Sunday, 14 February 2010

Winter Atlas top ten

On Friday I completed the fieldwork for my allocated survey areas in eastern Extremadura for the Spanish Winter Bird Atlas. As I wrote in my blog of 22nd December, this has been a magnificent way over the last three winters to get know parts of the area that I had rarely visited before, or to explore beyond my regular routes in those patches which I know well. I used the internet to plan routes along little-used paths and tracks and then headed out for a good six hour hike (or slow walk actually) to record every individual of every species of bird detected in the course of 15 minute-long transects (whilst recording habitat type as well). Such were my atlasing days in the field.

The areas that I was assigned to cover included pretty much a good cross-section of the local landscapes: plains, open woodland, scrub, rice fields, olive groves and orchards, uplands and a couple of small water bodies. We will have to wait for the book to be published by SEO (the Spanish Ornithological Society) to see the results and analysis in full, but I have had some fun just adding up my figures.

Over the last three years, I did 420 transects, i.e. 105 hours of formal observation time. On these transects I counted an amazing 34,857 individual birds of a total of 129 species. We also had the chance to note down species that were not detected during the formal transects, such as during other visits to the area, so there were other species like Alpine Accentor, Black Wheatear, Penduline Tit and even Wallcreeper that I found in the 10-km squares but they do not appear in these species lists of formal transect data.

Of the 34,857 birds the top ten in terms of numbers are:

1) Spanish Sparrow (5070 individuals)
2) Lapwing (2453)
3) House Sparrow (2403)
4) Spotless Starling (2080)
5) Common Crane (1807)
6) Chaffinch (1568)
7) Meadow Pipit (1096)
8) Goldfinch (1092)
9) Azure-winged Magpie (1015)
10) Serin (897)

Just taking a quick view through my data shows up some nice habitat associations: where there are olives there are lots of wintering Blackcaps (in such areas Blackcaps are one of the most numerous birds), but they are much less common in other habitats, nevertheless a total of 571 Blackcaps were recorded. I found 610 Robins, 419 wintering Chiffchaff, 358 Corn Bunting and 177 Hoopoes!

But beyond the numbers, I have a rich collection memories from my winter atlasing..birds that I had never before found whilst birding in my area of Extremadura like Fieldfare and Woodcock. Others were birds that the fieldwork gave me a much better sense of their true status here: Bluethroat in the rice fields, Bullfinch (which is a rare wintering visitor (I recorded five individuals, in areas which I had no idea they were present). The key to this was that I was on foot and covering large areas of habitat in forensic detail. And then there are the spectacular sights: the close encounter with Bonelli's Eagles as describd in my blog of 4th February, Golden Eagles mobbed by Ravens, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on adjacent telegraph posts, testing the different parts of the structure to get the best resonance, Firecrests hovering amongst the foliage of cork oaks..........

The Winter Atlas fieldwork is completed but next winter I must make sure I continue my explorations on foot.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Close encounter with Bonelli's Eagles

It was half past one and I had been walking for four and half hours in a remote area of eastern Extremadura doing some fieldwork for the Winter Birds Atlas. I was in a quiet valley, quite wide, with scrub-covered slopes, some rocky outcrops and a strip of alder gallery woodland (full of Siskins) beside the river. This I thought to myself looks good eagle habitat. Just a few minutes later, I heard a loud whooooosh and an object whizzed past me at great speed just a few metres away and close to the ground. My first split-second reaction was that it was a hunting Goshawk, but as I got my binoculars on it, its true identity was obvious: a Bonelli's Eagle. It pounced onto a Red-legged Partridge on valley slope nearby. The partridge flew up, but then a second Bonelli's Eagle arrived, at the same speed as the first, and had a go at it. The eagles had appeared out of nowhere and had been completely oblivious of my presence, so focused were they on their prey. I was simply very close to the end-point of their almighty stoop. It got better. The first eagle flew up from the vegetation and headed in my direction to land on a small pylon barely thirty metres away. Once perched only then did it notice me. For a minute or so it seemed uncertain over what to do, then it flew to the next pylon away, where it was joined by its mate (without the partridge...which presumably got away). The two sat there in the sunshine and then one-by-one flew off, passing low and close to me, giving me, as it were a disapproving look, before slowly gaining height and circling together well above the outcrops. They are truly magnificent birds, my favourite of the eagles, whose shape just spells power and whose presence epitomises rocky, wild areas. They are called in German the Goshawk-Eagle, in Spanish their full name means the partridge-hunting Goshawk-Eagle. They are strategic bird hunters, often working as pairs (I have seen them as a pair ambush flocks of Wood Pigeons, performing perfect pincer tactics), with the female significantly larger than the male (normal with raptors, but especially so amongst the bird hunters such as Merlin, Peregrine, Sparrwohawk and Goshawk).

The experience left me exhilarated, so much so that wading the numbingly icy river a few minutes later was head was just full of this close encounter, which will remain forever as such a vivid memory. The photo attached was taken last spring by a guest of ours. Mark Mallalieu.