Thursday, 29 December 2016

Tenerife - A chance for some warm Bird Watching in December

Whilst Tenerife may not be high on most peoples birding destinations an invite for my wife and I to stay with friends for a  week in the sun with a bit of birding and a lot of eating and drinking before the Christmas eating and drinking season got underway was too good to refuse.

We were to be staying at Playa Fanebe (not a exactly a birding hot-spot) and my birding was restricted to a few hours each morning as I normally got back to base by 11.00 am for a late breakfast. Since it didn't really get light until nearly 8.00 am the time available was pretty restricted so I didn't go too far afield. The only exception was when we all visited Teide taking in the Las Lajas and Merendo De Chio picnic sites looking for the fabled blue chaffinch.
The local places visited were the area immediately south of Palm Mar out as far as Puenta de la Rasca, The area just north of Montana Amarilla and two places mentioned in Wanstead Birder's report on Tenerife at Fraile and the barannco just west of Amarilla Golf.

The first morning I just had a wander along the prom at Playa Fanabe up to the harbour in the hope of some gulls which were conspicuous by their absence then back along the prom to a garden area. As I said no gulls but the prom was good for getting up close and personal with Canary Island Chiffchaff and I found a small flock of Spanish sparrows. These were seen in other areas but it was easiest to photograph them on the green areas of the prom because they were pretty numerous (especially the chiffs) and used to people being around.

Canary Island Chiffchaff

In the afternoon Pete and I took a drive out to Palm Mar (about 10 minutes away) and birded the area out to Puenta de la Rasca. This area, which is typical terrain for the south of Tenerife, was effectively desert with lots of volcanic ejecta - porous rocks of various sizes blown out of the numerous volcanoes that litter this island. In places the ground is just about 100% ejecta and vary hard going, in others it was mainly sand with just a small number of rocks. The vegetation is almost exclusively cacti and a succulent that looks like a small bush. There was no grass and very few bushes (dead or alive). We went out at 3.00pm and for the first hour saw next to nothing but eventually a few birds started calling and by following the calls we were able to find a number of Berthelot's pipit (an edemic to the Canaries) and a pair of great grey shrikes (Lanius keonigi).

 We also had glimpses of a couple of Sardinian warblers and heard something that I now know is a spectacled warbler.
So not a huge haul for day 1 but I'd seen around half the species I had on my wish list.

Day 2 started at Montana Amarilla where we saw another pair of great grey shrikes and a kestrel but the area was so rocky we were in danger of turning an ankle so we gave up and went over to the barranco at Amarilla Golf.
Immediately on parking up in the Hotel Cansani car park (beside the golf club) we heard then saw hoopoes (~ 6) plus several calling chiffs. As we wandered down towards the sea we came to the rear end of the stables where some of the hoopoes were feeding in amongst the discarded horse bedding. Unfortunately this was about 20 feet above our heads but I managed a few shots even if the setting was not what would have been desired.

Also at the stables was a kestrel and another raptor that I think was a barbary falcon but indecision as to whether to look at it or get a photograph as it went past meant I succeeded in neither. We also found another (very distant) gt grey shrike and had distant views of a spectacled warbler - the only one I actually saw.

The next day was our trip up to Teide. The route up via Vilaflor takes you past the Las Lajas picnic site where we stopped for an hour or so. On arrival I could hear a few  birds but most of them seemed to melt away before we saw them. Scanning the picnic tables showed no birds at all though a woodpecker drumming down the hill gave us something to search out and our first photo opportunity.
On returning to the main site we were watching a few canaries high up in the tree when I spotted a blue chaffinch at the base of it feeding on a large log. It seems the ranges have set up a small feeding area (a small offering of seed) and a drinking pool.
We moved closer then sat around and waited.

As we waited for the blue chaffinch in came half a dozen canaries, Canary Island blue tit (an African Blue tit) and the local variety of great spotted woodpecker.

All in all an excellent hour or so.

After that we went up to Teide (3500m) where I felt a little faint due to the altitude but whilst sitting around waiting for the others to finish their exploring I spotted a small bird flitting around. All sorts of thoughts went through my head because the temperature up there was -2C - snow bunting? snow finch? alpine accentor ? Needless to say I had to go and look. I found the bird and without doubt it was a Berthelot's pipit. I was both amazed and disappointed.

We came back down the mountain via the TF 38 which eventually takes you past Chio but on the way down you go past the Merendo de Chio picnic site. Here we saw more blue chaffinch (~5) but these were chasing each other around and we also found a number of Berthelot's pipits rummaging around under the tables plus a very cooperative one out in the open.

So I'd seen Berthelot's pipit at sea level (25C) at 1800m (~7-10C) and at 3500m (-2C) quite a remarkable range for a pipit.

The next morning I was up a little late so popped along to Fraile (a site mentioned in Wanstead Birder's report). All the normal stuff - chiffs, pipits, kestrel but I was determined to get some improved images of shrikes. Eventually I got close to one. In fact I was less than 10 yards from it in the end.

Being very bright you had to be on the sunny side of it so all the shots are head on.I never managed a decent side shot.

Yellow legged gulls were seen distantly every day but the only place I got near one was at Los Abrigos - a small harbour with a number of pleasant cafes so you can have a beer or ice cream in the afternoon sun whilst waiting for one to come and pose.

Our final outing was to Amarilla golf again but we spent most of the time just behind the beach where a pool has been formed. Here we saw grey wagtail, common sandpipier, redshank and a black necked grebe. Eventually the grebe came very close but what with the light and the fact that it was behaving like a phalarope whilst feeding on the surface insects photography was a little taxing. Still take enough and some will come out ok.

After the grebe we went back up to the stables to try for the hoopoe again but there was only one around and it stayed distant but another shrike posed for the camera.

From Amarilla Golf we took the back road to Las Chafiras where a small resevoir was home to around a dozen little egrets and 4 spoonbills.

Our final stroll along the prom on the last afternoon rewarded us with lots of chiffs, a kestrel and a pair of sanderling roosting on the rocks less than 10 yards from where everyone was walking past. Needless to say no one else even noticed them.

So what about Tenerife itself. Without doubt it is an amazing island offering desert on the coast and sub zero conditions an hours drive away. The scenery (away from the urban sprawl) is spectacular with extinct volcanoes (large and small) everywhere and the lava fields around Teide look like a different planet.
The birdwatching itself was quite strange in that the bird density, even of the frequently seen birds, was quite low so required a bit of searching but having found them proved reasonably easy to get decent images of.
If you go and stayed at Palm Mar or Golf del Sur you could get away with not having a car Berthelot's Pipit and Great grey Shrike are but a short walk away but I would recommend hiring one if you want to go further afield. We used CICARs and would recommend them - the price quoted (includes insurance) is what you pay and the pick up and drop off could not be easier.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

La Brenne. May 2016, Part 2

This part of the report concentrates on the Reserve Naturelle de Cherine.
There are several lakes with hides in the reserve but only Etang Cistude and Etang Sous offered much for the photographer.  Martyn and Alan also walked down the track to Etang des Essarts but didn't see very much other than a black headed gull colony being attacked by a black kite. In fact we were all walking that track when we spotted  a pair of red-backed shrikes. Steve and myself hung around hoping for some better shots whilst the others walked down to Essarts. It was a good call on our part because whilst we were watching the male shrike on a fence a wryneck landed 3 or 4 feet from it. All thoughts of the shrikes disappeared as we concentrated on the wryneck. It hung around for 10 minutes or so and allowed a few record shots to go with those of the shrikes. By the time Alan and Martyn got back both the shrikes and wryneck had disappeared.

Etang Cistude is right by the visitor centre but the hides have some weird opening times - in fact we only got into them once - they were locked every other time we tried. Out in front of the hide were black headed gulls but there is a small heronry close by and purple herons were pretty easy to see  - if distant. We did find one hiding in a clump of reed 30 -40 yards from the hide and eventually it came out into the open, caught a fish and immediately flew off into a distant reed bed.


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Over the back from the main hide we could see a pair of black necked grebes so when we were kicked out of the main hide at 12.30 (it closes for lunch or something like that!) we wandered round the lake to the other hide (which didn't seem to close for lunch). Once there we watched purple herons flying near to where we had just come from and the black necked grebes disappeared off over there as well - surely they didn't know it had closed?

Most afternoons saw us ending up at Etang Sous (the sun is in your face in the mornings). This hide was great for egrets when we were here in the autumn but this year none came close. This may have been because the water was very high or because several black headed gulls nest in front of the hide and chase away the herons if they come in; who knows. All I know is none came in.There were a number of purple herons in the reed beds but all you ever saw of them was them popping up above the reed and almost instantly dropping back into them.

There was also a great reed warbler but whilst it shouted and hollered all day long I only ever managed a distant glimpse of it.
The main attraction of this hide are the whiskered terns. There were around 200 (yes I did a count) so they were constantly flying past picking up reeds for nests and there were several perches close to the hide for them to land on.

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The other attraction of this hide and the reason for several people to sit there all day every day is the possibility of seeing a little bittern. On our first visit we could hear one calling and on our second Alan got  a glimpse of one in the reeds.  On our last visit Al and Martyn went off for a walk but Steve and myself hung around and were rewarded with one flying into the reed bed next to the hide where it showed for a few seconds before disappearing into the reeds.

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Fortunately it (or perhaps it's mate) did show again as it flew back out to the main reed bed and this time Al and Martyn were around.

The visitor centre is also a good place to photograph European green lizards (lacerta biliniata) every time we went there some were backing in the sun.



A few comments about the general area.
Nightingales are everywhere, Thousands of them and possibly the most common bird outside the villages but just as in England they remain near impossible to find in the open.. My best and only effort:


Black kites are also everywhere. If you are driving around you'll probably see one every few minutes they are that common.

Black kite

Also seen, again as we were driving, were short-toed eagles. I think we saw at least one every day - though always distant.
A couple of booted eagles were also seen during our travels but again only distantly.
Buzzards were also fairly common (though I would say not as common as the black kites) with this pale morph being the most interesting.


Black redstarts were not as common as I expected though that may be because we didn't spend that much time in villages. There were 2 or 3 singing males by our hotel and we saw them in several other villages. We also had the bonus of a pair of spotted flycatchers making a nest 20 yards from our hotel.

Spotted flycatcher

I expected to see more hoopoes than I did - I saw 4 I think and they were very flighty. I also expected to see/hear more melodious warblers but the only one I recollect were near the bee-eaters. Most unexpectedly we failed to see/hear a single serin.

One final thing to remember if you are considering a trip to la Brenne is  most of the restaurants are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays - including the hotel restaurants - I can't think of anything more stupid in a tourist destination. One night we resorted to sandwiches and beer from a supermarket and sat outside our hotel to eat/drink. Seeing us there several punters stopped thinking the restaurant was open only to go away disappointed.

Auberge de la Gabriere - our hotel.

That not withstanding the birding was very good - how could it be otherwise with little bustard, little bittern, bee-eater and short-toed eagle being seen? The photography was a lot harder than expected but most importantly it was warm and dry!!!!!

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

La Brenne May 2016 Part 1

Last September we, as in Ashtours, went to La Brenne and whilst we saw a number of good birds the migrant species had already left. We hoped this trip would put that right.
The we were Steve Ashton, Martyn Wilson and Alan Ashdown and we stayed at Auberge de la Gabriere. We drove down catching the 3.30am (yes am) train so as to be south of Tours late morning.

The journey down was uneventful with our last comfort and coffee stop being just south of Tours on the A85/E604. As we hung around the car park we saw our first significant birds in the form of a crested lark and a cirl bunting.
As we continued along the A85 2 red backed shrikes were spotted on the fence linging the motorway then we turned off for Sublaines. Just south of the village we turned onto the narrow lanes and started looking for little bustards. Now I must admit I didn't hold out much nope but after a few minutes Martyn spotted one - it was calling and displaying in a stretch of uncultivated/weedy land.

Little bustard

It was always quite a long way off but because the weeds were short it was easy to see and we enjoyed it's calls and displays for quite a time and took some shots from the car. We continued to drive around the area and saw at least 4 more but these were flight shots with the birds emerging then disappearing into the wheat.
We did return to the weed field and the bird was back and calling/displaying but a little further away.
Also whilst watching the bustard a ring-tail hen harrier put in a distant appearance.
All in all a brilliant start to our trip and we hadn't even got to La Brenne.

After dropping off our bags we had a trip to Etang Sous where ~200 whiskered terns were in residence, purple herons showed distantly and fleetingly above the reed beds and a great reed warbler was shouting it's head off though remained unseen.

Back at the hotel we had a beer or two looking out over the Etang Gabriere and watched cattle egret, purple and night heron and black kite fly past.

Purple heron

Black kite

Night herons
The next 3 days saw us visit a number of sites (often daily)  and I'll comment on each location rather than do a day by day report.

Most mornings, before breakfast, we went to Le Blizon where a short walk brings you to a hide where you look across lily covered lake to a heronry. The herons present were mainly cattle egret and night heron though great white, little, grey and purple were also seen. Whilst the lake looks great for black necked grebe I don't recollect us seeing any here but black kites flew past frequently as they tried to steal chicks from the black headed gull colony at the far end of the lake. A few whiskered tern also called the lake home.

The best photo opportunities here were of the herons flying in and out with the early morning sun lighting up their undersides.

The drive to and from Le Blizon was also very productive in that we found a pair of red-backed shrikes in the roadside hedge (only the male posed for us) and a pair of honey buzzards.

The honey buzzards were first spotted as they took off from the road then they circled a few times before disappearing. The views were great but my pictures were disappointing - I got the exposure wrong!
200 yards further along we all piled out of the car again as a buzzard and black kite were scrapping.

Quite close to Le Blizon is Etang Fourcault. We only made one visit to this lake/hide and all in all it was pretty poor. A few ducks and distant black-winged stilt. Last September there were wide damp margins around the lake suitable for waders so I'd been hoping for a hoopoe here but the water levels were exceeding high (as they were in all of the lakes), and a lot of bramble had grown in front of the hide so the damp/muddy margins I had hoped for were missing, mostly under a foot or two of water.
The photographic highlight to our visit to Fourcault were the common wall lizards that used the fence posts to sun themselves.

Common Wall Lizard

Etang de Bellebouche: Last September we'd had a very enjoyable session here with black redstarts and middle spotted woodpeckers. No such luck this time. A few very flighty black redstarts were seen but no sign of the woodpeckers. We did find a hoopoe in the car park and a redstart family near the restaurant though only a juvvy hung around to have it's picture taken.

We made 2 visits to a quarry near Martizay and as soon as we got out of the car we could see and hear bee-eaters and just along from where'd we parked were some melodious warblers. I spent a lot of time trying to get pictures of both but only managed records shots. The warblers remained hidden (though very vocal) most of the time and the bee-eaters (as many as 15) though in sight most of the time were always too high/distant for a decent shot. Martyn also spotted a wood lark here though that too remained distant and obscured by the grass.

Etang Purais. One visit here and the main black necked grebe location though the birds were all several hundreds yards away with no chance of even a record shots. This is a lake for the scope.

Part 2 will cover the area around the Cherine Nature Reserve and Maison de la Nature