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, 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!