Saturday, May 21, 2011

Balearic Spring Day 4 - The Kings of Pollenca Bay

Mallorca is well known amongst those interested in birds as a destination where observing the spring migration can be superb. The island forms a staging post for birds moving north from their overwintering habitat in Africa on their travels in to Europe. If you look at the birdwatching guide books they tend to describe the bushes and trees bristling with a wide variety of migrant birds during April and May. However, this is very dependent on one key factor, the weather. Normally poor weather is required to bring the birds down from the skies as under clear sky conditions they tend to keep flying. As I woke on the morning of the 4th day, I was greeted once more by a sapphire clear morning sky that was fringed orange by the rising sun. Not a cloud was to be seen in any direction to the horizon.

Our destination for the morning was Cuber Reservoir, located about 40 minutes south and west of the villa through the twisting mountain roads. This site is well known for both migrants and vultures. We did spot some vultures floating on thermals and appearing merely as black spots drifting many hundreds of feet above and way out of range of even the most ambitious photographer. Migrants were none existent. In fact the entire lap of the reservoir produced very little in the way of bird life and certainly nothing that could be put in front of the lens. The only two birds that gave any 'opportunity' for photography were a Cirl Bunting and a Firecrest (all photographs of which were subsequently deleted as they failed to make the grade). We checked out a couple of other spots within the mountains for Blue Rock Thrush but without sighting and only a very distant song for our efforts. Not a very productive start to the day and so we decided to head back down towards Pollenca.

Up to this point we had no yet checked that famous bird watching site that can be found just outside Pollenca, the Boquer Valley. Again another location famed for shrubs dripping with weary migrants but the bushes remained ominously silent. A passing bird watcher confirmed it to be quiet, in fact the worst he had known. In the UK you always hope for sun and we were now starting to hope for some rain. The Boquer Valley proved as unproductive as the reservoir. Steve decided to do his Edmund Hillary impression and try and scale the cliff in search of Blue Rock Thrush. I decided to stay more low level and looked around the scrub. We both returned with empty memory cards. The day was going downhill fast on the photography front as it was now already late afternoon. After many fruitless hours and a good distance covered on foot to my increasingly complaining blisters, the sum results for the day were zero.

When the going gets tough its time to look for seagulls :). However, the light was still too harsh for gulls so we decided to take a drive around the back roads of Pollenca. After a bit of searching we found a Zitting Cisticola to photograph. A very welcome bird and an oasis in a photographic desert.

On a more natural perch.

As the light was now falling and softening we headed back on to the coast road and to the area of beach where we had spotted an Audouin's Gull a couple of days previously. This species was once classed as the world's rarest gull with only 1000 birds left. Numbers have increased in recent years but they are still a bird which is rare with an estimated 10000 pairs and vulnerable due to the potential impacts of overfishing on this specialist nocturnal fish feeder. We found three adult birds and had a brief but memorable session in wonderful light which turned around a poor photography day.
The birds flew up and down the beach at first as if to check us out.

They then settle down directly in front of us on the warm coarse sand of Pollenca Bay.

These are a very attractive gull and it was a pleasure to be in their company in the fading light.

Some bird species have a rather 'majestic look' with their poise and stance and in my opinion these elegant gulls certainly fall into this category. Certainly the Kings of Pollenca Bay.

Kicking sand on the beach.

This was not to be the last time during our trip that some gulls saved a difficult day. The following day we would be returning early to the garrigue for another attempt to try and find the Balearic Warbler.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Balearic Spring Day 3 - Into the Farmlands

Another day of clear blue skies dawned as we packed the kit in to the car to head south towards the centre of island. Our aim was to travel around an extensive area of farmland to see what species could be found next the tracks with the car providing us with a mobile hide. As we arrived you already feel the coolness of the morning burning away under the rapidly ascending sun.

The first species we encountered were a small streaky warbler with an impressive and very apt name, the Zitting Cisticola who seem to have adapted well to a life amongst the arable crops. These are the only representative of a group of African warbler species that are found in Europe.

We did manage a couple of closer encounters that morning. Unusually the lining of the male mouth is pitch black and they look very odd when in full song.

On our journey along another track, we located a pair of Short-toed lark gradually working their way across the sun baked soils.

Another track, another species. This time it was the Iberian race of Yellow Wagtails with their grey heads. Personally I prefer the looks of our yellow headed UK race.

By this point the light was getting harsh and the autofocus crippling heat haze was building. The last species I photographed before we left the farmlands was a Corn Bunting, my first image of this species, and one I was hoping to improve upon before the end of the week.

We decided to stop for a bit of lunch and then headed back up to S'Albufera. The daily outings were starting to take on a bit of a pattern with a trip out exploring a new area in the morning and a return to the Marsh for the mid afternoon and early evening. As I said in my first post you could easily spend a week at S'Albufera Marsh alone.

Another of the S'Albufera conservation efforts was the introduction during the 1990s of the endangered Crested Coot. I remember these birds from when I visited a few years, with each sporting a large identification neck ring. As the numbers have increased so has the chance of finding an unringed bird. A number of birds were present each day around the main bridge that crosses the central canal. Photographing from the raised position of the bridge did not offer the greatest perspective and we located a small area off one path were we could get to water level with the birds. Coots under harsh sunlight is not a photographic pursuit I would recommend for those who do not like an exposure challenge!

It is good to see these birds flourishing in their new home.

Just around the corner from the bridge, the Bishop Hide was in good form with plenty of Black-winged Stilts feeding at very close proximity.

The Stilts were occasionally joined by a Purple Gallinule that would boldly march, between the bordering reedbeds, across the front of the hide to the accompanyment of camera shutters.

The bird shown below was particularly impressive in its colours.

We decided to move to another hide for the end of the day light. Kentish and Little Ringed Plover foraged with their stop and go movements along the lagoon edge.

The only distraction being the very pleasent sight of passing Purple Herons or Marsh Harrier in the softening light. I can think of much worse ways of passing time.

The following day we would be heading to the mountains but that will have to wait until the next post.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Balearic Spring Day 2 - Searching the Garrigue

A feint glimmer of orange appeared across the crop fields that surrounded the villa, as the dawn sun approached the horizon before it would quickly arc upwards in to the clear blue skies. I was having a quick look at out my bedroom window taking in my new surroundings before getting started for the day. A Zitting Cisticola (Fantail Warbler) in bounding song flight across the grassland caught my attention with its steady monotone of 'dzip, dzip' calls. In the distance the low flutey whistle of a Hoopoe.

We headed out after breakfast down to an area of garrigue on the east coast. Garrigue is a low growing coastal scrub and provides an ideal habitat for a range of warblers. It is very attractive in the spring with a diverse range of flowers mixed in amongst the shrubs. It certainly made a change photographing birds surrounded by the pleasant aromatic scent of rosemary.

The walk in to the garrigue was quite long and through an area of pine woods which provided occasional glimpses of birds such as Sardinian Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Crossbills, Serin and the electric song of Nightingale. As we approached the coast, the trees diminished and we were finally in scrub area that bordered the coast. I quickly found a Sardinian Warbler and decided to concentrate on trying to get some photographs of these birds. A bit of patience combined with the natural curiosity of the species produced a selection of images as the bird flitted between two low shrubs via a fence line.

The first clear sighting of a Sardinian Warbler, perched on a wire fence, singing with the sky and the Mediterranean sea merged in to one to form the background.

Typically for this type of warblers, they have a high curiosity for investigating visitors.

Once their inquisitive nature has been satisfied they usually return to normal operations which is singing a great deal.

After a very enjoyable encounter with the Sardinian Warbler, I moved further into the scrub and came across two larks perched on some rocky ground. By this point the heat of the day was really starting to kick-in and a visible heat haze forming. Of the few photos I managed to take of the larks only this one came out sharp due to the wobbling air between me and the bird, even at close range.

The debate then started if this was a Crested or Thekla Lark. We decided based on looks and song to identify the birds at Thekla Lark but of course at the point we did not realise that crested larks are not present on Mallorca!

By now the sun was high and harsh and the birds quietened down for a siesta. There was no sign or sound of one of the birds I was really hoping to photograph, the Balearic Warbler, so it looked like a return visit later in the week may be required. As we left the garrigue I almost literally stumbled across a Hermann's Tortoise. The first time I have ever encountered a wild tortoise and so a few photographs were required.

We decided to go and check a couple of sites near the southern end of S'Albufera marsh from a rather out of date bird watching guide. The first, a quarry, was now a woodland. Bird life in there was rather limited but there was a good number of Swallowtail butterflies. I must admit photographing insects is not really my bag but Steve pursues them and it is difficult to ignore the beauty of these large butterflies.

Time to get back to the birds and onwards to our next stop at the treatment works lagoons but the reported hide turned out to be a viewing platform and the photographic opportunities were zero. We then decided to return to S'Albufera Marsh and have a concentrated effort on the Cattle Egrets that were flying in to the colony with nesting material. The wind was still not in the ideal direction but we managed to get some photos after a while, a small selection of which are posted below.

To finish off the day, this loafing cormorant drying its feathers in the last of the sun caught my eye.

It had been a long and interesting day. We had covered a large distance on foot in hot weather along dusty tracks carrying heavy camera gear. On returning to the villa and before going through the days images, an essential need was to soak my aching feet in the pool with a cold beer in hand as the last of the light faded behind the mountains. Another moment of Mallorcan magic.

Monday, May 02, 2011

'Balearic Spring' Day 1 - Heading South

I was expecting a wake up call from the the alarm at 3 am and so I was somewhat startled by being roused from my slumber by the telephone ringing. Alarm clock failure is not a good way to start a journey when you have a flight to catch. 10 minutes later saw me stumbling out of the house in to the darkness with my bags to meet my friend Steve Round for our week long trip to photograph the birds of Mallorca.

The start of our journey southwards from Liverpool was remarkably uneventful and made easier by the EasyJet hand luggage policy which certainly favours the travelling wildlife photographer. This will certainly be my airline of first choice for future trips around Europe. A couple of hours later and the orange clad plane was sweeping over the south of the sun drenched island for a smooth touch down at Palma airport. We were greeted by warm sunshine and clear blue skies as we crossed the tarmac to the terminal at a time when most people back in the UK would just be starting their working day. Our passage through the airport and collection of the pre-booked hire car passed without difficulty. The Sat Nav was plugged in and we hit the road. Cars flashing their head lights as we headed up the wrong side of the road on existing the airport soon put us on the right track.

One of the good points about Mallorca is that it is relatively quick to travel the length of this small isalnd and so our accommodation in the north, near Pollenca, would only be about 50 minutes drive. As we could not check in to our villa until 3pm the plan was to stop en route and get some photography done. Well there was no point in wasting time. Given the early start and its close proximity to our villa, we decided to plant ourselves for the rest of the day in the S'Albufera Nature Reserve. Here we could quietly sit in one of the numerous hides and let the day bgently pass. I had been to Mallorca several years ago, when I was just starting out in photography, and remembered there being lots of potential photo opportunities during a brief visit to the reserve. This wetland reserve is enormous and you could easily spend many days there and this was the first of several visits made during the week. The walk in to the entrance alone, accompanied by the explosive song of Cetti's Warbler, takes about 20 minutes.

The first day was productive and not quite as relaxing as anticipated and a large number of species were photographed and a selection of these are posted below. The purpose of this first day was to get some images on the memory cards and hopefully refine the photos for different species over the coming days.

We settled down in the first hide and there was plenty of birds on view. However, conditions were not ideal as it was now late morning, the sun was high and harsh and anything at distance was partly obscured by a shimmering heat haze. As you open the hide flap the first birds that are very obvious are the Black-Winged Stilt. Very similar in behaviour to Avocets but with legs which almost border on the ridiculous in their length.

I was quite surprised by the variation in colouration of the Stilts, particularly the heads which ranged from the black markings above to the pure white in this following photo.

A bird coming in to land, after being put to flight by a Booted Eagle soaring overhead.

Close to the hide there were some low sparse rushes with half a dozen Snipe probing the muds in the shallow water. They are lovely little birds and thinking back it has been a while since I managed to put some before the lens.

Also feeding around in the mud at the edge of the reeds was a lone Spotted Redshank which was in transition between its pale winter and dark summer plumage.

Purple Gallinule were introduced in to the reserve as a conservation measure back in the 1990s and appear to have subsequently flourished. Regular readers will recall I photographed a persumed escaped bird in Chester not so long ago. These Mallorcan birds were quite different in colour and dwarfed any nearby coots or moorhens. Every so often a bird would appear out of the reeds.

These beautifully coloured birds would then stride across the open water in front of the hide to the sound of whirring camera shutters.

While all this activity was going on close to the hide an eye was kept on birds that were appearing at distance. Marsh Harrier fluttering in hunting flight across the shimmering reeds at distance. One of these 'birds' turned and started flying towards the hide and it was only as it approach we realised it was a Purple Heron. This is a bird I have longed to photograph and the close fly-by of a very well coloured bird was very welcome.

The other bird I was closely watching was a Spoonbill that was feeding at the back of the lagoon alongside some Little Egrets. This is a bird I have never photographed , except in a zoo, and I was hoping it would make its way over towards the hide. My patience was eventually rewarded.

It was interesting to watch these birds feeding as they scythe their partly open bill in broad sweeps back and forth through the water.

We decided we would have a quick look around at the other hides nearby to see what they had to offer before the reserve closed in the early evening.
The lagoon in front of the next hide was deserted but adjacent was an Egret colony. The gurgling noises from an Egret colony were bizarre and unfamilar.
A Cattle Egret in fine breeding colours perched in one the trees.

Numerous birds were flying in with sticks for nest building. We decided that we would return to these Egrets when the wind was hopefully in better direction and so just took a few photos of the in-coming birds. I will post some more of these flying Egrets in subsequent posts.

We wandered over to another hide which looked to be in a good direction for the late afternoon sun. It was fairly quiet here but it did provide us some opportunities to photograph both Little Ringed Plover, a scarce bird in the UK, and Kentish Plover at very close range.

I must admit I was quite taken by the Kentish Plover, which I have not seen before, and the males looked very smart with their rust coloured caps.

A great start to our trip although towards the end my energy levels were certainly flagging after the early start to the day. After leaving the reserve, we swung past Pollenca beach to check for Audouins Gull, a bird we would return to photograph later in the week. After a quick call in to the supermarket for some supplies we eventually arrived at the villa after a very, very long day.

I had no trouble falling asleep that night whilst being serenaded by the distant repetitive monotone hoot of a Scops Owl and occasional call of Stone Curlew. I was already looking forward to the early morning start the next day.


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