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I had signed up for a trip my husband and I had always wanted to do called “Wild and Ancient Britain.” We were to circumnavigate the west coast of England, parts of Ireland, and end up at the Scottish islands of Orkney, Shetland, and Fair Isle.

At the time, I never gave seabirds a thought. I wanted to go exploring from a zodiac, those rubberized rafts that motor you from the anchored ship to a landing place onshore. I imagined amazing scenery, Stone Age ruins, a walk on a lonely beach.

Our boat the Ocean Adventurer

Two things happened that turned a sightseeing trip into a top notch birding adventure.

 

Atlantic Puffin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, I read a book that knocked me over.   It was about seabirds, recommended to me by my friend, Hugh Ranson, a Welshman and excellent Santa Barbara birder. The book “A Seabird’s Cry” is a beautifully written, evocative description of the common seabirds to be found in the North Atlantic. The author, Adam Nicolson, is a writer, a sailor, and owner of the tiny Shiant Islands in the Inner Hebrides.

The second piece of good luck was that our boat, operated by Zegrahm tours, had a bird tour group on board.   Every day the birders were off-loaded to a place we could explore and bird. We had two expert guides, and they worked tirelessly to help us.

Before this trip, seabirds were simply specks I saw from the deck of a boat while on a pelagic trip out beyond the Santa Barbara Channel: the boat bobbed up and down, my binoculars got speckled with sea spray, and I felt queasy most of the time.  Seabirds were a mystery, and likely to remain so. I was a landbird person.  But that was then………..

An isolated rock stack from the Flannan Isles, typical seabird nesting habitat

A gannet colony from afar — thousands of birds packed close together

Little Skellig, near Skellig Michael, off the Irish coast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this voyage, which began May 11, 2018,  seabirds captured my imagination.   I loved hearing about  their wandering lifestyles and  observing their packed colonies. Sandwiched onto rock stacks in the misty rain, diving for fish wherever they can, these species are difficult to approach. They come to land once a year: only to lay a single egg,

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly all seabirds lay a big egg, raise that one chick, look after it with immense care, and some even go on attending it when it’s out of the nest at sea.

Common Guillemot (Common Murre) guarding a single egg

A seabird’s job is to find a good place to raise the chick, stick with the same partner, and wait to start a family when its old enough to be a good fish-hunter.

The remainder of a seabird’s life is spent searching for food, wherever that may take them. And now, with geolocators so tiny they can be attached without harming the bird, scientists know where and when seabirds leave their breeding grounds. We’ve learned how far each species must go to gather food for its chick, and where–when the breeding season is over–these species spend the winter.

Information has been hard to come by. For example, Atlantic Puffins have short, fat wings. Where do they go in winter, after the chicks they’ve raised have departed? Nobody knew, until a researcher on the island of Skomer, off the Pembrokeshire coast, tracked 27 puffins with geolocators . The revelation is that each puffin has its own pattern of movement, which is repeated year after year.

One puffin leaves Skomer in August after nesting, then heads straight off to Greenland, stays there awhile, then moves east towards Iceland. A month later it’s heading south off the west coast of Ireland, where it stays until it returns to it’s breeding grounds in April. Another puffin from the same colony does something completely different: it heads out into the Atlantic south of Iceland, then spends Christmas and the New Year in the central Mediterranean Sea (!), then returns home via the Straits of Gibraltar.

Each individual puffin apparently figures out a strategy of its own. And this isn’t something that’s programmed genetically. These birds are learning as they go, and once they find a successful foraging route, they apparently repeat it year after year. As Nicolson says: “They learn the land- and sea-marks that guide them between their various winter resorts.”

Atlantic Puffin standing in front of burrow. Note bright orange bill and orange feet indicating a good record for breeding.

On this voyage, we saw puffins at their nesting burrows. On deserted islands with enough turf to hide their burrows, a mated pair of puffins will arrive in May to use the same burrow year after year

Notice the bright breeding plumage of the puffin, which features a lot of orange on their beak, legs, and feet. The color orange is attractive to members of the puffin family. Why? Because its an indicator of large amounts of pigments called carotenoids, which are widespread in fish. Puffins with lots of carotenoids in them are healthier and better breeders than those without this bright concentration of color.

Razorbills fishing

 

 

 

 

 

Razorbill at nest site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Related to the puffins, which are in the Auk or Alcid Family, are the Common Guillemot (the same as our Common Murre) and the Razorbill. Like the puffins, the guillemots and razorbills fish by diving from a sitting position on the surface. They use their wings to propel them downwards underwater.

Unlike puffins, guillemots nest in massive colonies on steep ledges. They begin breeding at the age of five, and can live up to forty-three years old. That’s a long time to be returning to the same tiny patch of cliff – about 7 inches square – where it lays its egg. The egg has a point at the tip, so that it won’t roll off, and the adults can recognize the egg by its pattern, and the chick by its cry.

Common Guillemot (Common Murre) colony

 

As Nicolson describes it: “The packed-in birds don’t usually mind touching their neighbors. But a constant tension and torsion ripples through them….A fight breaks out every twenty minutes or so. It is usually more symbolic than actual. There’s little contact with flesh, but a billow of noise, the rasp of a high-pitched growl-shriek rolling and roaring across the colony.”

Guillemots perch with their back to the sea, facing inward to protect the egg. And they’ve been coming to these same cliffs for breeding for literally thousands of years.

 

 

Razorbill surrounded by blooming Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima)

 

 

To be truthful, I was more interested in the Razorbills, because I’d never seen one before. Razorbills are the closest cousin of the flightless Great Auk, the largest seabird ever to have lived in the northern hemisphere, and now extinct.

Razorbills resemble miniature penguins.   Their crisp black-and-white plumage and distinctive thick bill identify them as they sit on the fringes of colonies of other seabirds. Razorbills choose to nest on wider, sheltered ledges, or in boulder crevices often closer to the sea, but not together in chuck-a-block masses like the guillemots.

Razorbill chicks leave the nest before they are fully grown. When the chick is about three weeks old, the father – and its always the father who performs this duty, calls to the sequestered chick to come down to the sea. Taking the chick out to sea when it’s small is a unique strategy, but it reduces the costs of bringing fish back to the chick and the youngster is safer from predation by other colonial species nearby.

Often at night, but sometimes during the day, the father calls and calls to the waiting chick, which is still not able to fly well. The cry of the father “rraaaar rrrrrarrr” has an urgency and an echoing quality that the chick must obey. The future of the Razorbills’ survival depends upon it.

Northern Fulmar on nest. Fulmars do not choose to nest in colonies like the guillemots and gannets.

 

Found in nests nearby, but completely different from the Alcids, Northern Fulmars are the champion long distance flyers of the seabirds. They hold their wings stiffer than a gull, and the tail muscles are extraordinarily capable of steering the fulmar from one glide into another.

Like other “tubenoses”, the fulmar tracks its prey partly by smell; it can fly miles and miles to feed on the fish it needs to nourish the single chick. One particular Northern Fulmar became famous: #1568. This bird was tracked from its nesting cliff on the Orkney Islands on a foray totaling 3900 miles over two weeks.   It flew from the Orkneys – northeast of the Scottish mainland—clear over to the central Northern Atlantic. In a place south of Greenland and east of Newfoundland, this fulmar found the rich patches of plankton that attracted schools of fish. Here, he fed for several days, finally making his way back to the Orkneys and his mate, via the west coast of Ireland and Scotland.

Like the albatross, petrel, and shearwater, the fulmar has evolved a way of travelling far to gather food for the chick. These birds aren’t nearshore fishers; they can’t bring back whole fish in their bills the way puffins or guillemots do. So they save a rich, foul-smelling oil in their gut, in the folds of their stomach. When the adult returns to the nest, the chick puts its bill inside the parent’s mouth and absorbs the oil that is regurgitated for it.

Northern Fulmars arguing on one of the islands of the St. Kilda group.

When we visited the remote islands of the St. Kilda group, which lie far to the west of the Hebrides, I understood why the islanders had been able to subsist by killing the fulmars for food, oil, and feathers. Since the late 1930s, however, when the St. Kildans asked to be evacuated due to the hardship of living on this wind-torn speck of land, no humans live here full time. The place is like a ghost town.

The St. Kilda islands have been reclaimed by the fulmars.   They are the dominant inhabitants now– nesting in the walls and on top of the cleits, stone huts where the St. Kildans once stored their food. And when we departed that rainy, wild place, I was happy that the fulmars were restored to their rightful kingdom.

 

Isle of Noss, Shetlands, 6 a.m. on a rainy morning, with gannets flyiing around it

 

 

 

 

Of all the seabirds, the Northern Gannet was the most numerous.   The whiteness of the colonies, strung like lace on the cliff faces, smashed like white frosting against the dark rocks; I never expected the thousands upon thousands of gannets all squeezed together.   Perfectly good spaces of vacant rock were free and clear; it was the proximity of gannet bodies that the birds wanted, so they crammed together.   Over eons, the close colony had proved itself the best tool for survival.

Gannets embrace the tenets of seabird colonial breeding: they ferociously defend their 2 foot square nest area, the most desirable nests are near the center of the colony (which is where the most successful, usually the most senior individuals nest), and they use the colony as a place of information exchange.

Northern Gannet, showing it’s dagger-like bill and strong body equipped for plunge-diving for fish

A gannet colony up close is a noisy, active place

 

Up-to-date information on where the fishing is most productive is essential. Within the colony, birds constantly come and go, visiting the fishing territory that’s been established for that particular colony. Competition for survival is intense. This is not a cuddly, cozy situation. The colony is full of noise, beak-stabbing, and keen observation of which birds have returned with fish from their hunting forays.

The beauty of the gannets makes you forget the fierce competition within the colony

 

That monstrous, powerful beak, and, as Nicolson calls it “the pitiless eye” of pale ice-blue: together these are the fishing tackle of the gannet. The adaptable eye changes shape from above water where the bird spots the fish, through the plunge dive, to the underwater chase.

Great Saltee Island off Ireland

My favorite day of the whole voyage was an afternoon spent on a privately owned island off the east coast of Ireland called Great Saltee. It’s owned by a family, but if you put ashore between 11 and 4, you are allowed to wander the island on your own.

Here, literally at my feet, were Atlantic Puffins standing at their burrow entrances, Northern Fulmars nesting nearby, colonies of guillemots and gannets sprawled over the cliffs, and Razorbills and Great Cormorants scattered throughout.

Gannets on Great Saltee

Great Black-backed Gull on nest on Great Saltee. I saw this gull sweep down and snatch an egg from one of the guillemots in the colony nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Fair Isle, you can see a big bird observatory.  This tiny island is a famous vagrant trap, where off course species land to take shelter.  A banding operation helps scientists record these visitors. I was astonished to see Parasitic Jaegers and Great Skuas nesting in the open meadows adjacent to the cliffs.  These are predators of seabird colonies, but to observe them on their nesting grounds was a treat.

Bird Observatory on Fair Isle

Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua) at nest site on Fair Isle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of my journey, I came away with the message that seabird colonies need to be protected from humans, and from predators that we’ve introduced, like rats. Fishing regulations could be tightened so that birds aren’t part of the by-catch. And, most importantly, the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the acidity of the ocean needs to be brought under control.

 

 

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

 

When I first contemplated returning to visit this Greek island in the Mediterranean, it was to see the marvelous Minoan ruins at the palace of Knossos.  Having visited briefly in the 1980s, I remembered the beauty of the landscape and the wondrous archaeological finds.

Minoan archeological site at Palace of Knossos

Ancient history is one aspect, but when I recently started learning about the natural history of Crete, I was hooked.  This was to be my next overseas destination!  Upon arrival in Heraklion, I visited the Natural History Museum of Crete. The exhibits are great, and I bought a good introductory book: “Crete: A Continent in an Island”, by Demos Tsantilis (2015). The more I studied the geology and the flora and fauna, the more I realized striking similarities with our own California, which has often been referred to as a “Mediterranean island.”

Mt. Psiloritis, ancient Mt. Ida, elev. over 8000 ft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crete, like California, has a turbulent geologic past.  It’s located where two continental plates collide – the African and the Eurasian–giving birth to volcanoes and frequent earthquakes.  As a result of geologic upheaval, the topography is one of high, rugged mountains and steep gorges.

Kourtaliotiko Gorge

 

The island has what they call an olive tree climate – a Mediterranean climate –symbolized by the narrow belt of conditions where olive trees grow best. California, too, being located on the west side of a continent between the 30th and 40th parallel shares this rare climate zone.

Read more »

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PART TWO:  THE MONEGROS STEPPE

 

March 9, 2016:

Today’s plan involves driving south of the Pyrenees to an entirely different habitat.  This is where Alberto lives, in a little town surrounded by agricultural lands.

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White Storks nesting on a deserted building

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White Storks at nest

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Monegros Steppe on a rainy day

The whole area has been termed the Monegros Desert, a semi-arid zone nearer to Zaragoza than to Huesca, but still in Aragon.

I am looking for a suite of completely new birds today:  sandgrouse, owls, larks – and neither Alberto nor I forget that I still don’t have Lammergeier, the greatest vulture of them all, so we’ll have to return here to look for it at the end of the day.

Lots of driving!  But this new area is fascinating!

Besides, rain is threatening, the sky darkens and lowers.  It’s a good thing we did our montane birding yesterday.

The true Monegros habitat survives in bits and pieces, surrounded by barley and wheat fields.  If left without irrigation, the soil here endures salinity and dryness.  Small, aromatic shrubs and the taller, feathery Ratama  comprise the Monegros steppe vegetation.

A harsh land, yet with a certain beauty all its own.

Our first target:  the stately Eagle Owl.  Alberto shows me a ledge of gray rock, sets up the scope, and I see the gray-brown shape of the enormous female as she sleeps, her body leaning against the side of the miniature cave she’s chosen in which to produce her young year after year.  She looks as big if not bigger than our Great Horned Owl.

Eagle Owl in the Ebro Valley by Alfredo Sánchez

Eagle Owl by Alfredo Sanchez

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Eagle Owl nesting habitat

 

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Alberto in the Monegros Steppe

We drive on, entering now one of the few remaining natural areas that’s been set aside by the European Union, in order to offset the encroaching agricultural fields.  But the fields produce many jobs, too, and that’s an issue here.

Alberto slows the car to a crawl, so as not to flush the larks.  Larks frequent this country of shrub-steppe.  They whirl up, hover, sing on the wing, then land on top of a nearby bush.  The larks are big – nearly the size of our Western Meadowlark.

Calandra Lark in Monegros by José Damián Moreno

Calandra Lark by Jose Damian Moreno

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A pool of water in otherwise dry terrain

I see CALANDRA LARK and THEKLA LARK.  Life birds with lovely, subtle plumages.

We approach a tumbled down stone farmhouse, and RED-BILLED CHOUGHS fly up.  These deserted structures are now used for nesting by owls and other species.  I hear the whirring of wings and a group of four BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE fly over.  The life birds are coming fast now.

Terrific views are had of Little Bustard, which I’ve seen in France, but never as well as this.  One of our targets proves as impossible to achieve as we suspected:  Great Bustard.  There are so few of them left now, with the cereal crops taking over.

We did see STONE CURLEW and DOTTEREL, both shorebird migrants that were new for me.

It’s raining pretty hard.  And, since we’re driving Alberto’s other car, which is older and better for these rough roads, one of his windshield wipers isn’t working!  He peers sideways out the front of the car and I try not to worry.

In the distance a few stray Olive trees and Almond trees break the horizon.  Alberto heads for them, mumbling something about GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOO.   Now that’s a nice bird.  They’ve just arrived from North Africa, and they parasitize magpies.  So, they’re lurking around, trying to stay camouflaged in the few trees available.  No magpies visible, but perhaps we can find the cuckoo?

Alberto slams on the brakes, gets out of the car, grabs the scope, and points to the top of an Almond tree.  In the rain, there’s the cuckoo, that rascal – so big, with his white spots on a gray background.  Perfect for cryptic coloration as he sneaks around; his mate the same, well-suited for laying eggs in other birds nests.

Great Spotted Cuckoo in Monegros by Luis Gracia

Great Spotted Cuckoo

As the rain comes down, we drive out onto a main road and stop for a coffee.  We need it!

One thing about Alberto:  he never gives up.  We drive endlessly searching for Great Bustard, but it’s not to be.  We do find LITTLE OWL, perched up in one of the ruined stone farmhouses.  Nice!

O.K.  So it’s back up to the foothills of the Pyrenees now, as the mid-afternoon sun comes out and the clouds fade away.  We have to try for Lammergeier!

One of the reasons Alberto took me yesterday to Salto de Roldan was to make good on his promise of being able to look down upon the GRIFFON VULTURES as they came in to roost on the ledges beneath where we were standing.

And this afternoon, while scanning for Lammergeier, I have a chance to watch Griffon Vultures as they come into a communal roost on a rock ledge.   These vultures are social, both in and out of the breeding season.  They nest in loose groups of several pairs, each with their own nesting platforms on the steep rock faces of the Mallos.   The whitewash beneath the nest marks its location; the birds haven’t split off for the breeding season yet, though.

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Griffon Vulture

No Lammergeier.  The evening is approaching fast.  Am I going home without it?

 

March 10, 2016:

This morning, Josele Saiz decides to help me look for the Lammergeier.  How marvelous of him!

Gib drives, and we three ride up along a spectacular road that follows a gorge to the dam at Embalse de Vadiello (Vadiello Reservoir).

I want desperately to see this largest of European vultures, the Lammergeier; the name means “bone eater” in German—the bird eats the bones of its prey in order to get at the marrow.  Here in the central Pyrenees, Lammergeier is very scarce, with only two breeding pairs in the area (500 pairs in all of Europe).

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Vultures, including Lammergeier, frequent these cliffs

I follow dutifully as Josele gets out of the car and starts walking across the dam.  This is how you get the  most exposure to the skyline, he explains.  And he seems to have eyes in the back of his head, because suddenly he yells “LAMMERGEIER!  Look, flying across that cliff face!”

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Lammergeier by Jan Pedersen

And I see it!  Yes, this magnificent vulture with a huge wingspread, long tail, and a suffusion of orange on its underparts.  The morning sun highlights the Lammergeier against the blue sky as it makes its journey to its nesting place, far beyond this ridge.  Josele knew it would be coming to make a nest exchange about this time in the morning!

“Never take your eyes off the sky!” he says, as I try to catch my breath and thank him profusely.

Hmmmm.  I wish that was all it took to be a good birder.  But in Spain, on my birding adventure, I have to agree that he’s absolutely right.

I collected 19 life birds during my stay at Boletas!

 

THE END

 

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

 

PART ONE:  THE PYRENEES

March 7, 2016:

We’ve arrived at a 15th Century farmhouse in the village of Loporzano, located in Aragon at the foot of the Pyrenees.

This is Casa Boletas Birdwatching Centre, our home for the next three days.

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View from our window looking north to the foothills of the Pyrenees

(“Boletas” means Egyptian Vulture in the local dialect).  Egyptian Vulture?  That would be a life bird.  I thought they were in Africa!

We’re welcomed by proprietors, Josele Saiz and Esther Diago Millan.  Esther (pronounced “Estair”) prepares marvelous homecooked meals, and Josele is the master tour guide.  He mostly leads tours outside of Spain these days, but he’s assigned his longtime friend, Alberto Bueno, to be my guide birding around here for two days.

Alberto is the best.  So friendly, knows the local birds like the back of his hand, speaks English, and drives me in his car!  The perfect birding vacation.

 

March 8, 2016:

I’m sitting grabbing a last cup of coffee at the long dining room table at Boletas.  A knock on the door means Alberto has arrived.

I’m determined to go for the highest mountain birds first:  those found at the Astun Ski Resort at the very top of the Pyrenees.  My targets:  Snowfinch, Alpine Chough, and Alpine Accentor.

Winding upwards, the road leads us higher and higher.  We approach Somport Pass, between Spain and France, elevation 5,380 feet.  The temperature feels much colder than 25 degrees F.   My California blood is FREEZING — as we get out of the car in the middle of driving snow and walk gingerly down towards the front of the resort.  The snow and ice are thick, but Alberto bears the spotting scope fearlessly forward.

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Astun Ski Resort

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Alpine Accentor

 

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At last, we take shelter in the cafe and warm up while observing the birds.  Everybody stares at us.  Skiers are curious as to what we are doing here.

When Alberto tosses a crust of bread on the snow bank nearby, an ALPINE ACCENTOR and two ALPINE CHOUGHS come swooping down.  Alpine Chough is like a miniature crow, with a bright, yellow bill. The Accentor, a small sparrow-like bird, hops around oblivious to the Arctic conditions.

Alas, one of my special wants — Snowfinch–was nowhere to be found.

“Vamos a ver!” Alberto says.  That means “Let’s go!” In Spanish.

So we leave the snowy heights and drive down, down the Pyrenees to visit the mountain town of Jaca  (“haca”).

Here, Alberto brings the car to an abrupt halt.  Looking up, I see my first RED KITE and then my first EGYPTIAN VULTURE!  Beautiful!

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Red Kite

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Egyptian Vulture

The Egyptian Vulture has just arrived from North Africa. They breed here in the Pyrenees.  Amazing wedge-shaped tail as it goes soaring overhead.  This is the land of soaring raptors; they love the north winds that whoosh down the mountains making great up-drafts.

I have never been so cold!

To the south, looming above us, is a great massif.  At the summit, we stop at San Juan de la Pena, a fancy resort with nobody around. It’s sunny, but snow lies on the ground as we wander through a deserted campground.

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Road to San Juan de la Pena

Never underestimate Alberto.  He grabs his phone and lets fly a racket of a woodpecker call.  Suddenly a large BLACK WOODPECKER — a male, swoops in and lands on a tree trunk very close.  How lucky can we get?  We are on a roll!

Black Woodpecker in the Pyrenees by Luis Lorente

Black Woodpecker by Luis Lorente

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking:  ” WHERE’S THE WALLCREEPER?”  (“Treparriscos” in Spanish).

Yay.  Alberto proclaims the Treparriscos is next on the agenda.

We drive down, down again into a gorge, and I see in the distance what I’ve been waiting for — the red limestone cliffs of the “Mallos” formations at the town of Riglos!

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En route to Riglos and Wallcreeper!

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The Mallos Formation: Wallcreeper habitat

Lunch is by the church in the hamlet of Riglos.  Great cliffs loom a thousand feet above us, and we hear the sound of rock climbers calling to each other.

O.K.  So this is it.

I flew many miles to get here and I can’t imagine finding this tiny bird on such a vast rock face!

Alberto says:  “Look at the lower third of the cliffs.”

I examine every crevice. You’ve got to be kidding!

Some of the cliffs are red, some are gray — the exact color of the little gray Wallcreeper.

After an hour of scanning, Alberto spots it.

And I don’t.

At last, at last, there’s the bird, and I get it in the scope — a fabulous gray bird behaving like a nuthatch, hunting methodically up and down the cliff face.  It creeps in and out of moist cracks in the rock, often out of view for minutes at a time.

Wallcreeper in the Pyrenees by Fernando Carmena

Wallcreeper by Fernando Carmena

And when it flies, you see the crimson wings!  Never have I been so happy!

Two minutes later…..GONE.  The Wallcreeper flew purposefully off across the rock facade and disappeared.

That’s O.K.  I GOT IT!

Exhausted, elated, we walk back to the car.

Alberto has an idea of a place we should try for Lammergeier this afternoon.

Called Salto de Roldan, it’s a rock formation located in the Sierra de Guara Nature Reserve.

We’re climbing again, this time up to an amazingly steep, windy precipice.

Alberto leads the way along a narrow trail.  The underbrush is full of spikey shrubs and junipers.  The strong wind tears at my parka.  I’m unsteady!  We’re so close to the drop-off below.

In the distance, the gorge of the Flumen River cuts deep. The rivers here feed into the Ebro River, which culminates in a famous estuary along the Spanish coast.

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Salto de Roldan: Alberto Bueno, my guide

 

Soon, we’re joined by a friend of Alberto’s, a young biologist who’s monitoring the nesting Bonelli’s Eagle.  She’s on a nest so far away that even the powerful scopes can barely pick it up.

The guys are set up 20 feet downslope from me, but I’m scared to scramble down and join them.

Come on, Joan.  You can do it.  I decide to give it a go and carefully pick my way down the steep, rocky hillside.

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The view from Salto de Roldan

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View down to the Ebro Valley from the Sierra de Guara Nature Reserve

The far away view of the female Bonelli’s on her nest is my reward.  Too distant to really i.d., but I’m thrilled.

This is my wild Spanish birding trip, and I love it!

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

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Hooded Merganser by Hugh Ranson

 

ANATOMY OF A SANTA BARBARA CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT:  Part 1

 

I don’t know of any other Christmas Bird Count in the country that has quite the unique qualities of Santa Barbara’s. Why?

Of course, we have the mild weather, which is shared by many of the states in the southern portion of the U.S., providing food and shelter for wintering birds.  But hey, why are we still ahead of Counts in Florida, Texas, and coastal Southern California when the totals come in?

First, we have a fabulous corps of dedicated local birders that communicate with each other year round.  Our listserve, sbcobirding, and the increased use of E-bird –both contribute to this sense of shared knowledge.

Second, we attract former birders who used to live in the area, but who faithfully reappear every year to join in the CBC effort.

And, lastly, and probably most important of all — we have a super team of leaders that organize and compile our Count, contributing months of time and energy to this enormous beast — the S. B. CBC!

So, how do you know what birds to expect and how do you prepare to cover a circle  centered at the corner of Foothill Rd. and San Marcos Pass, and fanning out to a radius of 7.5 mi. in all directions?

Let me give you an account in real time:

Dec. 20:  I am in charge of the Montecito portion of the CBC, so, like about 9 other section leaders, I must try my best to scout the area before the Count.

People don’t realize how important scouting is.  You see, wintering birds pretty much stay put, once they arrive here for the season. So, if we know of a rare or unusual bird that has been seen previously, we can go get it on the list on Count Day — Saturday, January 3, 2015.

OK, so I’m supposed to wander aimlessly around Montecito doing what?  Peering into people’s backyards?  Sighing with despair as formerly productive locations prove disappointing due to leaf blowers, construction, or drought?

Hmm.  I have to admit that Montecito is a challenge because we have so much habitat, and most of it is on private property.

At least there’d been some rain, so a few of the Eucalyptus were in bloom, always a source of food for orioles and tanagers.  Also, the orange Cape Honeysuckle that is found as a hedge attracts hummingbirds and warblers.

And the Varied Thrushes!  It was an irruption year.  They were everywhere on shady, damp lawns and in moist thickets.  These beauties from the Northwest, which rarely winter this far south, were all over.  So that was fun.  I think in one region — Hope Ranch — a participant counted 96 Varied Thrushes, and there will be totals in the hundreds for this species when the compilation is complete.

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Varied Thrush by Linda Frazier

But back to scouting.  First, you drive around, hitting the spots that delivered good birds in the past.  I  get out of the car at a likely looking sunny hedge or pine tree, clip my dog, Happy’s leash, to my fanny pack and walk quickly from one place to another, binoculars poised, ears alert, listening for the chatter of an oriole or the “thrup” of a tanager, or any sound that I don’t recognize.

In scouting, you’re looking for “birdy” places that you might revisit on Count Day, and of course, you hope to spot a rare or unusual bird as you go from street to street.

Dec. 29:  OK, then. Christmas is over, the family is gone, the shopping and eating and decorating and undecorating is OVER!

Yay!  Time to kick it up a notch and get going on some new spots to investigate for birds.

This year, I asked the Montecito Country Club staff for permission to take a golf cart around to scout for birds.  What a blast!

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Western Bluebird by Hugh Ranson

I went with Mark Holmgren and we actually found TWO great birds that we hoped to get on the Count:  a Summer Tanager, and a brief glimpse — oh so brief — of a nighthawk of some kind.

We’ll be back on Count Day to refind these two goodies.

Dec. 30:  A very rare bird is found today by 11-year old Lucas Gaede, out by Lake Los Carneros:  a Nelson’s Sparrow, which many folks get to see. Alas, on Count Day it was nowhere to be found.

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Nelson’s Sparrow by Hugh Ranson

Jan. 1:  Out-of-towners have arrived early to scout, and the number of different orioles and tanagers they spot is amazing.  I am jealous of Goleta.  South Goleta, along the coast, is one of the prime locations for bird finding in our Count Circle.

Isla Vista, Devereux Slough, and the UCSB campus are famous for their rare birds!

Jan. 2:  The day before the Count is always a frantic one, especially for the chief compilers.  Rebecca Coulter, our head honcho, is cool, very cool.  (As a former compiler myself, I don’t know how she does it!) Read more »

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

 

As the seasons change, and fall turns to winter, it’s fun to review some of the birding adventures I’ve had while teaching a class full of exceptional participants.

My “students” are unusual.

Each one has something to offer:  they all find birds for me, one carries my spotting scope, one locates the correct page in the field guide, and another records the notes on E-bird; and several take photos of the birds we see!

So…..I am wondering who is teaching whom…….but I figure I have a pretty good deal.

Let’s recap a few highlights from our fall field trips:

We started slow and easy at ROCKY NOOK PARK.  Nice views of common warblers, our first Red-breasted Sapsucker, and bunches of Lesser Goldfinches on a private feeder off the lane at the north end of the park.

The class at REFUGIO STATE BEACH was tops for migrants.  Here we had the Nashville Warbler in the little creek by the stone bridge, and lots of activity offshore.  Wes Fritz joined us, which made it even more fun.  The kicker came when Glenn Kincaid suggested we go up Refugio Creek after the official class was over.  Great excitement as we looked at a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a drop-dead gorgeous Painted Redstart – both rare vagrants for our region. (see previous blog post on this day)

Hoping for more fall rarities, we hit the END OF CORONADO DRIVE, where the little “seep” was dry, and the most activity was at the car wash, where a dripping faucet attracted many Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  The walk out to the bluffs at More Mesa held Downy and Hairy Woodpecker for good comparisons, and many shorebirds along the beach, plus a Common Loon still in breeding plumage – a surprise for those of us familiar with its plain winter outfit.

At GOLETA BEACH and COAL OIL POINT RESERVE, we had especially rich field trips.

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Bottle-nose Dolphin by Linda Frazier

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Egrets fishing at Goleta Beach by Linda Frazier

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Cormorants herding fish at Goleta Beach by Linda Frazier

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Great Blue Heron by Linda Frazier

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Male Surf Scoter by Glenn Kincaid

Both are excellent places to observe waterbirds.  At Goleta Beach, some of the highlights were:  watching Double-crested Cormorants “herd” a school of fish in front of them in the lagoon, then proceed to dive and feed in a fine frenzy; many shorebirds gathered on the edges of the lagoon, ranging in size from the tiny Least Sandpipers to a couple of stately Long-billed Curlews; and one nice flock of gulls that contained Royal and Elegant Terns standing together – a good lesson in differentiating these two hard-to-i.d. species.

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Elegant Terns foreground, Royal Terns in back by Linda Frazier

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Whimbrel by Linda Frazier

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Long-billed Curlew by Glenn Kincaid

 

At Coal Oil Point, we had a marvelous mixture of land and waterbirds.  Turns out that the two rarest birds– the Summer Tanager and the “Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker—had nothing at all to do with the water at Devereux.  (We found them in the dying tamarisk grove near the bridge at the south end.)  But the walk along the bluffs looking down on shorebirds feeding in beach wrack, the Peregrine Falcon hurtling by and landing in the eucalyptus grove, and the chance to see some returning ducks like Bufflehead and American Wigeon in the slough made the day an even more outstanding one.

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Summer Tanager by Linda Frazier

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“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker by Linda Frazier (top and bottom photo)

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Sanderlings on Isla Vista Beach by Linda Frazier

At CARPINTERIA SALT MARSH NATURE PARK, we saw a mixed flock of feeding shorebirds which revealed Long-billed Dowitchers and Western Sandpipers, and we got great looks at Green-winged Teal as they, too foraged in the mud.  A walk over the bridge towards Santa Monica and Franklin Creeks, on the newly preserved Land Trust property, brought sightings of the state endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow.

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Green-winged Teal by Linda Frazier

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Male Bufflehead by Linda Frazier

 

WINCHESTER CANYON with a subsequent visit to BELLA VISTA OPEN SPACE provided some of us who lingered – accompanied by a dose of patience! – fine sightings of three of the Fox Sparrow subspecies that winter here:  the Red, the Sooty, and the Slate-colored.   Who could believe that these shy Fox Sparrows chose this busy, rather trash-strewn urban park in which to spend the winter?  They foraged quietly in the leaf litter under the Toyon bushes (difficult to photograph!). The “Red” Fox Sparrow is a favorite, and to think of its boreal breeding range and how far it must’ve traveled to get to coastal Santa Barbara County, makes us realize just how random bird-finding can be.

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Red-shouldered Hawk at Winchester Canyon by Linda Frazier

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Male (top photo) and female (bottom photo) Purple Finch at Bella Vista by Linda Frazier

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Common Yellowthroat at Bella Vista by Linda Frazier

Fortunately, we benefit from all the skilled birders in our area who find great birds and then post them on the sbcobirding website.

Stay tuned for the last class at LAKE LOS CARNEROS!

 

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

Refugio State Beach: October 15, 2014

 

On a cloudy, cool morning, the Wednesday bird class ventured up the coast to Refugio State Beach, a well-known coastal vagrant trap for passerines in fall migration.

As a teacher, I look at Refugio as somewhat of a challenge.  It’s not all that aesthetically pleasing, lots of tree have recently been removed, and drought conditions have made the creek here little more than a stagnant lagoon.

But hey.  You’ve gotta give it a go….every fall….it’s a tradition.

As a group we’re rather large.  This has its advantages and disadvantages. More eyes see more birds, but more people may scare them away.

At the stone bridge, we began to see Yellow-rumped Warblers coming down to bathe and drink.  An Orange-crowned Warbler, several Townsend’s Warblers, and a Nashville Warbler — the best find — appeared and then quickly disappeared.  The birds flew back and forth between the nearby Eucalyptus trees and the willows lining what looked like foul water, but these are thirsty migrants and they’re not particular.

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Townsend’s Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

We wandered the campground, trying not to invade the privacy of the campers with our binoculars.

When we got to the west end, we looked offshore to see a small flock of Western Grebes floating in the calm, gray sea.

Wes Fritz, a local professional bird guide, arrived to help us out.  Wes and his super big spotting scope helped with the Royal and Elegant Terns flying by, as well as a big, bulky Common Loon feeding offshore.

A Red-breasted Sapsucker showed well at the top of a palm tree.  That’s the second Red-breasted Sapsucker in two classes — I think it’s going to be a sapsucker year!

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Red-breasted Sapsucker

And in the short kikuyu grass growing right near the pavement, we had great looks at a Savannah Sparrow. Totally out of its native habitat of dry open fields, this streaky sparrow was an obvious migrant.   Too exhausted to continue flying, the sparrow dropped down here because it saw a patch of green grass.

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Savannah Sparrow

After class, about ten of us accompanied Glenn Kincaid up Refugio Road to see if we could locate the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker he thought he’d seen in a pre-class exploration.

We drove to the second crossing, parked the cars by the corrals there, and walked back south along Refugio Road.

We scanned the willows along the creek, then somebody spotted all the sapsucker workings in a dense cluster of Coast Live Oaks close to the road.

Another Red-breasted Sapsucker hitched its way up one of the trunks.

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Red-breasted Sapsucker

 

And each time I said I thought it might be time for me to go, I’d run back to the group of birders as they found another bird:  this time it was Carol Rae who spied the juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker way back in the oaks.  But it came closer and closer, began to interact with the Red-breasted, and Wes was snapping photos like crazy.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Glenn remarked that the Yellow-bellied was NOT the bird he’d seen early that morning (someone else had seen a Red-naped Sapsucker, so that’s probably what Glenn saw).

And suddenly, with no warning, without a sound — a beautiful red and black and white warbler was dancing among the limbs of the oak trees!  It flared its white tail edges as it swooped and darted – a vision of a Spanish dancer in the warbler world.

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Painted Redstart

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Painted Redstart

A PAINTED REDSTART!

You want migrant warblers, we’ll give you migrant warblers…..but this?  Well, never in my wildest imagination could I have picked this beautiful bird as the treasure that some of us were lucky enough to see.

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Painted Redstart

I just wish more than half the class hadn’t gone home, and I want lots more folks to get the opportunity to see this bird.

But from what I understand, it may already be on its way south to Mexico, where it belongs this time of year.

The elusive Painted Redstart had not been refound the next day at this writing.

You just have to love fall birding, don’t you?

(ALL PHOTOS BY LINDA FRAZIER)

 

 

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Birding from Camlica Hill in Istanbul!

Sept. 24, 2014:

It’s full name is Buyuk Camlica, the highest hill overlooking all of Istanbul and the Bosphorus.  The Bosphorus, that marvelous channel that separates two continents — the European and Asian sides of the city—is a famous route for raptors in fall migration.

I was determined to get up there and check it out.

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View of Istanbul from Camlica Hill

There was only one problem: our  cultural tour began that morning. But I skipped it, and persuaded my terrific Turkish guide, Ayse, to come with me, caught a taxi from the hotel, paid a taxi driver to make the journey in rush hour traffic, and arrived at the site absolutely clueless as to where to go or what to do.

So here I am, clutching my binoculars, dragging along trusty Ayse, the young Turkish woman who has no idea whatsoever about birds but she’ll be my interpreter, and we get out of the taxi.

We start walking toward the view point–the whole of Istanbul clear and gorgeous lying beneath us–and my heart leaps.

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The “line up” of birders

 

A phalanx of birders manning Swarovski and Leica scopes appears!

I have never been so glad to see a group of weird-looking birders in my life.

Behind us is a little park with a slope of green grass, but most of the birders are all lined up along a fence, after which the hillside drops off steeply.

“Do you speak English?” I say, hesitantly, to the first young man in the “line up” of heavy duty scope-bearers.

“Yes,” he says in an accent, and he explains he’s Swedish, and so are the half dozen others there, and behind them on the grass is gathered a group of Danes.

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My Swedish friend Michael to the left

The Swedish guy on the end of the line seemed quiet and shy, so I decided to stick by him.  Having no spotting scope, I would never see the birds if I couldn’t look through someone’s scope.

I am eternally grateful that he let me borrow his scope and helped me identify what we were seeing.

I realized that most of the birders touring Turkey are Northern Europeans and they come for a week and go all over Anatolia, not just here.

I had been in touch with the famous founder of Birdwatch Turkey, Karem Ali Boyla, but he was super busy.  He said he’d send his “assistant” up to help me. (But by then it was too late, and I had to go….)

The sky was blue.  Big white puffs of clouds began to build.   The wind was wrong, of course.  Yesterday it had been stormy, so I’d had high hopes for today, but it was too fair and calm.  Northwest or northeast winds drive the hawks and eagles south along this route as they head to their wintering grounds in southern Africa.

We waited and waited.  Nothing for an hour.

Finally, finally, my Swedish friend, Michael, turns to me and says in his heavy accent, “I see an eagle very, very far away,” and I’d read a lot about these Lesser Spotted Eagles and how common they are here in migration, so I was thrilled beyond measure to see this tiny speck with the floppy wings in flight as it made it’s way far, far in the distant clouds and headed eastward.

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Lesser Spotted Eagle from Dick Forsman’s “The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East”

Pretty soon, these amazing birders would get onto a bird far away and they’d try to describe its location — of course in Swedish – and I knew they were giving directions for spotting these distant specks, but I couldn’t understand.

Eventually, somebody calls out “Two Booted Eagles!” and points way up there where that blue break comes between the two white clouds, and I look through Michael’s scope and see what looks like a brown speck with heavy fingered wings soaring.   No way could I i.d. these eagles on my own!

And then comes the highlight: a flock of FIFTY Levant Sparrowhawks (like our Cooper’s Hawks) appear high, high up all flying together like a gathering of swifts.  I’ve never seen hawks flying in such a tight kettle before and then they are up and twirling and whirling away, disappearing to the east out of sight.

More and more eagles soared as the thermals heated up and the morning wore on.  Michael pointed out a Black Kite and a Pallid Harrier.

But how exciting.  I can’t believe I’m actually here!

During a lull I ask Swedish Michael where was home.  He said he lived on Gotland, which is a large island south of Stockholm, and when I asked him what he did he said he was the janitor for a twelfth century church on the island.  Could this be true?

Moreover, Gotland is also the home of Lars Johnsson, perhaps the most renowned bird artist alive today – certainly in Europe.  I treasure a little guide book I have of his, but  he mostly does paintings now, according to Michael.   Wow!

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Birders from all over gather here to watch raptors in fall migration

So that was my experience at Camlica, and although it wasn’t the Big Bang, it was the Little Bang and that’s better than no bang at all.

I’ll take my Lesser Spotted Eagles by the 5s and 10s, if necessary, and my 2 Booted Eagles, and my 50 Levant Sparrowhawks.  And yes, I heard about “Oh you should’ve been here yesterday, there were 5000 eagles going over and you could see them easily!”  And then I learned about the Italian birding group that simply lay down on the grass and counted the eagles as they passed directly overhead.

That’s OK.

This was good enough for me.  So I thanked Michael, and gave him my e-mail and I hope I will have the karma to pay it forward to some other struggling foreign  birder if I come across one back home in Santa Barbara.

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

 

Will I successfully get myself to the top of Camlica Hill in Istanbul, Turkey, to watch the migrant raptor show?

My husband and I are going on a fantastic cultural tour, staying in Istanbul for a few days before boarding a sailing ship and traveling from there through the northern Aegean to Athens!

BUT WHAT ABOUT BIRDING?

I’ve been on these trips before, and invariably I am the only birder.

I have found that–with a good field guide and a bit of luck, you can actually tramp around ancient ruins, listen to smart professors as they lecture, and spot good birds all at the same time.

But I’ve had to be resourceful in my preparations.  Finding birding guides off the beaten path is challenging.  They have to speak English, for one thing.  And for another, I usually have to squeeze my birding in whenever possible.

You can get on the internet and find good trip reports from other birders who’ve visited Istanbul.  Usually, they’re British travelers and they’re very knowledgeable.

But I really wanted someone there in Istanbul to act as a field guide.

Last May, I began e-mailing Kerem Ali Boyla .  He’s the founder (and one of the few practicing guides?) of Birdwatch Turkey.

He finally responded to my e-mail in July and was most cordial.  When I outlined what dates I would be visiting Istanbul this month, he said he was sorry but he had a group of 20 Danish folks that would be totally occupying him.

However, if I wanted to get myself to the top of one of two hills:  Camlica or Toygar — both on the Asian side of the Bosphorus with commanding views of the surrounding area — I could join his group of Danish birders.

The Bosphorus is famous not only as the channel of water that separates western and eastern Istanbul (not to speak of two continents!), but as a pathway for migrating birds from Bulgaria and parts of Europe on their way to southerly wintering grounds.

Theoretically,  I could see storks and all sorts of raptors, if conditions are good.

In his last e-mail, Kerem took pity on me and sent me the name of a man to contact who would meet me in Uskudar (to which you take the ferry from our hotel) and drive me up to one of these hills to meet the group.

So my question is this:  just how many of these unfamiliar birds might I be able to i.d.?  Will they be just specks so high in the sky that I can’t see them with binoculars?  Or will I see the Black Storks, Lesser Spotted Eagles, Booted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawks, etc., for which this site is known by birders worldwide?

I’m leaving soon.

Stay tuned!

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

Birders’ behavior can be almost as interesting as bird behavior.

Definitely, birders have their own stamp of individuality when it comes to interacting with others of their kind.

Some generalities can be made, however.

The number one characteristic is rudeness.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  I’ve known some really rude birders and I’m one of them!

The problem has its root in a birder’s desire to observe birds — above all else.  In their single-mindedness, they can absolutely ignore social conventions.

For example, a large group of birders is waiting around for a rarity to appear.  I’ve witnessed this so many times:  a birder walks up — curtly addresses somebody in the group with,

“Was it still only last seen at first light?”

A murmured answer to the affirmative by the person standing nearby brings out sighs of frustration in the new arrival.

But does he (or she) say hi to anybody else in the group?  No.  Does he introduce himself?  No.  Does he smile cheerfully at the prospect of a long and perhaps fruitless wait?  No.

This birder will set up his scope, start checking his iphone, and may never utter another word until the bird is spotted, usually by someone else, at which point he or she becomes almost voluble with “so what’s going on with the scaps?”, or “but look at the primary extension!”

Very bad form to show too much enthusiasm. OK. That I can live with.

But rudeness to other birders in the form of not introducing oneself or one’s companions, or in the form of only acknowledging the “top birders” in the assembled group — I’ve seen it all too often.

One of the most egregious examples of birding rudeness was when yours truly left a sit down dinner party at my host’s house to chase a bird with a man I’d never met before!

I’m serious.

I was in Montana with our friends who have a house near Missoula, and the guy who ran the Montana State birding hotline offered to take me to see a Boreal Owl.

Life bird!  Rude behavior alert!

I left my husband and my kind hosts in the lurch, drove an hour and a half down the Bitterroot Valley, and finally arrived at ~8000 foot Chief Joseph Pass.  Here, where an old nest box had been set up years ago, a female Boreal Owl was our goal.

Scaling a snow pack that was 8 feet high beside the highway, I and my companion, Terry Toppins, saw this gorgeous owl as she perched before her nightly foraging flight.

Was I rude? Of course!

Would I do it again?  Of course!

So you see that birders are very odd indeed:  not only can they be rude, but they show little remorse.

I guess those are just characteristics of the species……