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