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!

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Golden Eagles

The sight of a Golden Eagle soaring by is a majestic one.

Coming in to spring, I have started to see more of these gorgeous eagles and I am not sure why exactly that is. So, with my curiosity piqued, and having access to some great academic reference libraries, I decided to try find out a little more about them.

The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos, Steinadler) has a fairly wide distribution through the Palaearctic and Nearctic (thanks wikipedia) and here in Central Europe, is associated with the high peaks and wilderness areas. As a youth, the Golden Eagle represented the awesomeness of nature: power, grace, freedom. And the Scottish Highlands. Of course, I have always wanted to see one: partly to see how they compared with the African eagles, but also for the more profound, spiritual connection I felt with them.

Okay, let me regale you with some cool things I managed to find out about Golden Eagles here in Europe: In northern Sweden, the distance between golden eagle nests was about the same for cliff and forest/tree nesting pairs, but still 100-170km apart! Wow! The author suggests that this nest spacing is more a factor of eagle spatial requirements than restrictions on the availability of nest sites (M Tjenberg 1985 Ibis 127/2). Now, the second statement kinda made sense to me, but 100-170km between nests! that is huge!

Well, I could understand this figure if the eagles were covering a large area, but in Spain, immature Golden Eagles (after juvenile dispersal) traveled an average of only 14km per day (range: 0.1 - 53.2 km) and only 2-6km per hour during peak activity (Soutullo, Urios & Ferrer 2006 Journal of Ornithology 147/1). This leads me to speculate that the Golden Eagles further South might not move as much as their Swedish counterparts and their nests might not be as widely dispersed. The same group of (Spanish) authors found that even young birds on juvenile dispersal moved only about 70 to 140km from the nest site (for males and females, respectively)(Soutullo, Urios, Ferrer & Peñarrubia 2006 Ibis 148/2). One female that was tracked from fledging, moved most in her first year (max 130km from nest, covering 16,000 km2, 95% of total range) and used only 40% of her total range in the remainder of the dispersal period (Urios, Soutullo, López-López, Cadahía, Limiñana & Ferrer 2007 Acta Ornithologica 42/2). She eventually settled in to a vacant territory just 26km from her natal site (Ibid).

So, my speculation was not too far off. I have just found a paper on Golden Eagle habitat use in northern Italy, where the mean distance between nests was 8.7km (Pedrini & Sergio 2001 Bird Study 48). This links with Haller's (1982 Orn. Beob. 79) findings in the Swiss Alps where the mean foraging area was only 41.8km2 (roughly a circle of 3.6km)

It seems that the eagles tracked by Soutullo et al (2006) had their peak activity between 11am and 6pm. I suppose this is why we see them so often at these times as they circle the peaks and ridges. So, if you are out hiking in the mountains, the sun is high in the sky, and the thermals are rising, keep an eye to the skies as one of these beauties may just glide by!

Happy birding,
Dale Forbes

p.s. I took the photos through my binoculars from Eppzirler hut, between Scharnitz and Zirl - for almost the whole time that we were at the hut, the pair circled the peaks, showing off for us!

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Finally, the Acrocephalus get here!

I had been monitoring my local patch every few days to see when the Acrocephalus warblers get back. The reed warblers had been singing their little heads off in Lago di Garda at the beginning of May, but alas, they seemed to be taking their sweet time to get here.
Heading down to the pond last Saturday (17 May), I did not here a thing. Well, at least there were no Acrocephalus calling. But the little Tufted Ducks (Reiherente) were looking decidedly gorgeous in the afternoon light. Fieldfares, coots, a couple of reed buntings (Rohrammer) and some Magpies kept me amused but I also tried my hand at getting some diginocked photos of the various creatures. As the evidence clearly demonstrates, I am merely starting out on this whole digiscoping thing. In my defence, I think trying to hold a pair of binoculars steady, get the little camera up to the eyepiece, and follow a moving bird all at the same time is not all that easy.

As the day started to wind down (must have been about 8pm-ish) it happened! One sole reed warbler belted out a song. Ducks forgotten.

But alas, he didn't sing again.

A little later, I found two singing marsh warblers (how they look like the African marsh warblers!) belting out a song to a couple of onlooking moorhens (who were shyly hiding in the dense reeds).

There are evidently people who can tell the reed and marsh warblers apart just by getting a good look at them. I am not one of them. Not even close. I have given up (at this early stage) trying to tell them apart. I just learnt the song. Sooo much easier. Now lots of birders freely give that advice to other – particularly beginner – birders: just learn the calls, lad, it is so much easier. Well, frankly, I suck at memorising calls. I struggle to remember my wife's voice let alone those of the hundreds of European, Central American and southern African birds I have tried to learn.

My response was natural (for a silly bird person). I used my cell phone. When the wife phones, I hear marsh warblers. colleagues=reed warblers, other friends=icterine warbler, etc.

Windows XP now sounds like a veritable forest of competing bird sounds. I am pretty sure it annoys at least some of my colleagues. But frankly, I'll survive ;-)

Happy birding!

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Red-footed Falons on the fly

On Sunday afternoon, the wife and I headed out to our local birding "patch": its a lovely little pond, frnged with reeds and rushes, surrounded by fields, and with a spectacular gallery of overlooking mountains. I only "discovered" the spot a few weeks ago after a friend asked if I had been there. Needless to say, I am now hooked.Sunday was a lovely day. Just as we got to the pond, I saw another birder there (one could tell by the cumbersome piles of optical equipment hanging off of various limbs and "tripodded" at the ready). Now this is not a common sight in Tirol. Spinning around I got my second unusual sight. A little falcon sitting on the line. At first I took it for a kestrel. But one look at her light wannabe hood dispelled that misconception.

Seven years not having seen a red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus, Rotfußfalke) and it seems I had gotten a little rusty. I took me a good minute to be sure what she was. As I looked about, we found at least 7 red-footed falcons about (only two adult males). They would glide over the field, pick up a flying "May beetle" and, in typical red-footed falcon style, eat it with both feet in the air (incidentally, the Milvus kites also like to do this). Between these short feeding forays, they would head back to a power line and sit for a bit. Tangentially, it occurs to me that maybe the life of a red-footed falcon was a little less interesting before power/telephone lines.

It seems we only really get these little falcons here at migration time when they move up from the dryer savannas and grasslands of southern Africa in to the Palaearctic steppes to breed. They make little stops on their journey to fill up on insects in the spring-touched fields (basically birdy road-side service stations).

To identify the females and youngsters, keep a look out for the indistinct face mask, buff underparts with varying degrees of streaking (most adult females tend to have only a very little bit of streaking on the side of the belly and chest). She is barred grey on the back and wings. Adult males are easy: dark slate grey everywhere, except for the red of feet, undertail, and face.

Red-footed falcons breed in loose colonies, but roost colonially during the non-breeding season. Nests are often "adopted" from various species of corvids and individuals can live at least 13 years.

Their horizontal flying speed is about 46 km/h, about the same as for most other raptors (Bruderer B 2001 Ibis 143). Evidently (and not unexpectedly), 46 km/h is just too quick for a couple of little bugs.

The German wikipedia entry for the red-footed falcon is pretty good: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotfu%C3%9Ffalke so if you can read German and are interested, it is really worth checking out.

In the event you were wondering, many of the pretty bird pics are not mine: when I want to make a point (or just for beauty) I include a "creatve commons" photo from flickr. If the photos are not ine then I always provide a back link to the original location where I found the photo.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

More photos from Lago di Garda, Italy

I wanted to add a few more bird (birding and other) photos from our trip to Lago di Garda, northern Italy.
This is a shot taken one dawn from one of the beaches near Manerba dei Garda, looking towards the cliffs of La Rocca (where I did most of my birding).

Looking out over the ocean. There were a good few pairs of Yellowlegged Gulls flying about, as well as common swifts and alpine swifts, crag martins and barn swallows. Sardinian warblers were calling in the background.

Two more shots of the incredibly cute redcrested pochards that were hanging about the port at San Francisco de Garda (all taken through my binoculars).

And a reed warbler singing away in the reed bed near the point at San Biaggio. There were about 30 singing there in this tiny little reed bed. A couple of little sedge warblers were also hanging out between them, but were completely silent and tended to be lower in the reeds, feeding right near water level. But, they were also more likely to use the non-reed material for perching, i.e. the sticks and fallen branches that lay about.

Monday, 5 May 2008

There is more to see in Italy than Sparrows...

There are also Blackbirds. Before heading down to Lago di Garda last weekend, I had a look around the net to see what there was about birding in northern Italy. And the sparrow comment came from somewhere there. In fact, I ended up seeing a good few species of bird over the weekend. Birder's paradise it was not, but there was certainly lots of fun to be had. We chose a campsite near the little forest patch (La Rocca) between Manerba and Moniga, on the southwestern part of the lake. GoogleEarth seemed to suggest that, while being a fairly built-up area, there seemed to be at least some natural vegetation in which I could find something interesting.

As soon as we got there, I was off with my binnies to see what I could see. Tons of Blackheaded Gulls (Larus ridibundus Lachmöwe) feeding and relaxing just off shore, with a few of the much larger Yellowlegged Gulls (Larus michahellis Mittelmeermöwe) hanging around. Not a single wader running along the pebbled shore, but a single pair of Dabchick (Little Grebe) and a couple of Great Crested Grebe pairs certainly made up for that.

I eagerly headed over to the forest. But it seemed like the only birds I saw were these annoyingly fleeting glimpses of fleeing birds. It seems that centuries of hunting birds (even the littlest of passerines) has left them with a well-developed fear of humans and I had to become very creative just to get a look at a bird through my binoculars (as a side note, I found six different shot gun cartridges in the forest). Eventually I learnt to sneak quietly through the forest and look for birds in the distance, and through gaps in the trees. If I saw them early enough then I generally got a decent look. At this stage you might be wondering why I did not just listen to them and identify them by call. I wish I were that good (I am trying to learn them though, I promise).

Through stealth and persistence, I managed to find some nice birds. I found the Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala Samtkopf-Grasmücke) to be fairly widespread and common, but incredibly shy. A lot shyer than the very vocal Blackcap (Mönchsgrasmücke). The best way to find the Sardinian Warblers (as with all the other warblers) was definitely by call, and in the late afternoon, there were often a good half a dozen singing from the tops of the trees/bushes along La Rocca's higher savanna-like ridges.

The late afternoons were also a good time to look out for the wing feeders. Barn Swallows (Rauchschwalbe) and Crag Martins (Felsenschwalbe) would buzz the open fields and cliff edges, and House Martins (Mehlschwalbe) would feed over village edges. Apparently, the Common Swift (Apus apus Mauersegler) traditionally gets back to Austria on 1 May each year, so I was on the lookout for them. 1 May came and not a single Black Swift (but a good few Alpine Swifts!). But the morning of 2 May, suddenly they were about. A brisk wind was blowing up off of the lake, and lifting up against the lake-side cliffs; much to the delight of the 30-odd common and alpine swifts gathered there. I swear they were playing. So graceful. So incredible.

The mixed scrub, forest and fields, also yielded a few pairs of Nightingales (Nachtigal, click for map), a Pied Flycatcher (Trauerschnäpper, click for map), a Grey Partridge (Rebhuhn), and dramatic vistas across the lake. Walking back through the fringe farmlands, I found a couple of pairs of Hoopoe (Wiedehopf, click for map of 2 locations) and lots of Hooded Crows (Nebelkrähe).

The little reed bed at San Biaggio (here) produced about 30 singing reed warblers (Teichrohrsänger), two sedge warblers (Schilfrohrsänger), a moorhen (Teichrallen) nest and some coots (Blässhuhn). I also picked up a Common Whitethroat (Dorngrasmücke) feeding on some berries in this same area. Whilst walking through the camping areas, also keep a look out for the almost ubiquitous Spotted Flycatchers (Grauschnäpper) and Serins (Girlitz).

I took this photo of a Redcrested Pochard (Kolbenente) on the lake with my little casio digital camera held up to my swarovski SLR binoculars. I am quite happy with the result. Not perfectly sharp, but close.

So, it seems like there is at least something to keep the birder occupied around Lago di Garda. But before you go, brush up on those bird calls, and make sure you take your binoculars!