split between Austrian and Italian territory. The mission was to try count birds migrating South over the ridge line.

We knew we were unlikely to see too many birds migrating through so late in the season, and the birds that were migrating were - I suppose - more likely to have gone straight up the Wipptal and over the Brenner Pass than to head all the way up and over the mountain top. At any rate, we braved the snow and winds to see what we could see.

As it turns out, we saw a good number of juvenile House Martins (Mehlschwalben) flying about (rather unusual for Tirol) but they all seemed to be heading North. Maybe we should have provided them with a map.

Also interesting was the large numbers of pipts moving through. They were unusually shy and quickly moved on. It looked like they were migrating in a boulder-to-boulder manner (rather than the rapid, directed flights that come to mind when we think of migration). The only species we were able to positively identify was the water pipit (Bergpiper), but we suspect there were a good few more about.

The only raptors we saw was one young Hobby Falcon (Baumfalke) which circled and flew directly over us, and a Common Buzzard (Mäusebussard).

View of Sattelberg from Gries am Brenner

Although we did not see too much, it was a lovely day to be out in the mountains. The Tirolean mountains really have something special to them.
A peace.
A wonder.
It is always special to be in them...

Happy birding

Friday, 26 September 2008

Alpine Chough on winter altitudinal migration

We are in the middle of a cold-ish spell here in Tirol - the mountain peaks surrounding Innsbruck are all covered with snow down to about 1700m. Changing weather conditions always make birdwatching a little more interesting as the dramatic changes in temperature that we experience here in the Alps force birds - especially - to move a little.

Looking out of my window now, I can see a flock of about 40 Alpine Choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus, Alpendohle) moving around Innsbruck. They are fairly common down here in the city during winter, when they move down off of the high peaks in to the relative warmth of the Inn River valley. Having said that, they seem to take readily back to the mountains as soon as it warms up a little. Sunday is likely to be a warm enough day for at least most of the snow on the mountains to melt, so I dont think the choughs will be hanging around for too long. But before long, the peaks will be under solid snow, and the beautiful little choughs will be spending more and more time gracing our city skies.

Their call is beautiful and I love hearing it as I walk around town... it reminds me of the mountains.

Here are a couple of photos of them from Große Bettelwurf, taken last year September. Inquisitive creatures. And rather photogenic with a typically stunning backdrop.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Migrating Barn Swallows

I first started to notice that the swallows were starting to migrate more than a month ago, and there are still swallows around. This morning, there were at least 50 Barn Swallows (Rauchschwalbe) feeding over the River Inn in Innsbruck. But interestingly, the Barn Swallows are already starting to appear in Bloemfontein, South Africa. That means that the swallow migration is currently spread out over at least:

8 615 km

wow. and from bird ringing studies, we know that Barn Swallows that move through Germany and Austria go at least to Bloemfontein. Bloem' is in the very heart of South Africa and has a massive Barn Swallow roost where millions gather just before the northward migration at the end of the austral summer. Who knows, maybe some of our summer visitors are there right now.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Digiscoping, taking photos and tales of really big sharks

I have always been interested in photography. I probably took my first bird photos as a ten year old (Laughing Dove, if I remember correctly), and had taken leopard, rhino and elephant photos within a few years of that.

I have spent much of the last seven years either in transition or in remote field sites where I have not wanted (or had the opportunity) to have fancy shmancy photographic equipment (digital cameras do not last long in the rainforest).

When I moved to Utila a few years ago, the beauty of the underwater environment really stirred my heart. And I could not help but want to get photographing again. Well, that, and the other reason was that I was working on Whale Sharks (Walhaai) at the time, and was interested in non-invasive means of individual identification (believe me, despite what some people may say, without a camera, they all look the same!). The trick with individual recognition involves capturing a flat side-on photo of the shark, focussed on the gill area (as with most sharks, they have five gill slits). Each sharks individual spot pattern can then be used as a means of fingerprinting the sharks we see. With the use of computer programmes designed by people way cleverer than I can comprehend, we are able to search for previous sightings of the same shark. One such programme that I loved, was I3S - this enabled me to build a database of all the whale sharks that had been seen in the waters around Utila, and to tell when we were getting resightings of the same individual.

Another system we used was that run by Ecocean. If you go here, you will see three photos of a shark named H-016 (the 16th whale shark identified from Honduras in the Ecocean database). The first image is the most useful: it is flat on (although a little high) and clearly shows the spot pattern on the shark's left side. The second photo is less useful as there is more angle on the photo. I included the third photo because it was pretty. Oh, and you can see his claspers (the two male sperm-transfer organs located under the pectoral fins).

This shark has been positively identified at least 11 times in the waters around Utila and is locally known as Big Jim after the late Jim Engel, owner and founder of the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center. One more thing, take a look at the range of information provided by observers: he was called a she twice, and size guestimates ranged from 4,5m to 9m! Needless to say, gauging whale shark size is incredibly difficult.

When not playin with Whale Sharks, I also liked to take photos and videos of the coral reef life (all underwater photos were taken with a Canon SD550).
(the tiger shark photo was taken in South Africa).

Check out my youtube channel for more underwater videos, and my old whale shark blog for more shark tales.

And now to Austria...

Digiscoping birds

Despite a brief detoir underwater, my life has generally revolved around birds. Coming to Austria, I found a whole new community of species, most of which I had never before come across. This past Summer has been a wonderful learning curve, learning as much as I could about the birds of the Alps. And I have taken lots and lots of photos.

Initially, all of my bird photos were taken through my Swarovski binoculars with a hand-held point and shoot digital camera. Then I started using the snapshot adapter - what a lovely litte toy.

I have recently, however, started taking a lot of photos with a little Casio p&s (which will be retired to the realm of party photos soon) and a Swaro ATS 80 (which I absolutely adore). Almost all of the photos on this blog were taken with this setup (but sometimes with another, borrowed, Samsung p&s camera).

I tend to use a fixed 30x eyepiece - I like the extra field of view and having the zoom tempts me to crank it up more than I should. I also particularly enjoy having the swing arm which lets me quickly get the camera out of the way so that I can go for a quick identification. Oh, I see now that when I took the photo, I did not have the scope fitted to the extension arm. I usually use the balance arm to balance out the weight of the digiscoping setup evenly on the tripod head.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Waders in Tirol !!!

Yes, I was shocked. Yesterday I heard that a whole pile of waders had been spotted by some birders along the Inn, just west of the Innsbruck Airport.

View Larger Map

Evidently, the cold, snowy weather over the weekend forced the migrating waders to take a break and weather out the weather. And they happened to find a half decent spot along the Inn in Völs. At the moment, the city is in the process of redirecting the Inn about 80m to the West, so there is a lot of up-turned soil and large ponds. It was in these ponds, and along the Inn itself that birders have seen, amongst others:
Little Stint (Zwergstrandläufer), Dunlin (Alpenstrandläufer), and Curlew Sandpiper (Sichelstrandläufer).

(I did actually take this photo, but it was in Spain)

Andreas Schwartzenberger and I went out this morning only to find not a single wader was about. Not even a Common Sandpiper (Flussuferläufer).
But lots of Grey Wagtails (Gebirgstelze).
We did, however, find a good number of Sand Martins (Uferschwalbe) and Barn Swallows (Rauchschwalbe) feeding over the river (the first is rather unusual in Tirol) and a pair of Sparrowhawks (Sperber) chasing some Jays about (Eichelhäher).

Because of the lack of activity along the Inn, we headed off to my local patch, the pond in Inzing (Gaisau). There were still some Willow Warblers (Fitis) and Chifchafs (Zilzalp) hanging about, but a lot fewer than last week. A good number of (mainly juvenile) House Martins (Mehlschwalben) were also flying about - a new bird for my Gaisau list.

The highlight was probably hearing the Water Rail calling. This bird is extremely shy and it seems, especially so here in Tirol. The bird called from the patch of low reeds/sedge just to the North of where the train track crosses the water (last week we also heard one calling from the waters-edge reeds on the northern edge of the main pond).

Another new tick for Gaisau was the Little Grebe (Zwergtaucher) - I looked out for it all Summer and never found a single one. This morning there were at least two and I suspect they may overwinter in the Gaisau pond.

This is how you get to Gaisau /Inzing Pond:

View Larger Map

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Bird ringing in the Karwendel

As part of the Geo Tag der Artevielfalt (Biodiversity Day), we put up 11 nine metre mist nets to see what birds we could catch along the edge of the Isar River, just a few kilometers up from Scharnitz (near the Mittenwald border with Germany).

The weather was a little bit miserable (drizzled most of the day), but we did manage to get a surprising number of species. The highlight for me was my first Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla, Wendehals).

We also caught a gorgeous Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus, Gartenrotschwanz), a couple of migrating Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca, Trauerschnäpper). As an aside, there are a lot of Pied Flycatchers about at the moment - a species that I did not see the entire summer.

All the migrating swallows have also been impressive. On Saturday, we picked up Barn Swallow, Crag Martin, Sand Martin and House Martin (Rauch-, Felsen-, Ufer- und Mehlschalben).

Another highlight was to finally get to meet Martin Riesing in person. We have been working together, emailing and phoning for many months now and it was great to hang out with him. Martin is the head honcho at bird.at, Austria's top birding resource and website. The site is definately worth checking out if you are intetested in anything to do with Austrian birds and birding. You may also want to check out our forum.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Monday, 15 September 2008

Digiphoning a Black Tern

It is migration time and all sorts of interesting things are popping up here in the alps. Last week we went for a lovely afternoon walk around the pond in Seefeld. I had decided to leave the digiscoping equipment at home and just go to enjoy the ducks, coots and lovely scenery. Lo and behold, as we were heading back to the car I found a rather funny looking mallard sitting on a pole:

Not much of a mallard, I know. But I was trying to convince myself that I was not a complete fool for having left my digiscoping stuff at home when there was a tern right in front of me. Out of desperation, I whipped out the cell phone and tried to take some photos through my binoculars. The photos you see here are the result. Not too bad, I am rather impressed. One can identify the species, and even see that it is a juvenile!

Digiphoning - for want of a better word, I suppose we could call this form of photography digiphoning, the desperate little sibling of BAD photography (Binocular Assisted Digital photography). i found it kinda difficult to align the flat phone face with the binocular eye cups, but with a little practice I managed to get batter at it. The obvious problems are the same as with digibinning and digiscoping - with low light (it was just starting to drizzle), it is hard to get good colours and a fast, sharp image; a smaller camera sensor tends to produce poorer results; and vignetting can be a problem (particularly because phones tend not to have external lenses which one can use to align the lens correctly). This was my first attempt:

The Black Tern
Chlidonias niger - Trauerseeschwalbe

In non-breeding plumage, the black tern is characterized by a falcon hood-like black cap, and a little black (dark grey) line over the shoulder, extending into the breast. Also keep a look out for the darker scapulars (the little feathers on the shoulder of the wing). Adults in winter plumage have a matt grey colour on the back, with juveniles having a little pale tips to the feathers on the back and coverts. You can see the lighter feather edges on the first photo, above, making this a juvenile.

Conservation and biology
Evidently, the population of European Black Terns decreased by about 95% during the last century! Albert Beintema attributes this mainly to drastically reduced reproductive output, particularly caused through the loss of suitable habitat (or microhabitats), and diversity of food sources (Beintema AJ 1997 Colonial Waterbirds 20/3). I found the latter of particular interest. Black Terns evidently need access to a large variety of insect food because single populations of one particular species are more likely to experience drastic fluctuation during the nestling period, meaning that there is a greater likelihood that the chicks will starve because the insect population on which they rely crashed. Furthermore, Beintema suggests that Black Tern chicks require fish in their diet, because of the higher level of calcium they provide. The use of fish to feed young may also be more energy efficient (Gilbert AT & Servello FA 2005 Waterbirds 28/4). Lakes with low fish populations (through nutrification, acidification etc) thus become unsuitable breeding sites for the terns.

It seems that catching fish becomes much more difficult for the marsh terns (Clidonias spp.) when the weather is bad. Unlike the sea terns, marsh terns do not dive into the water to catch prey items but rather pick stuff from the surface. When the water surface is choppy and wind-blown, catching fish to feed hungry nestlings becomes very difficult. It is at these times that breeding Black Terns have been seen collecting earthworms to supplement the diet of the nestlings (Beintema AJ 1997 Bird Study 44/1). Albert Beintema also reports of a fascinating phenomenon (rarely) displayed during bad weather periods - intraspecific kleptoparasitism. Evidently, breeding birds who are struggling to support their nestlings during bad weather periods will sometimes go to the nest of another breeding pair, position itself between the nestlings and beg for food from the large-prey-item carrying parent. Snatching the fish away, the thief then takes the prey item off to feed its own young. In this way, some terns were able to significantly increase the amount of food they were able to feed their nestlings.

The migration of Black Terns is also fascinating. Evidently, European and Asian Black Terns congregate in two wetland areas before departing South: IJsselmeer (The Netherlands) and Sivash (Ukraine)(cf. Van Der Winden J 2002 Ardea 90/3). They depart in the evening, flying up relatively high (more than 500m), and fly through the night and there are no significant stop-over sites on their 3600 km journey in to Africa!

Black Terns can live at least 21 years (Staav R 1998 Euring Newsletter 2)

There is lots happening at the moment in the world of Alpine Birds, so keep a look out for interesting things flying over! (oh, and feel free to email me to tell me about what you see)

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

autumn migration in full swing

Migration time is, once again, an absolute fascination to me.

I cannot seem to find a swift anywhere but the swallows are filling the skies. On Sunday (7 Sept), I awoke to streams of Sand Martins (Riparia riparia, Uferschwalbe) zipping past the roof window above our bed. Later on that day, we came across a flock of about 300 Sand Martins circling and feeding over Kematen.

There are also lots of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica, Rauchschwalbe) about. I expected to see hoardes of them sitting on telephone lines along the fields, but so far they have seemed rather intent on moving through and feeding. There have been lots flying about slightly higher than normal, feeding at about 200-400m or so. But they always seem to be moving.

And I cannot believe just how many Phylloscopus warblers there are about at the moment. On Sunday we went for a little wander about the lake in Seefeld. It seemed like every second reed stem and every third willow branch had a couple of Willow Warblers (Fitis) or such like dripping off of them! There are still some Wood Warblers (Waldlaubsänger) and Chifchafs (Zilzalp) about, but they are uncharacteristically silent, and I haven't seen a Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli, Berglaubsänger) in a while. I am still hoping for an Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina, Gelbspötter) to show itself on the way through - I dipped on them on the Spring migration this year, only hearing them a couple of times but never managing to see one.

This weekend, I will finally get to do some ringing in Tirol! We are going to be setting up nets as part of the GEO biodiversity day (GEO Tag der Artenvielfelt) along the Isar River near Scharnitz. Not sure what (or if) we will catch, but it is on the forest edge so I am hoping for some of those little Phylloscopus, but some tits would be nice too. Apparently, the tits are notorious biters (especially the Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus Blaumeise). I am looking forward to seeing just how true this is or whether it is just a (sub)urban legend. I can't imagine they bite anything like the notorious Thickbilled Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons, Weissstirnweber, the photo is from MBoy68's Flickr photostream).

It is bound to be a lot of fun so, if you are in the area and are interested in taking part in the various activities, then just check out the official website and come along!

Monday, 25 August 2008

what are weaverbirds doing in europe, anyway?

one afternoon in Spain, I was wandering back to the car after some lovely sunset birding and digiscoping and I met a young dutch birder.

"seen anything interesting?" he asked.
"well, some curlew sandpipers at the next hide; dunlin, spotted redshank..."
"mmm, nice. have you seen the weaver over here yet?" he asks, fingering his map.
"yes, its a bird from Africa that is in a few places in Spain. and there are a few here" pokes map again.
"weaver?" I'm starting to sound like an idiot.
Fumbling for some semblance of coherence, I add: "so where exactly?"
"here" pokes map again. he seems to like to poke that map.

The next morning I headed out when the sun was still only just getting to Kuwait (maybe it wasnt all that early) in expectation of this great find. A weaver! In Europe. I had no idea. I am new to Europe and am relying on my German/Austrian field guides to the birds of Europe (in hindsight, maybe not the greatest of resources for Spain). Anyhow I was super excited about the prospect of seeing a weaver again.

the digiscoping setup was readied, binoculars within easy reach, and ears wiiiiide open.

it was a beautiful sunrise
the day got warmer
I took some photos of a Dabchick/Little Grebe. And a whole family of swans.

the day got warmer still
I tried to take photos of martins and swifts
a sparrow flew by.

still no weavers
the day got hot
a yellowlegged gull flew by
still no friggin weavers
was the map-poking dutch guy on psychadelics?

eventually I threw in the towel. as an afterthought I decided to check on a nearby hide (in the same wetland system) to see if I could get a little closer to the European Marsh Harrier that was hanging around. Nice hide. some coots.

chep chep chep chep chep chep

hey, I know that call. what is that....
Its a bishop!
A friggin bishop!!!

Thats not a weaver, its a yellow-crowned bishop!

To my delight I managed to get some half-decent photos. here is my favourite:

That day, I also had a great experience with a short-toed eagle (snake-eagle) hanging out above me for a couple of minutes.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Digiscoping birds on the Spanish Costa Brava

Well, in the end I managed to get photos of 75 species of birds in the three weeks I was on the Costa Brava. It was interesting how some days, try as I might, I just couldnt get any decent photos and was presented with very few opportunities. But then on other days, new species were just falling out of the trees all about me.

I probably had the most fun of all trying to photograph the fast-flying birds - the swifts and the swallows. In the end I managed to get some half-decent swallow and swift pics.

Pallid Swift

Black Swift

Barn Swallow

I was lucky enough to still be around when the front rim of the return migration happened. Suddenly from one day to the next, there were Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlins, Spotted Redshanks, Little Stints and all sorts of other little wonders twittering about the wetlands.

Curlew Sandpiper


more photos and some stories in my next post...

happy birding
dale forbes

Blog Archive