Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fantastic Falcon

The Eleonora's Falcons of Skiathos inhabit a wild and remote place in the north of the island. It takes a little effort to reach the location, a very long hot, humid and tiring trek over uneven countryside, a fair old journey from Skiathos town. Or the route is comparatively short but a rough and ready ride over unmade roads and bumpy tracks to reach the beginning of the Kastro experience. The Suzuki Jimny would get us there no problem. 

Eleonora’s Falcon

Jimny

I’ve dotted the text below with some pictures of Eleonora’s Falcons from 15th September 2014, pictures taken from a long distance due to the sheer unapproachability of the location, the birds’ reluctance to come close and far from the best light. The remoteness and inaccessibility is surely a good thing as the falcon is so rare that were it to breed in easily reached places, it would be finished off by man’s interference. 

Eleonora’s Falcon

Eleanora’s Falcon

By mid-September and close to the peak of their breeding season there were many falcons about, probably twenty or more, comprising adults and at least three broods of newly fledged young, all of them hurtling above the water or dashing over cliffs at breakneck speed; so much action that is hard to convey the thrill of both watching and hearing so many birds. At times an individual would break off from their flight of fancy to chase a passing Swallow for a moment or two, so strange to say I didn’t witness a successful pursuit. I rather thought that the falcons appeared so finely tuned with their environment that they could perhaps pick out slow, tired or weak prey and catch them at will without using energy by chasing healthy birds. 

Eleonora’s Falcon

The Kastro (fortification or castle) is believed to have been built in the mid 14th century with the aim of providing a sanctuary for the inhabitants of Skiathos from pirate attacks. Three of the four Kastro protective walls overlook the sea, with steep exposed cliff faces underpinning them. A single entrance via what was originally a wooden drawbridge leads to the nearby cliff top. 

Moving the town inside the Kastro proved fairly successful, and for many years after, it was not only the capital of Skiathos, but the only inhabited town on the island. During its occupancy in the 14th century the Kastro is believed to have contained upwards of 300 houses, and at least 20 churches. The Turkish occupation of the island from 1538 saw the building of a mosque within the Kastro fortifications. The Mosque is believed to have been erected on the site of an existing church, and for some reason it was built without a minuet. Much of the building remains today. In the early 19th century, the residents deserted the Kastro moving on-mass back to the harbour town that is the Skiathos Town of today. With the exception of two churches and some smaller buildings much of the Kastro was demolished or fell into ruin and what ruins remain are very overgrown as can be seen in my pictures below. 

The foreground of the picture begins a trek to the distant flag and the falcons beyond, the second and third pictures taken at the flag and looking back to the start point. There's a taverna, another trek up and down the rocks as an alternative to watching the Eleanora's. 

Kastro - Skiathos

Kastro - Skiathos

Kastro - Skiathos

 Eleonora’s Falcon

Taverna - Kastro - Skiathos

Much of the following information is borrowed from the The Hellenic Ornithological Society at http://www.ornithologiki.gr/

Greece is considered the most significant country for the conservation and survival of Eleonora's Falcon, since during the breeding season it hosts more than 85% of the global population. 

In Greece, the Eleonora's Falcon arrives from April with older individuals mating and occupying nesting places, thereby developing loose colonies as early as May. Owing to the low food availability in the nesting areas the falcons hunt at large distances from the nest and only few of the birds return to the colony at night. Indeed, the area in which the falcons of one colony are active during this specific period is considered to possibly exceed 1000 km2. Thus, and since the islands where the reproductive colonies are located cannot support all the birds with food, Eleonora's Falcons can be spotted during the reproductive season on the mainland of Greece as well, even in high mountains far removed from the coasts. 

 Eleonora’s Falcon

The diet of the Eleonora's Falcon until the end of July, when the egg-laying has been completed, consists mainly of larger insects such as butterflies, flying ants, dragonflies, cicadas and beetles. During the following period and until October, it feeds exclusively on migratory birds, a food source that is, theoretically, infinite. After its breeding, between the end of October and the beginning of November, it flies to East Africa, especially to Madagascar, where it spends the winter, returning to a diet based on insects. 

The unique characteristic of the Eleonora's Falcon is that it breeds more slowly in relation to other birds. More specifically, its breeding season begins much later (in July), compared to other migratory birds. Consequently, it can include in its diet the plethora of migratory bird fauna species that fly over the Mediterranean basin during the end of summer, heading for the South Because of this, travel is generally not observed between the island where it breeds as the mature individuals and the chicks feed on birds from the autumn migration wave. 

Eleonora’s Falcon

The species nests in natural rock cavities that are located on small islets, on cliffs of islets and larger island, but also in rocks located in the interior land. 

Every couple of Eleonora's Falcons gives birth to one to three eggs, while the chicks hatch at the end of August, the timing which coincides with an immense migratory wave of birds that offers an easily accessible as well as ample food source. The chicks develop plumage after 35 days and so, from mid-October on, the populations start migrating towards East Africa and Madagascar. 

 Eleanora’s Falcon chasing Common Buzzard

Eleonora's Falcon was named after Giudicessa Eleonora de Arborea (1350-1404), a Sardinian princess who fought for Sardinia's independence from the Kingdom of Aragon, and who drafted the first laws in Europe protecting birds of prey.

More birding soon with Another Bird Blog but I don’t expect to see an Eleonora's Falcon in Pilling.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Birding Greek Style

Here are a few pictures from the recent holiday to Skiathos, Greece. 

There’d been an overnight thunderstorm storm and in the morning still rain in the air so Sue set off on the local bus into Skiathos Town for a cool shopping trip leaving me to drive the Jimny to Aselinos. Here I could search for migrant birds. 

Aselinos is a well-known beach in the north of the island, a quiet shoreline where tourists spend the day lounging on the sand and cooling off in the beachside taverna. Behind the beach is an area of low scrubby habitat, and beyond that a number of olive groves and stands of reeds, all hidden inside a well wooded valley; all in all a perfect place to bird but not in the 30 degrees heat of a typical Skiathos day. 

Aselinos- Skiathos

There seemed to be Red-backed Shrikes everywhere this year, no doubt some of them locally bred but so many of them that they could only be migrants from Europe. In two weeks I didn’t see a male shrike wearing its striking colours and suspect that 90% of the ones I saw were juvenile birds. The brown colouration of the female/juveniles makes them difficult to spot, especially as they can sit motionless for many minutes on a fence, branch or on the edge of a bush where the only give away is the slow-motion up and down movement of their tail. Nor are they especially approachable and it took two weeks of trying to obtain half decent pictures. 

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike

Rain still threatened with occasional heavy showers which soaked the back seats of the half open Jimny. We later learned that the thunderstorms had diverted planes from Skiathos to land instead in Athens where tourists faced an on overland bus and then ferry journey to make them 12 hours late for their Skiathos holiday. Oh the joys of travel. 

A wet Hooded Crow

 Aselinos - Skiathos

Behind the beach were hundreds of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs plus dozens of Whinchats, a good number of Yellow Wagtails and a dozen or more Wheatears. Along the track and in the olive groves I found shrikes, Hoopoe, Scops Owl, Cuckoo, Sparrowhawk, Blackcap, Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher and Wood Warbler. 

Olive grove

When a couple days later I searched the same area, the sun blazed down and 99% of the birds I’d seen before were no longer there - migration in action.

Whinchat
 
Whinchat

Willow Warbler

Whinchat

Whinchat

The Jimny is a great vehicle for exploring the rough tracks of Skiathos, a bright red one with a white roof not the best colour scheme to serve as a hide.

Suzuki Jimny

Chiffchaff

 Spotted Flycatcher

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

 Wood Warbler

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

The goats give up their milk to be used in the production of the famous feta (Φέτα) cheese. This herd comprised about 150 goats.

Goats in Skiathos

Wheatear

When the sun finally came out all that birding made for thirsty work and it is just amazing what those beach tavernas can cook up for hungry birders.

Beach Skiathos

Chicken Souvlaki

 Aselinos - Skiathos

Agistros - Skiathos

More Greek Delight soon from Another Bird Blog. Book your table now.

Linking today to Stewart's World Bird Wednesday.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Birding Saturday 27th September

There were a number of old friends at Conder Green on Saturday, species I’d not seen for 3 weeks whilst otherwise engaged by a fortnight in Greece and other essentials of life. 

The Kingfisher was predictable enough on such a calm and sunny morning but apart from 15 Little Grebe, a single Tufted Duck and the regular 2 Wigeon, most of the birds were found in the creeks. The Kingfisher turned its back on me and then after trying its luck elsewhere came back for another go but in a more camera friendly pose. Two Grey Wagtails tried to get in on the act as the camera focused on the main attraction. 

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

The Little Grebes here are so wary that it’s almost impossible to get any sort of picture, and although I counted fifteen of them, they are scattered across the water and mostly distant. 

Little Grebe

As I stood at the roadside a couple of Reed Buntings dropped into the hedgerow making their characteristic autumnal call; and there seemed to be a few Meadow Pipits on the move. A few hours later would see a major rush of pipits and Skylarks heading south over Cockersands. 

The creeks provided a really good selection of waders by way of a single Ruff, 12 Snipe, 4 Greenshank, 2 Spotted Redshank, 65 Redshank, 8 Lapwing, 6 Curlew, 1 Black-tailed Godwit and 2 Common Sandpipers. That’s an impressive assortment by any standards and a huge improvement on one Dunlin in Skiathos

One Goosander and 50+ Teal represented the wildfowl while 5 Little Egret and 1 Grey Heron scored for the heron team. 

A walk along the old railway proved useful for finding a flock of Goldfinch, 140+ birds feeding on the saltmarsh, the finches using the tree line as a sanctuary from their sudden and as far as I could see unjustified panics. However you can be sure that a Sparrowhawk won’t be too far away from so many meals on offer. 

The Goldfinch looks pretty puffed-up but then there was quite an autumn nip in the morning air which required three layers for this bush bashing birder. 

Goldfinch

Otherwise, a Great-spotted Woodpecker, 8 or 10 Greenfinch disappeared quickly from view, a number of House Martins congregated around their homes and 20ish Swallows headed clearly south without lingering. 

These dark September mornings leave only an hour or two before the weekend’s fluorescent joggers and Day-Glo cyclists emerge to blight the countryside, so as they materialised in unison I headed to hopefully quieter Cockersands. 

Just before the cottage and in the roadside trees I found a flock of 20+ Greenfinch. That must be some sort of a record of recent years for the once abundant finch?

By now it was 0945 with Meadow Pipits pouring off the river from the direction of Sunderland Point, over my head and beyond and then heading south. There were Skylarks too. I stayed for 30 minutes and as cloud rolled in from the south so the pipits and larks stopped as suddenly as they seemed to begin. A snapshot in time of approximately 120 Meadow Pipits and 30 Skylarks. 

Meadow Pipit

At the distant lighthouse a gang of crows gave stick to a Peregrine which unconcerned at the furore took up its spot on the old hand rails to survey the scene. "Click the pic" to Spot the Peregrine if you can, and needless to say there are no waders in sight after the Peregrine's sorties.

 Cockersands Lighthouse - Spot the Peregrine

So, a rewarding three hours of birding and not bad for a Saturday morning. There's more birding soon on Another Bird Blog.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Birding Back Home

If a couple of weeks in sunny Greece and a spot or two of birding is rather good so is returning home and hitting the local patch to see what’s changed, even if the temperature is halved and the sun doesn’t shine so bright. Two weeks is a long time to be absent when migration is underway. 

At breakfast I watched a silent Jay in the garden as it examined the apple tree thinking there was still no one at home. Overhead the calls of Pink-footed Geese reminded me of missing two weeks of the UK's autumn arrivals. I set off for Pilling. 

Three raptors in the space of five minutes at Fluke Hall with the resident Kestrel, Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk, the latter as elusive as ever, drifting silently through the trees to a place unknown. There was a Jay or two in the wood here and I glimpsed them in the tree tops as they melted into the greenery. For such a brightly coloured bird our often shy European Jay can be very hard to observe, due in no part to its reputation as a killer. 

Jay

A Red Fox sauntered across the dried up pool and although its departure seemed incidental I think the animal spotted me long before I touched the camera. I have it on good authority that “lots” of foxes have been shot in the Pilling area this year, mostly by “lamping” in the hours of darkness. 

The wheat has been cut, the maize sprouted to a good height with a couple of fields partly ploughed. The wildfowlers were out on the marsh, digging and then emptying sacks of wheat as a pump filled their scrape from the water filled ditch. It’s all looking good for plenty of birding birds and many birds to shoot. Maybe the Woodpigeons have sussed out the wheat already as I counted 80+ on the roadside field. 

Last week in hard-to-bird Skiathos there were no larks, pipits or even waders, so along the Pilling sea wall I retuned my ears to the calls of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, 40+ pipits and 90 or more Skylarks, some of the Skylarks definitely heading south as others stayed flitting about the marsh. Two Wheatears, one at Fluke Hall and the other at Pilling Water, neither of them especially catchable even though I went armed with worms and traps. 

There were Wheatears In Skiathos, the one below flycatching from a roof. Don’t you just love seeing familiar birds in unfamiliar places? 

Wheatear

It’s rather nice to see and hear Pink-footed Geese again even though it does signify that dark nights and a long winter looms. "Make the best of it" as they say, so I sat on the wall and tried to photograph some of the 1400 pinkies as they sallied back and forth across the marsh or headed inland. Very soon, and once the lookalike guns begin, a 400mm lens won’t touch these magnificent creatures. A Snipe landed on the marsh a little way out so there’s a record shot of that to fill the post. 

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese

Snipe

The wildfowlers’ pools hold good numbers of wildfowl, mainly Teal at 800+ with smaller numbers of 40 Wigeon, 15 Pintail and 30+ Shelduck. The Teal fly back and forth from the marsh to the pools seemingly unable to resist the food the shooters leave out, the other species less so with many more Wigeon, Pintail and Shelduck out on the marsh. 

Teal

There seemed so few Swallows about today unlike two or more weeks ago with now less than 20 in total and very unlike Skiathos where thousands of both common Swallows and Red-rumped Swallows suddenly appeared on the few cloudy or thundery days we experienced.

Isn’t that just one tiny example of what makes birding at home or abroad so fascinating? It is good to be back though.

Linking today to Anni's Blog and Eileen's Saturday.

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