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!

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Brambling in Hofgarten in Innsbruck

I know I said that I would write more about the Bramblings but I got caught up in work and never made it back to talking about the cool birds in Hofgarten. So here are a few more lines on the subject...

the starlings are building nests,
the blue tits were - as always - adorable
the eurasian nuthatches were singing away
the mistle thrushes were skulking
the blackbirds were - hard to guess - vociferous
and a crag martin gave me a flyby

all of that excitement on top of the raucous clamor of the bramblings,
and the occasional call of a Lesser spotted woodpecker

I stopped off at Baggersee late this afternoon to see if there was anything about. nothing. well, one mallard and a few bramblings...
all this frantic rushing about because apparently some northern pintail, common pochard, gadwall and a shelduck (amongst others) had been seen there last week.
darn, I missed them, grrrr.

Birding in the city - well, Innsbruck does have something to offer!

I just spent an hour birding and walking about the Hofgarten (in the middle of Innsbruck, Tirol). I was on my way to work this morning when I heard a Black Redstart (Hausrotschwanz) calling from the rooftop in the middle of down-town Innsbruck. That got me thinking that I really should see what else I could find. The day had not heated up yet (dont think it will, either), and the birds were really singing. oh, and I had my ELs with me.

A quick stop in at Hofgarten (which is right behind my office at the university) produced at least 400 Brambling (Bergfinken), 3 Mistle Thrush (Misteldrossel), and a few Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (Kleinspecht).

I will write about it in more detail later in the day...

But what a lovely day to start a work day, with a bit of productive birding in the city!

Happy birding

Monday, 30 March 2009

Birding Tips 4: Willow Tits and Marsh Tits

Both the Willow Tit (Weidenmeise) and the Marsh Tit (Sumpfmeise) are fairly common here in Tirol, but I don't think I have ever seen them together, or even near each other.

The Willow Tit is most commonly found up near the edge of the tree line, and in the forest edge habitat alongside the high, mountain pastures (think Heidi and Peter playing in the fields). The easiest way to find them while birding is to just keep a look out for any little birds moving about (there are bound to be few, you are birding in the high Alps after all ;-), and keep your ears open for their call (play here from www.garden-birds.co.uk). The rasping sound carries fairly well in the forest and open habitats.

Willow Tit showing pale wing windows, large black bib, white ears, and bull neck; originally uploaded by Sergey Yeliseev.

As with most birds up in the Alps, you can be walking/birding for hours in the right habitat and not find anything and then suddenly, a flock flies up and lands in the tree right in front of you. Besides active searching in the high mountains, don't forget to check the gardens and bird feeders of houses or settlements in the mountains. Last weekend we saw quite a few Willow Tits hanging out and feeding in the garden of a small Alpine hamlet (see Juifenau location / sighting). Despite what my Collins Bird Guide says, Willow Tits do feed at winter feeding tables, at least here in the Alps.

Having said that, if you see tits feeding at a winter feeding table, it is way more likely to be a marsh tit than a willow tit. Marsh Tits are fairly common in the gardens and riparian woodland of Innsbruck and the surrounding villages, particularly those along the River Inn, and I often come across Marsh Tits while birding in my local patch (the Inzinger Gaisau). The marsh tits tend to be in lower lying areas, often somewhat near water and seem to really love broad-leaved riparian woodland. Keep an ear open for the marsh tit call (play here from www.garden-birds.co.uk). For tits, they can be a little more weary than some of the other tit species, but I would certainly not call them shy.

Marsh tit, showing brown (not pale) wing windows, smaller bib, buff ears, and a hint of white at the base of the bill; originally uploaded by giuss95.

The best way to tell a marsh tit from a willow tit is by call (try listening to the calls above a few times). If, like me, you suck at remembering a million birds' million different calls and songs, then you may have to rely on some more creative methods.

The first involves putting the calls on your mobile phone, mp3 player or pda so that you always have samples of the calls with you when you need to tell them apart.

If that is not an option or you are feeling visually inclined, then here are a few physical features you can use:
  1. the willow tit is characteristically bull-necked. Because it excavates its own breeding cavity (unlike the marsh tit), it has a much sturdier and thicker neck. This is not always that obvious and a marsh tit can look large necked as well, depending on its sitting position
  2. if you are able to get a good look at the bird, then look for a lighter/pale dot at the base of the bill. If so, then you are almost certainly looking at a marsh tit.
  3. the white cheeck patch of the willow tit appears to extend well back, all the way to the extension of the black hood on to the nape. in the marsh tit, the whiteness of the cheeks quickly changes to a light buff over the ears
  4. willow tits tend to have a pale margin to the secondary flight feathers, giving them a "pale window" effect on the folded wing (this can be lost with lots of feather wear). Marsh tits can have something similar, but generally to a much lesser extent, and only when the feathers are really fresh.
  5. The chin bib of willow tits tends to be larger with a greater scattering of dots than that of most marsh tits.

Willow Tit, showing extensive white cheek and ear patches, a fairly broad bib, and no white at the base of the bill; originally uploaded by Sergey Yeliseev.

With a little practise, identifying marsh and willow tits is not all that hard, but it always takes looking at a couple of features before deciding on an ID. For a more in-depth look at marsh and willow tit identification, refer to Brian Stretch's identification article (here).

Happy birding

Friday, 27 March 2009

Another cool black redstart (Hausrotschwanz) photo I found on flickr

the title kinda says it all. this is the original title of the photo:
rouge-queue noir, black redstart, phoenicurus ochruros (Limousin, France)

I know I have some decent black redstart and common redstart photos i digiscoped last year. they are somewhere. I'll need to dig them out at some stage.

i think i will eventually get around to using flickr more - had an account there for years and years but only uploaded my first photos last week.

i think this is my photostream
otherwise, my username is capepolly (after the cape parrots i so adore in south africa)

Happy birding

The Black Redstarts are back in town

Hausrotschwanz // European Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros subsp. gibraltariensis) ♂

I wandered outside on to the balcony this afternoon - it was beautiful and sunny outside, lovely and warm; the first spring day we have had this year...

And then my phone rang.

Check cell phone.


Mild confusion.

Oh! it is not my ringtone, it is a real, live, singing black redstart singing in our neighbourhood.
The thing is, I have not heard a black redstart singing here in town for many many long months, and I haven't seen one for almost as long.
So, alone with the first day of spring, came the first black redstart song of the year, what a wonderful day!

(hear the Black Redstart song by garden-birds.co.uk)

Incidentally, I also heard a white-winged snowfinch this morning in Schlick 2000.
And there has been no sign of the Eagle Owl at all since we first spotted it last saturday. My working hypothesis is that it normally roosts somewhere on Martinswand in a favorite spot, but because there are rock climbers and mountaineers all over the cliffs over the weekend (particularly warm, sunny saturdays), the eagle owl might have to flee to a quieter, more protected spot on these days. If that theory works, and lady luck is on my side, then we should be able to find the eagle owl tomorrow. Unfortunately (or forunately ;-) I head off to Hochötz tomorrow for a day with the family - fun in the sun, with lots of slushy snow! yippee!

Happy birding

[see all posts on Black Redstarts here]

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Snowfinch photo from last weekend

Snowfinch, originally uploaded by mcapper.

I was just looking through Mathew Capper's photostream and found this snowfinch photo from last weekend.

He really captured the bird. There is a peace in the belly of the focal bird, and active eye-movement between the two snowfinches, making for an interesting composition.

As Mathew so rightly pointed out, the snowfinch in the foreground has the dark bill, typical of breeding-plumage snowfinches, while the snowfinch at the back still has a fair amount of yellow in its bill. Just a few weeks ago there were hundreds of snowfinches about in Kühtai (Tirol), and a good proportion of them still had their yellow winter bills. This last weekend, we only saw about 30 snowfinches, almost all of which had black bills.

It is fascinating how these birds manage to get going with spring festivities when it is still snowing all the way down in to the deepest valleys - incredible.

Monday, 23 March 2009

die Stadt, das Land, die Berge

die Stadt, das Land, die Berge
Originally uploaded by stetre76

I just found a lovely landscape photo of Innsbruck entitled "die Stadt, das Land, die Berge"
I have no idea who stetre76 is, but he sure has some wonderful photos of the area...

Happy birding (photographing)

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Aren't Birds Brilliant! - Birding with BirdLife

Last week, BirdLife employees from all over Europe had a meeting in Absam to workshop, learn and discuss the Aren't Birds Brilliant programme. For those of you who don't know what this BirdLife programme is all about, it is essentially about encouraging regular people to come out to particular natural history spectacles and experience some of the wonder and beauty that fascinates us as birders - it is about sharing our passion and love for all sorts of experiences Mother Nature has blessed us with.

Marco Brodde (DOF Denmark) photographing Alpine Chough

Anyhow, it is with this wonderful bunch of people that I got to spend Saturday with, showing them just how brilliant birding in the Alps of Tirol can be.

Our first stop was Kühtai. 2020m above sea level and 1.5m of snow. A real Alpine winter wonderland. But boy was it cold - about 10 degrees below freezing, with a biting breeze. But the escapade in to the mountains paid off quickly with a glimpse of a couple of Alpine Chough disappearing over the rooftops. Fairly quickly, we heard an Alpine Accentor singing from a balcony, affording us wonderful views. As we were watching the Alpine Accentor, a flock of Alpine Chough treated us by alighting on the rooftop.

Ken Smith (RSPB, UK) on the lookout...

Digiscoping Alpine Choughs in Kühtai

Digiscoping the singing Alpine Accentor in Kühtai

Heading off further in to town, we caught fleeting glimpses of the White-winged Snowfinches heading back to the area where they are fed with sunflower seeds. Getting back there, we managed to get incredibly views of a small flock of snowfinches feeding on the ground. It was great to get such a lovely look at such an beautiful and enigmatic Alpine bird species. The fact that 90+% of the birds had dark, black bills, and that there were only about 30 snowfinches about desipite the early hour and the light snow, suggests that they really have moved off to their high mountain territory areas.

Orbán Zoltán (MME Hungary) and Mathew Capper (RSPB, UK) with the snowfinches

Heading back down the Sellraintal, I took the BirdLife group up to Lüsens for fantastic views of the Lüsenerfern Glacier. Besides the great views, we were hoping to pick up some of the other high-alpine species. Shockingly, the normally easily found Spotted Nutcracker did not want to be found (despite hearing them call a number of times). No sign of Ptarmigan, but wonderful views of a young Golden Eagle, and a dramatic fly-by by a huge white Northern Goshawk.

On the stake-out for Spotted Nuthatch.

Looking up at the Lüsener Fern Glacier.

We then headed down to Juifenau, where we finally got good views of Nutcracker, and picked up Willow Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Nutcracker, Blackbird, and Yellow Hammer, all feeding in a garden on the outskirts of the little village.

Yellow Hammer in Juifenau.

On our way to Ehnbachklamm (the Wallcreeper stake-out), I saw some Chamois on the hillside near Martinswand and so wanted to stop for a couple of minutes so that the others can also see one of the Alps loveliest wild animals.
Fernando had a stern look on his face as he scanned the cliff behind the Chamois.
"The Eagle Owl is over there", he says.
No tonal inflection in voice.
Fixed action pattern reaction from birder. You can guess what it was.
A moment of silence as time bent.
And then, there it was. Sitting in a hole.
That made my day (and that of many others!)

Eagle Owl at 180x magnification

At the Eagle Owl stake-out

Leaving most of the group at Ehnbachklamm, Martin Capper (RSPB, UK) and I quickly dashed in to Innsbruck to get Joanna Kalinowska (OTOP, Poland) to the train station. There, we picked up a good 30 or so Crag Martins feeding over the Inn.

Joining the rest of the group in Ehnbachklamm, who had been searching for Wallcreeper, we learnt that the Wallcreepers were still playing hard to get.

We then headed out on a longer walk, hoping to pick up the shy Three-toed Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker and anything else we could come across. Heading all the way back to Brunntal Alm, we had plenty of time to soak in the peacefulness and beauty of the landscape. Three inches of fresh fluffy snow really gave the woodlands a lovely charm.

In the Brunntal area, Zirl

We ended the afternoon with a breath-taking view over Zirl, and the mountains to the south.

Life in the mountains is hard!

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Still no sign of the Wallcreeper (but at least there were some Chamois)

Last week I was really motivated to try to find the local (Ehnbachklamm) Wallcreeper as a group of BirdLife people from all over Europe would be coming over the weekend and I really wanted to be able to show them this spectacular little bird of the mountains.

During the week I spent tons of hours sitting, staring mesmerized at the cliff walls, and scanning every open rock surface I could for a little, butterfly-looking Wallcreeper (Mauerläufer). The conditions in the gorge were surprisingly good, and I am certain that the Wallcreepers are already back from their little altitudinal migration trips in to the [relatively] warmer lower-lying areas. That said, lady luck did not seem to be on my side this week and I did not even smell a Wallcreeper the whole week.

But, on Thursday afternoon, three Chamois (Gämse) kept me company on my vigil. Granted, the Chamois did not seem to be nearly as interested in maintaining eye-contact with the cliff as I, but they were in the same general area as me. Here are a few Chamois photos I did manage to pop off.

Happy birding

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Tribute to Steven Piper, wagtails and dippers

I took a walk along the River Inn yesterday (through Innsbruck) to see if there were still some White-throated Dipper about (Wasseramseln) - what a pleasure they are to watch.

As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to meet a wonderful professor who was working on long-tailed wagtails in Westville (just outside of Durban, South Africa). Accompanying Steven Piper on his early morning wagtail ringing and monitoring trips was an absolute dream. His sense of humour, insight, patience and tenacity inspired me in to a life of biology. Later on, at university, he was always there with a bit of sound advice and encouragement. He gave me a job as a research assistant: first with the tedious job of entering wagtail morphometric data, and later, fleshing out a massive database of every single Cape Griffon Vulture nesting or roost site ever documented. He encouraged and coached me in to becoming a decent designer of databases and database management. For a good few years I had the honour of having him in my life. Wagtails (and vultures) will - forever - be an inextricable part of who I am and how I see the world. Steven Piper passed away last Sunday:
Prof, you will always live in my heart. Thank you for all you have done for me and so many others like me.

The first time I ever saw a dipper was near San Vito in southern Costa Rica. I was along a mountain stream in the middle of nowhere when I came across a bird that acted like a wagtail, but did not look like one. I had no idea what it was. It ran around the rocks picking up little things at the waters edge, just like a long-tailed wagtail (mountain wagtail).
Imagine my flabbergasted surprise when the little thing leapt in to the stream and disappeared.
What the hell was that!

I spent ages watching the American Dipper (Grauwasseramsel) that day - fascinated by its bizarreness. And I just wanted to share that day with Prof Piper - to show him the fabulous little bird I had found!

Dippers still fascinate me, but here in the Alps of Tirol I get to watch the White-throated Dipper (Wasseramsel). In Winter they tend to leave the mountain streams and congregate along the larger rivers and one can often find dozens of white-throated dippers scouring and swimming the length of the River Inn - even right in the center of Innsbruck itself! In Springtime, most of the dippers leave the Inn for the smaller side streams that lead up in to the mountains. In fact, most already seem to have done this as there are very few dippers still along the Inn. A good spot in Innsbruck to find white-throated dippers year-round is along the Sill River - go to Sill Park Shopping Center, have a cup of coffee in the Spar restaurant, and watch the stream for wagtails, dippers, and kingfishers - can't complain about that!

In May I join some of the guys from Swarovski Optik on a trip to Kazakhstan (it is a new product launch...) to see the conservation project they are supporting there (BirdLife species champion of the Sociable Plover - Gemeine Kibitz). I am really holding my thumbs to try to get some decent photos of the Brown Dipper (Flusswasseramsel) and - with some luck - an absolute CMF: the Ibisbill !!! (Ibisschnabel)

happy birding (and wagtailing!)

Note: the images in this post are not mine, but are creative commons property with links to their owners' websites.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Spring birds and migrating Ducks

This week has definitely been interesting for new birds.
On Tuesday, we saw about 150 Black-headed Gulls (Lachmöwem) hanging out on the Inn River near the Innsbruck Airport, and the next day, I saw my first swallows of the year - about a dozen Crag Martins (Felsenschwalben) feeding over the Inn River near the Innsbruck Altstadt.

This morning I went out to my regular birding patch (the Inzinger Gaisau). The woods were still brown and dull, the pond 80% frozen over, but the birds were loud and proud!

A quick dip down to the Inn produced three Eurasian Widgeon (Pfeifenten), hundreds of White Wagtails (Bachstelzen) and a single Grey Wagtail.

I spend some time digiscoping the various tits that were about.

Marsh Tit

Long-tailed Tit (Schwanzmeise)
Blue Tits (Blaumeisen)
Great Tit (Kohlmeise)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Kleiber)

At the back of the pond, I kept on hearing all sorts of strange sounds. A train flushed the ducks long before I had a chance to get a look at them. They circled the pond for the next 10 minutes and I got some great views of them:
Eurasian Widgeon (Pfeifenten)
Common Teal (Krickenten)
Garganey (Knäkenten) - my first record for the area

Unfortunately, wherever they eventually decided to settle was a long way from where I was. I did, however, find another group of four Common Teal in a little wooded side pond near the fishermen's cabin.

On my way home, I saw another group of 6-8 Crag Martins flying and feeding (?) over the Inn between Kematen and Zirl, and up against the stone quarry on Martinswand (Steinbruch).

Tirol is really coming alive with the sound of bird song!

Happy birding

Monday, 9 March 2009

Alpine Accentor - early spring song (Tirol, Austria)

The Alpine Accentors have just returned to the high mountains of Tirol (Austrian Alps) and are really singing beautifully. I found this individual in the ski resort town of Kühtai (Sellraintal), just southwest of Innsbruck in Tirol, Austria. They are normally rather shy and tend to avoid human settlements during spring and summer, but this accentor was having a merry time singing from the terraces of the local hotels.

I took the video with my digiscoping setup (Canon 590IS; Swaro ATS 80HD, 30x eye-piece, DCA digiscoping adaptor) - hence the poor sound quality.

Despite the abundance of snow in the mountains (and even down in Innsbruck last night), it seems that spring is definitely on its way!

Happy birding
Dale Forbes

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Well, the Alpine Accentors think its spring

I have not seen a single Alpine Accentor (Alpenbraunelle) in the many long months since the snows set in up in the mountains. I have looked for them.
And I have three theories:
  1. They have been super super shy,
  2. Alpine Accentors hibernate under the snow like Marmots, or
  3. Alpine Accentors move to slightly lower altitudes in winter (maybe Südtirol /Alto Adige in Italy).
After a good while with rather rough, stormy, snowy weather, we had a nice warming over the last few days. And as soon as the sun started to come out, the birds flew out in full song. Everywhere you went, there were tits singing, blackbirds chirping and common buzzards screeching.

Heading back up the Sellraintal to Kühtai, I expected to find the regular White-winged Snowfinches.
Not a sausage.
It seems they are only about when the weather is rotten. and the warmer weather and spring feaver got them dashing off in to the mountains to set up their territories (many already have their breeding-colours black bill).

not finding any snowfinches and only a couple of Alpine Choughs early in the morning, I decided to go skiing for a while. The pistes were magical and soft. Off-piste there was a goog 60cm of fluffy soft powder snow. That kept me more than busy for a few hours.

Now that I think of it, I have kept my birder eye in the sky the whole winter, looking for a soaring Golden Eagle and not seen a single one! I wonder what has happened to them? Everything I have read says that Golden Eagles reamin in their territories through winter, but live in expanded home ranges. That means that - given the huge amount of time I spend watching nature and being in the mountains of Tirol - I should have seen at least one poor, cold, half-frozen Golden Eagle in that time. mmm

After playing in the powder snow for a good while, I decided to go for a little walk around the village of Kühtai to see what I could find. The village is actually pretty good year-round for finding high Alpine birds (and quite possibly my favorite alpine birding spot in Tirol).
As I was getting ready to leave, my cell phone rings.
I check my phone, but it is doing nothing.
Still, I hear the ring tone.
(I had, at one stage, an Alpine Accentor song as my ringtone)
So I scan the roof tops and quickly find the culprit.
A lovely singing Alpine Accentor on the roof above me.

If you look really hard, you can see the Alpine Accentor at the apex of the roof.

I had my binoculars with me, and my camera, and tried my hardest to get a couple of digibinning photos of the Alpine Accentor, but it was just too far away to get anything decent. But at least you can see that it is an Alpine Accentor!

This is quite possibly a bird from the group that uses the little clump of trees just west of Kühtai (under the Dreiseenbahn Sesselbahn/chair lift).

Alpine Accentor feeding on some scraps on the ground

So, it seems that the Alpine Accentors are back and singing, and the White-winged Snowfinches are convinced it is almost breeding time - it must be spring!

For other blog entries (and lots more information) on Alpine Accentors, click here.

Happy birding
Dale Forbes