Sunday, 29 June 2014


Yesterday I could resist no longer, and headed down to Ashdown Forest with Carl C to see the Short-toed Eagle. After a bit of searching, some rapid carpark switching, and then some aimless-feeling hanging around, someone did well to pick it out sat up in a tree near Long carpark. Scope views were decent, although my digiscoped pictures are definitely not. Unfortunately (and perhaps predictably), it chose to fly off when I nipped back to the car to get some water, but I did get flight views of it through my bins. A quality bird. 

Purring on the patch

Friday night, and having neglected my patch since getting back from Romania, it was time for a visit; there were lots of Swifts (at least 70, probably lots more) feeding low over Ferry Lane Lake, where 4 noisy Oycs flew in an an adult male Goldeneye was looking unseasonal. On to the Silt Lagoon, and a Green Sand was asleep in the corner. Mons Pool was looking good with relatively low water levels, but there were still very few young wildfowl there, although a Coot family was new, and the two pairs of Shelduck still had 7 young between them. A pair of GC Grebes mated on their nest, so hopefully their low-lying nest wont get inundated... Best though was the Turtle Dove, still present, purring from the southern side of Heron Island opposite the viewing screens. Hopefully there's a female sat on a nest nearby. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Romania Part 2 - the Danube and Dobrogea

Day 5 - 14th June

Leaving the Carpathians, we spent most of today in transit between Bran and Tulcea; it was a long way, not aided by some very questionable signposting (e.g. to the ferry across the Danube), but sightings front the car saw us land a Black Stork and our first Long-legged Buzzard of the week, along with several Rollers and Lesser Grey Shrikes

We broke for lunch some way east of Bucharest, at Lake Ianca. This proved to be a good decision, as it produced our only Dalmatian Pelicans of the week, with five in the heat haze, as well as good selection of ducks including a Red-crested Pochard and several Garganey, 4 Spoonbills and lots Black-winged Stilts and Bee-eaters.

4 of 5 Dalmatian Pelicans

Back on the road, having found the ferry, we crossed to Smardan, where Whiskered Terns, Pygmy Cormorants and Glossy Ibises were in evidence on the river beyond, before finally reaching Tulcea, the 'gateway to the Danube', at about 5pm (having left Bran at about 9am). 

Day 6 - 15th June 

Today was our big day – a cruise on the Danube Delta. We were taken out by a local guide, Mihai Baciu, who owns his own boat and used to be a ranger within the Delta, so he knew his stuff and is definitely recommended (see his website here). We travelled about 12km there and 12km back, but barely scratched the surface of this amazing place which, at around 4000 square kilometres, is about twice the size of Nottinghamshire (which is mind blowing); the scale of the habitat is incredible, and whilst we spent most of our time cruising along channels lined by riverine forest, we also came across reedbeds and lakes.

Canal Mila 35
I think this is Lacul cu Cotete
More riverine forest and reed

And the birds? Well, there was an almost constant movement of Squacco Herons and Night-herons overhead throughout the day, and I bagged my first ever White Pelicans (with around 300 during the day including several large squadrons) and also finally caught up with a Grey-headed Woodpecker – in fact we saw around five, with more calling. Add to that Little Bittern, Spoonbill, Pygmy Cormorant, Black Stork, Red-necked and Black-necked Grebe, breeding Goldeneye (a surprise), Garganey, Ferruginous Duck, White-tailed Eagle, Glossy Ibis, Caspian Gull, Whiskered Tern, Cuckoo (very frequent), Roller (frequent), Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, dombrowskii Yellow Wagtail, Great Reed Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Thrush Nightingale, Penduline Tit, Golden Oriole, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, and perhaps not surprising that we clocked up 71 species without too much difficulty.

Grey-headed Woodpecker
Pygmy Cormorant

We also jammed into an alleged Wildcat. I say alleged, as I was far from convinced initially; it was sat on the bank and allowed close approach in our boat, shaking it’s head (suggesting it had ear mites) and not looking very lively. More to the point, it wasn’t at all well marked, although it did have the jowly look of a Wildcat. However, it was in the same place on our return, and this time was spooked by another boat, and when it turned, it showed a nice bushy tail with a rounded black tip and no lateral stripe. A bit of research indicates that Wildcats come in ‘forest’ and ‘steppe’ forms, the former being stripy and well marked, and the latter much less so. I don’t know which ones occur in the Delta, but some Googling did bring up images of Wildcats which looked rather like ours - assuming, of course they are correctly labelled. So who knows... It was a long way from civilisation, but there were occasional fishing huts in the area, so I guess it’s not unfeasible that feral cats or hybrids could be at large.

... a Wildcat??

Day 7 – 16th June

We began today by going to Babadag Forest, to the south of Tulcea. Another large site, it was difficult to know where to begin, but a few forays into the trees produced Hawfinch, Nightingale, Woodlark, Middle and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Wryneck and Wood Warbler, plus plenty of Red-backed Shrikes in open areas. I was also pleased to pick out a singing Icterine Warbler, and a Lesser Spotted Eagle was our only one of the trip. Butterflies included Assman’s Fritillary, Chestnut Heath and Marbled White.

Babadag Forest
Species-rich grassland within the forest
Marbled White

Heading south towards the coast, a nice Long-legged Buzzard cruised over the road before we reached Istria. This was a productive site, although perhaps better earlier in the spring as there was very little standing water. Best was at least two Paddyfield Warblers (this being a well known spot for them), sitting out in the tops of the reeds in full song. Three Ruddy Shelduck were nice, as were more White Pelicans, Little and Great Bittern, a Black-winged Pratincole with the Collareds, at least 5 Spanish Sparrows, a Savi’s Warbler, both feldegg and dombrowskii Yellow Wags, and a Gull-billed Tern over. A few Sousliks were the first of several we saw today.

Paddyfield Warbler
Either a flava Yellow Wag or a dombrowskii  - this bird was not as obvious as one seen in the Delta
feldegg Yellow Wag, singing
Souslik (very cute indeed)

On to Vadu, we spent several hours birding the fantastic wetlands here. The lagoons overlooked by a derelict (and in fact, never functioning) industrial complex held Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, and a flock of c.150 Little Gulls, whilst the marshes further on produced Spotted Redshank, Collared Pratincole, Purple Heron, Great Bittern, three Savi’s Warblers, and a huge Common Tern colony inside a raised tank, with Black, Whiskered and Little Tern and Med Gull also loafing there.

Wetlands at Vadu
Part of the tern colony

After some off-roading we reached the Black Sea, where a small party of waders on the strandline included Redshank, Greenshank, Sanderling, Kentish Plover and Sandwich Tern – but no Pallas’s Gulls unfortunately. A Stone-curlew was further up the beach, and up to 10 superb Red-footed Falcons were hawking over the dunes behind, which also held some 'superciliaris'-type Yellow Wags (feldeggs with a yellowish supercilium), whilst in the sea itself was a small family party of dolphins feeding close inshore. Back towards the main road, we encountered the amazing sight of thousands, perhaps millions, of dragonflies over an area of arable crop – seemingly all Southern Migrant Hawkers.

A 'superciliaris'-type Yellow Wag
The Black Sea
Lots, and lots, of dragonflies

Day 8 – 17th June

So here it was, the last day’s birding of our trip. We began at Celic-Dere Monastery, located in a large woodland area west of Tulcea, seeing Middle Spotted Woodpecker well along with singing Icterine Warbler, Wood Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher, several Hawfinches, plus the ‘usual’ stuff (Red-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, Corn Bunting, etc.). Best though was a Sombre Tit in an old orchard – a species I’d not had much hope of seeing, so particularly pleasing.

Sombre Tit

Nearby, we found the first of four Booted Eagles for the day, as well as singing Ortolan Bunting. Taking a road (which rapidly deteriorated into a track) south from Niculitel via Valea Teilor, we encountered circling White Pelicans, another Icterine Warbler, more Woodlarks and a Tawny Pipit, plus a few Silver-washed and around 20 Marbled Fritillaries, along with a Sloe Hairstreak.

White Pelicans
Sloe Hairstreak
Marbled Fritillary

Finally reaching the main road again, we stopped midway between Cerna and Greci, then taking a path east from the road across some steppe habitat to view a rocky hillside (seemingly called Priopsea Hill). This random stop produced Woodchat Shrike, Tawny Pipit, Ortolan Bunting, several Northern and a pair of Pied Wheatears. There were lots of Graylings sheltering from the wind, as well as a couple of Great Banded and Woodland Graylings.

Steppe habitat

Heading back towards Tulcea, another random stop to view another hillside four Long-legged Buzzards and our only Stonechats of the week, and we rounded things off by viewing an area of reedbed just east of Tulcea, which in the space of 5 minutes produced 2 Little Bitterns, a Purple Heron, 3 Pygmy Cormorants, a Savi’s Warbler, a Med Gull, several Whiskered Terns, Black-winged Stilts and Great Reed Warblers, and a Bee-eater colony.

Day 9 – 18th June

Today we were homeward bound. Random sightings from the car included Roller (by this time a species that didn't even get remarked upon anymore...), White Stork, Whiskered Tern, Glossy Ibis, Squacco Heron and Night-heron. And then it was back home, to swap these for Wood Pigeons, although a Red Kite near Peterborough was one species absent in Romania!

My final tally for the week was 173 species (145 alone in the Delta/Dobrogea), of which 5 were new for me (Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Paddyfield Warbler and Sombre Tit); other possibilities which eluded me were Ural Owl, White-backed Woodpecker, Pallas’s Gull, and most disappointingly, Levant Sparrowhawk. Another day or two in Dobrogea would’ve been good to do some more steppe-based birding (e.g. for wheatears and larks), track down Levant Sprawk, and to do some more wetland birding (and maybe looking for Pallas’s Gull on the Danube upriver of Tulcea...). Raptors were strangely thin on the ground whilst based in Tulcea, but it was abnormally cool (low to mid 20s) and rainy at times, which I guess didn't help.

Mountain scenery

I cannot emphasise enough what a great birding destination Romania is. Spain has always been my favourite European birding destination for sheer diversity of species and habitats, but I think Romanian may just have knocked it into second spot... So if you’re reading this and thinking of going, do it, and if you've never considered Romania, then I hope this has given you some food for thought!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Not quite the Danube

Yesterday I paid my first visit to Collingham Pits for 15 days. It was nice to see what had changed; not much as it turned out, but the post-breeding Lapwing build-up is already happening, with over 100 on the site (including several juveniles). The Shelducks still had their youngsters, and a new Coot family was on Ferry Lane Lake. There were also 3 newly fledged Kestrels at Mons Pool, and a Green Sandpiper. There were good numbers of butterflies around with frequent Ringlets and Meadow Browns, plus several Small Tortioseshells and Large Skippers, 2 Brimstones and a Common Blue.

Earlier in the day I'd been up to Gamston Wood, first checking the SSSI verges, noting 5 Greater Butterfly Orchids (past their best already); nearby, there was a good display of several hundred Common Spotted Orchids in an adjacent section of Gamston Wood, where I also tracked down the Bird's-nest Orchid in its usual place (rather slug-eaten) and a few Broad-leaved Helleborines, bring my total orchid tally to seven species. 

Gamston & Eaton SSSI verges
Bee Orchid
Common Spotted Orchids
Bird's-nest Orchid

Friday, 20 June 2014

Romania Part 1 - the Carpathians

I'm just back from 9 days in Romania with three friends, birding, botanising, and generally enjoying the masses of wildlife that this country has. This was my first foreign birding trip since 2009, so I was looking forward to it, with quite a few potential ticks on the card for me.

We split out trip with three full days in Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains, staying in Bran near Zarnesti, and three full days based in Tulcea on the Danube Delta, with a day's travelling at either end of the trip and a transit day in the middle. It was a pretty good trip, and the Mountain leg went something like this...

Day 1 - 10th June

Having arrived in Bucharest, we spent the afternoon driving north to Bran, the home of Vlad the Impaler's (aka Dracula's) castle. The drive didn't produce much, although our first White Storks were hard to miss, and the only Black Kite of the trip was seen.. 

White Stork
Dracula's Castle

Arriving in Bran, we walked into the edge of the forest at the top of Bran Poarta, seeing Crested Tit, several FieldfaresSiskin, Honey Buzzard, and the ubiquitous Grey Wagtails and Black Redstarts, as well as a couple of Red Squirrels. A gentle start.

Day 2 - 11th June

The main focus of today was the Zarnesti Gorge, on the edge of the Piatra Craiului National Park. We'd barely pulled onto the entrance track when I heard a familiar and unmistakable song - a Common Rosefinch. It was a brown 1st summer bird, seemingly a bit out of range. Parking up a bit further on, a Red-breasted Flycatcher was singing (one I'd brushed up on during the flight over), and I had a glimpse of a male Collared Flycatcher, whilst a couple of Wood Warblers were also in song. 

The Zarnesti Gorge

Best was yet to come though, as just before the entrance to the gorge the shout came up of 'what's this moving through the trees?!'; expecting a woodpecker (Grey-headed and White-backed both being potential ticks for me), I was gobsmacked to see a Brown Bear! Clearly not a full grown adult, it eyed us up for a moment, before lolloping off through the trees. I grabbed a record shot, but this brief sighting only left me wanting more...

It's not going to win any awards, but that's a Brown Bear!

The gorge itself failed to deliver Wallcreeper, but we did get Alpine Swift, a few more Honey Buzzards, a Peregrine and a couple of Ravens. Non-avian interest came in the form of several Bird's-nest Orchids, a Duke of Burgundy, Queen of Spain and Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, and a Yellow-bellied Toad.. 

Queen of Spain
Bird's-nest Orchid

The afternoon was spent in a village called Magura above the gorge, where the hay meadows were rather lovely and we found our first Bug Orchids of the trip, but not much was seen on the bird front. 

Bug Orchid

Day 3 - 12th June

Today we headed to Bucegi National Park, taking the cable car up to the summit of the mountains from Busteni. At the top, as well as lots of interesting alpine plants, plenty of Water Pipits were in song, as was a Shore Lark and a couple of Wheatears.

The plateau at the top of Bucegi National Park
Shore Lark - ok, it was quite distant

Beginning our long, and at times quite arduous descent, we picked up a couple of Alpine Accentors on the crags above us, but better was a female Wallcreeper, dust bathing on the path below us, barely 30 metres away - it stayed put for maybe five minutes before swooping off. Quite amazing! 

...and again

A little further on, a break for lunch scored us a Chamois dropping down from above us and crossing the path, again only 30 or 40 metres away. Reaching the tree line, we managed to find a couple of Firecrests, but not much else. Likewise, the butterflies were a little disappointing, with only Painted Ladies at the top (too early I guess for any alpine ringlets), but a few Mountain Green-veined Whites were nice on the way down. 

Looking down towards Busteni with Iris sibirica in the foreground

Day 4 - 13th June

Our last day in the mountains, so we headed back to Piatra Craiului National Park, this time skirting the east and north of the mountain range. Things got off to a good start with a Marsh Warbler singing from a crop just outside the national park centre.

Marsh Warbler

Stopping to look at some fairly fantastic hay meadows, an owl, almost certainly a Ural (a needed species!) called unseen a couple of times from the wooded hillside above. 

A super little hay meadow

Further on, we took a track up from Cabana Plaiul Foii, seeing Goshawk, a couple of Nutcrackers and Dippers, and hearing, rather frustratingly, a Grey-headed WoodpeckerButterflies included a Woodland Brown and several Clouded Apollos; the hay meadows held more Bug Orchids as well as lots of other botanical treats; and the streams and pools hid Yellow-bellied Toads. 

Nutcracker. Also quite distant.
Yellow-bellied Toad
Woodland Brown -  I don't think its name does it justice

Our third night-time expedition for owls actually produced some this time - not the hoped-for Ural Owl, but Long-eared, Little and Tawny

And that was it for the mountains - we finished on 75 bird species including Wallcreeper, Nutcracker, Alpine Accentor, Shore Lark, Common Rosefinch, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Collared Flycatcher, Goshawk, Dipper and Marsh Warbler. Mid June obviously isn't the best time for owls and woodpeckers, but adding Brown Bear and Chamois into the mix, along with some nice butterflies and plants, and some of the best mountain scenery I've had the pleasure of visiting in Europe, and it was a great start to the trip.

 And so on to the Danube Delta...