Tuesday 31 January 2012

Salt Lake at Santa Maria, Sal, Cape verde, Jan 2012

If you were to travel from Dakar, Senegal, out into the Atlantic Ocean, you may be lucky enough to encounter an archipelago known as The Cape Verde Islands. The ex-Portugese colony is seldom heralded for its bird life and more mention is usually made of its place in the history of slavery and salt.

Salt production on the island has taken second place to tourism over recent years, especially on Sal Island and its southernmost town of Santa Maria. Salt pans here have been dug up and built over, but a few remnant bodies of salty water remain attracting wading birds that can be seen at quite close quarters.

Just on the West side of town is a lake that held a nice selection of birds this morning. Immediately obvious from a distance were the Black-winged Stilts. The birds moved independently of each other rather than feeding closely together and moving as a small flock.

Smaller birds on the edge of the lake included Kentish Plover, Common Ringed Plover and Curlew Sandpipers.

On the far side a Little Stint fed amongst the other species while a White Wagtail was seen on the distant shore. It was too far away for a decent photo, but I managed a bad one to document what is thought to be a vagrant bird.

The race of Common Kestrel on Sal takes alexandri as the third part of its trinomial. It is bigger than the nominate and struck fear into the tiny fluttering hearts of the waders that were roosting on a small sand bar.

Three birds passed over together , a repeated “vrii“ coming from the young birds. Once they had passed over the waders settled down again and spread themselves out along another roosting bar. Common Redshank and Ruddy Turnstone were seen here to add to the list.

On the way back to my apartment, one of the Kestrels was seen escorting a Brown-necked Raven from the neighbourhood for my third lifer of the visit.

Birds seen; 16

Cattle Egret 45, Common Kestrel 4, Black-winged Stilt 7, Common Ringed Plover 15, Kentish Plover 25, European Whimbrel 2, Common Redshank 2, Common Sandpiper 1, Ruddy Turnstone 35, Sanderling 60, Little Stint 2, Curlew Sandpiper 15, Black-headed Gull 1, White-wagtail 1, Brown-necked Raven 1, Cape Verde Sparrow 25.

Friday 27 January 2012

More digiscoped Bittern.

A Bittern is posing in the reeds about 70 meters away. It is standing completely still with a touch of weak winter sun warming it from the south east. On a crisp January morning such a sight is bound to gladden the heart and quicken the pulse of a newcomer to the art that is digiscoping

Taken at 400mm for comparison.
 “Canon fodder!” I hear some wag cry. Well, you would have thought so wouldn’t you? I struggled again to get a good focus and though I had plenty of time with the bird completely still and in plain view, I just could not seem to get it crisp.

Digiscoped at 16x magnification.
I was using live view on the Canon 50D which allows me to zoom in to 10x magnification to check the focus. The scope sports a 16x eyepiece so between them I had an image on the screen of 160x with which to judge the focus. A fine adjustment knob on the scope crisped up the reeds in front of and behind the Bittern, but sadly not the bird itself.

Am I expecting too much? Surely this situation is exactly what digiscoping is for. Any tips will be very gratefully received and I shall persevere to get it right when I get another chance.

All the photos have been posted in their original state, then cropped to the same degree for comparison.

Then I started mucking about and tried to zoom the scope in as far as I could. This one was at about 36x magnification.
Eventually, after trial, error, more error and some more trialling, but mostly error and a lot of photoshopping, I got this one. This is closer to what I was hoping for, but there is still some way to go and I have been hit by the realisation that there is more to this digiscoping lark than just poking a camera down a scope.

To those who contest that that digiscoping is not an artform, try it for yourself. If it works for you, please come back and tell me how you did it!

Thursday 26 January 2012

Bag a better Bittern.

So I have a new scope and a T-mount and a-digiscoping we shall go. Now I haven’t yet perfected the art and of the few pictures that I took in the garden, none have been at all successful, so don’t go hoping for too much yet. I chose to go to Leybourne Lakes to see if I can find the Great Crested Grebes performing again. They were too distant for my zoom lens a couple of weeks ago and I was hoping that the digiscope set up  would bring them close enough for a decent picture.

A Northern Shoveler from about 150 meters was to be my first attempt outdoors, but that proved to be a disappointment. I was surprised by how much distortion there was around a small circle of clear shot in the centre. The Grebes were conspicuous by their absence, so I tried with the Tufted Ducks instead, but I was so cack-handed and slow that by the time I had them in frame and in focus, they had dived beneath the ripples and I had to start all over again. I was beginning to develop a grudging respect for people who have mastered this discipline.

I caught a Black-headed Gull in the frame which is all we shall say about that. What I needed was something that would stay reasonably still. Bitterns are good still standers, but where are you going to find one of those when you need one? As luck would have it, I did find a Bittern but had to hurry along as time was pressing. This photo was taken using my Canon 100-400 for comparison with the digiscope.

The SLR attaches to the scope by means of a screw-in tube and a Canon-specific T-mount, so that the picture can be taken through the eye-piece with its 16x magnification. The pictures were disappointing to say the least. The subject was willing, but the technique is still weak.

I can see that there is some merit to this digiscoping lark, but it will need rather more effort on my part to master it and get a nice clear shot. The one below is the best of the rest with the head visible, but focus a bit suspect still.

All of the pictures have been cropped to exactly the same degree for comparison and reduced to 580 pixels on the longest side for uploading.

Other posts for Leybourne Lakes can be found by following the links below;

Sal, Cape Verde, Jan 2012

Cape Verde is not usually considered as one of the brightest stars in the bird watching firmament, but this archipelago of 9 inhabited islands, in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of West Africa has a unique place as the most south-westerly landmass to be included in the Western Palearctic region and is thereby able to claim a number of breeding birds that would normally be considered as part of the Afrotropical region’s avifauna.

I made a quick 48 hour visit to the Island of Sal and only had the opportunity for a couple of brief outings, but without walking too far from the tourist town of Santa Maria in the south of the island, I managed to find a selection of birds that included three lifers.

The islands also boast a number of endemics and sub-specials, but a thorough and wide ranging tour of the chain would be needed to find them all. One endemic that is easy to find is the Cape Verdean (or Iago) Sparrow. It can be found on all the islands and is commonly seen in towns. Compare it to a House Sparrow and you will see that the Cape Verdean Sparrow is smaller and more slender. The male’s crown is black to the House Sparrow’s grey; he has a much reduced black bib on his breast and shows a rufous rump.

This one is a bit curious. The Islands use the marketing motto,“No Stress”, yet this individual has turned prematurely white.

Stroll from the town towards the south-west and pick up the road heading north between Hotel Rui and Villa Verde. Desert and short scrub on either side of the road make this a good place to find Greater Hoopoe-Lark

I had missed this bird on my previous visit and was following directions from a trip report found on the internet. It was exactly in the spot described by John Lee, just beyond the pile of rubble on the left hand side, travelling north (Google Earth ref; 16 36 05N 22 55 21W).

The Google satellite photos of Sal are very old and need up-dating. There has been a lot of tourist development at either end of the road as well as the road that reaches there from town.

Bar-tailed Larks also like this habitat and were seen on a few occasions. They were loathe to fly and show off their tail which would have been the clincher. Despite their reluctance to display their most characteristic feature, the identification was straightforward due to the lack of choice.

A flock of Black-headed Sparrow-larks waited for me on the way back to town. The males reminded me of the Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark and I had to wait until I got home to confirm that the red crayon was required.

There are a few tracks that cut through the dunes to the shore and the popular beach at Ponta Preta. Here you can find the Cape Verde Kite (-surfer). A few waders were seen along the shore line and a Whimbrel posed well as the sun began its fall towards the ocean.

Birds seen;
Whimbrel 2, Common Kestrel 1, Sanderling 6, Ruddy Turnstone 4, Greater Hoopoe Lark 3, Black-crowned Sparrow-lark 9, Bar-tailed Lark 6,

Tuesday 24 January 2012

New York City, New York, Jan 2012

Having seen what Corey can do with a digiscoping outfit and a Long-tailed Duck, I have taken myself to the photographers' temple at B and H Photo and Video on the corner of 34th and 9th. Go there.

On the way I noticed a few Gray (American bird, American spelling) Catbirds in the tiny park at Herald Square in front of Macy's Department Store.

I wondered what they were still doing here as I had thought of them as a summer visitor. This required a check once I got home where I found that, according to Sibley, some catbirds overwinter along the eastern seaboard.

There are plenty of other examples of catbirds overwintering in northern states and even defending territory during the cold months. Most of them still migrate south however and spend the winter in the southern-most states such as Florida and Louisiana, further south in Central America or on the Caribbean islands.

Given the choice, I think that I would have chosen the Caribbean. This bird doesn't look too happy with its decision to stay behind.

Monday 23 January 2012

Long Island, New York, Jan 2012

I have been trying to retrospectively piece together a day out with Corey and some of his fellow New York and Staten Island birders.

First off, thanks to Seth who drove all day up to the northern tip of Long Island and back via who knows where.  It was all in aid of my quest to find a Snowy Owl, which, if you have read Corey’s account of the day, you will know that we did not find. It was disappointing. I was very excited about the owl as it is a bird I never thought that I would get a chance to see.
I only took my camera out once, so have no pictures, just a lot of sand in my shoes. In fact, such is my dismay that I will skip this post and recommend you to Corey’s version of events and his simply glorious shot of the Long-tailed Duck.

I managed to get a few moments to scan the airfield as we taxied out at JFK in the vain hope that an owl might have blown up onto the apron, but no luck there either.
Thanks for your hospitality guys. Next time!
Birds seen;  38
Red-throated Diver 6, Great Northern Diver 4, Horned Grebe 15, Northern Gannet 3, Double-crested Cormorant 15, Great Blue Heron 15, Great Egret 1, Mute Swan 2, Snow Goose 1, Canada Goose 4000, Brent Goose 600, American Black Duck 40, Common Eider 150, Harlequin Duck 3, Long-tailed Duck 35, Black Scoter 1, Surf Scoter 60, White-winged Scoter 30, Bufflehead 15, Common Goldeneye 6, Red-breasted Merganser 15, Northern Harrier 2, Red-tailed Hawk 5, American Kestrel 2, Common Pheasant 1, American Oystercatcher 4, Ring-billed Gull 150, Great Black-backed Gull 12, Herring Gull 120, Lesser Black-backed Gull 1, Bonaparte’s Gull 25, Downy Woodpecker 2, Northern Mockingbird 2, Mountain Bluebird 1, American Robin 2, American Crow 15, House Finch 4, Song Sparrow 4.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Leybourne Lakes, Kent, UK, Jan 2012

A Bittern had been reported at Leybourne Lakes which is within very easy reach of my home, so I made a couple of attempts to locate it. The bird had been showing during Christmas Week and into the New Year and I hoped that I wasn't too late to find it in what sounded like a reasonably good location.
A small parking area is available just outside the gate of the Water Treatment Plant in Snodland (Google Earth ref; 51 19 09N 00 26 42E).

The Bittern had been seen in a small patch of phragmites reeds and bullrushes on Streamside Lake and I took up position on the opposite bank which would have given me a good view if the bird had shown. I had only popped in quickly as the sun was setting, but returned early the next morning for another look. A European Robin came to keep me company.

After staking out the Bittern for a while and hearing that another bird had been seen on Brooklands Lake, I took a stroll to see what else I could find. The chances of there being 2 Bitterns were not astronomical, but the likelyhood was that the bird had moved. Access had been made to reach the bank by the reeds and perhaps some over zealous spotters had flushed the bird.

Eurasian Siskins were feeding in the alders along the track leading to the railway line. Goldfinches wouldn't stay still long enough for me to get a long-dreamed of picture of them on a teasel head. A short way along, a path heads left between Streamside Lake and the adjacent lake. A Water Rail flushed from the margins.

Great Crested Grebes were indulging in their courtship dance. Each dove beneath the water and re-surfaced with a small piece of weed. Then, with their necks low to the water, they swam towards each other and raised themselves from the water in the 'penguin dance'.
My camera was not powerful enough to capture the moment; it really is time that I  began to think seriously about this digiscoping lark.

I returned for another stint across from the reed bed. Watching for the Bittern was not an arduous task while Tufted Ducks bobbed on the water and a Common Kingfisher darted back and forth. I was scoping the fringes and stood up for a moment only to see a browny, cinammon coloured pair of wings fold back into the rushes. It was as if the Bittern had just flown back in, but I am sure that I would have seen it coming up the lake, perhaps it was just having a stretch. I quickly found it in my binoculars and had a quick view of its head and neck before it melted back into the reeds.
Rushing around the bank to get a different angle didn't help. A small island with a thorn tree had obscured my view so I changed position, but could not relocate the bird.

Birds seen; 36

Little Grebe 1, Great crested Grebe 12, Great Cormorant 15, Grey Heron 2, Great Bittern 1, Mute Swan 3, Greylag Goose 15, Mallard 3, Northern Shoveler 6, Common Pochard 8, Tufted Duck 30, Eurasian Sparrowhawk 2, Water Rail 1, Common Moorhen 8, Common Coot 40, Herring Gull 2, Black-headed Gull 50, Stock Dove 2Common Woodpigeon 40, Eurasian Collared Dove 4, Common Kingfisher 2, Great Spotted Woodpecker 2, Northern Wren 2, Redwing 8, Fieldfare 12, Common Blackbird 8, European Robin 8, Long-tailed Tit 5, Great Tit 25, Blue Tit 15, Eurasian Magpie 15, Carrion Crow 4, Chaffinch 6, Eurasian Siskin 2, European Goldfinch 10, Bullfinch 1.

Other posts from Leybourne Lakes can be found via the links below;

Visit the dedicated UK page for more posts from the UK