Monday, 31 March 2008

Special Birds: Saker

Saker Falco cherrug is a real eastern European speciality. There are a few pairs in the Czech Republic, more in Slovakia and also scattered around the Balkans, but without doubt Hungary (with around 150 breeding pairs) is the place to visit to see this powerful falcon. The Bird of Prey Group of the Hungarian Ornithological & Nature Conservation Society (MME) have invested much time, effort and expertise in protecting and studying Sakers. This photo (by Janos Bagyura of the MME) shows a healthy brood of chicks in an artificial nest-tray that has been placed in a tree in eastern Hungary. Sakers readily take to such man-made nesting sites placed in trees or on electricity pylons as well as using the nests of crows and other raptors.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Country Profile: Lithuania

Lithuania (Lietuva) is a fully-fledged Republic. The capital is Vilnius. The unit of currency is the litas (LTL), with the Euro due soon. Lithuania is bordered to the north by Latvia, to the east and south-east by Belarussia and to the south-west by Poland and Kaliningrad (Russia). To the west there is 99 km of Baltic Sea coast, the shortest coastline of the three Baltic States. The country is divided into four main regions Zemaitija (in the north-west), Aukštaitija (in the north-east), Dzukija (in the south-east) and Suvalkija (in the south-west). Lithuania is full of good birding sites. If you are staying in a provincial town like Panevezys, Siauliai or Kaunas there is always a forest or bog or stretch of farmland with a White Stork nest nearby. Even the capital Vilnius has good birding right on its doorstep. If you find yourself on the coast, perhaps in the lively seaside resort of Palanga or the bustling port of Klaipeda, then the birding possibilities nearby are first-class. Just south of here is the fascinating Curonian Spit, a stretch of coastline that few outside the Baltics have heard of, but a place which should be on every Euro-birder's list of destinations to visit. At the southern end of the spit are high sand-dunes at Nida.
The national bird of Lithuania is the White Stork and it is a very appropriate species as Lithuania's 13,000 pairs constitute the highest density of the species anywhere in its breeding range. All in all, wetland birds seem to be doing well with Common Bittern (800-1000 pairs) and Black Tern (2000-4000 pairs) good examples. Not as numerous, but perhaps more significant, are the populations of two of Europe's rarest wetland birds: Great Snipe and Aquatic Warbler. Between 200-300 pairs of Great Snipe are thought to occur mostly in the delta of the River Nemunas and the river flood-plains in the east and south-east. There is a small but important population of the threatened Aquatic Warbler with 250-300 singing males estimated each year. Corncrake is another species that has suffered in western Europe but which is doing well in Lithuania. Diurnal raptors are, of course, less common but Common Buzzard is widespread, Lesser Spotted Eagle is locally common and White-tailed Eagle increasing in number (40-50 pairs). Lithuania's Baltic waters also host a few flocks of Steller's Eider ever winter. Away from the wetlands there is a very good range of woodland birds. Nine out of ten of Europe's Woodpeckers breed (only Syrian is absent). Black, White-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers are not uncommon in suitable habitat. Over 500 pairs of Black Stork are thought to breed, an impressive figure, and Hazel Grouse and Red-breasted Flycatcher are fairly widespread. Besides rare and threatened birds there are also several species which, though they have declined in other parts of Europe, are still common and widespread in Lithuania. These include Woodlark, Barred and Grasshopper Warblers, Wryneck, Yellowhammer and Common Rosefinch. Though not quite as common White-tailed Eagle, Black Grouse, Ural, Tengmalm's and Pygmy Owls, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Nutcracker and Icterine and Greenish Warblers can also be seen with a little effort and by visiting at the right time. Lithuania's coastline is part of a major migration route for wildfowl, waders, raptors, seabirds and songbirds. In some years as many as 100,000 birds are trapped and ringed on the coast.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Special Birds: Wallcreeper

It is probably true to say that this is one of Europe's most sought after birds. Besides being unique (as it is in a family of its own) it is also beautiful. It is also largely silent and not overly common either. Wallcreepers breed in high Alpine-like mountain areas e.g in Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. These places are often tough to visit, but Wallcreepers can also be seen in winter at lower elevations, in quarries and even on buildings, in countries where they do not breed like Hungary and the Czech Republic. This photo was taken by Miklos Onodi in winter in Hungary.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Country Profile: Latvia

Latvia (Latvija) is a fully-fledged republic which joined the European Union in May 2004. The capital is Riga. The currency is the Lat (LVL). Latvia is the central country of the three so-called Baltic States with Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south. Belarus is to the south-east and Russia to the east and in the west there is around 500 km of Baltic coastline. Latvia covers some 64,589 km² and its inland landscape is typified by fertile rolling plains and flat boggy forested areas. Nearly half of the country is farmed and much of the rest made up of natural landscapes. There are no serious upland areas and indeed most of the country lies below 100m. There are some low hills in the east where the country's highest point (Gaizinkalns 311m) can be found. Latvia has more than 3000 lakes and reservoirs. Some lie on the coast whilst others are set in forested areas and most are good for wildlife. This is certainly true for the largest Lake Lubans (80 km²) which along with adjacent man-made fish-ponds is a superb birding area. The main rivers are the Gauja and the Daugava, the latter entering Latvia from Belarussia and flowing for some 350km through the heart of the country before entering the Baltic at Riga. The Gauja enters the Bay of Riga just north of the capital after meandering through forested gentle sandstone hills. The other feature that dominates Latvia's topography is its stretch of Baltic Sea shore. There are varied landscapes here, too, with several large coastal lagoons like Liepaja and Engure, pine-covered dunes and long sandy beaches. On the bird front, Corncrakes are widespread and White Storks are doing very well with around 12,000 pairs breeding. Latvia has significant populations of forest birds. White-backed Woodpecker is in a stronghold with an estimated 1500 breeding pairs and Middle Spotted Woodpecker is increasing and expanding its range. The Capercaillie is important, too. Pygmy Owl is quite common in mature coniferous forests and Ural Owl common in the mixed forests of the north and north-east. Though unpredictable Parrot Crossbills breed in some old pine forests. In meadows and flood-plains about 1000 pairs of Great Snipe are thought to breed and small numbers of Marsh and Terek Sandpipers sometimes nest on fish-ponds in the east of the country. There is also a small but very important population of the threatened Aquatic Warbler. Citrine Wagtail has started to colonize the country with breeding sites being discovered almost every year. Another rare European breeding species is Greater Spotted Eagle. More common and typical breeding birds which in summer should be found without too much difficulty include Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Common Crane, Green Sandpiper, Black Tern, Red-backed Shrike, Woodlark, Thrush Nightingale and Common Rosefinch. A little time and effort and Black and Hazel Grouse, White-winged Black Tern, Tengmalm’s and Eagle Owls, Grey-headed and Three-toed Woodpeckers and Blyth’s Reed and Greenish Warblers should be seen. Actual records of Steller's Eider are few, but it is thought that a regular wintering population resides on the sea off the north-west coast. On the other hand there is no doubt about Long-tailed Duck which is abundant on passage and in winter along the coast. The Baltic coastline is a major flyway in both spring and autumn for huge numbers of divers, swans, geese, ducks, seabirds, raptors, waders and songbirds.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Special Birds: Hazel Grouse

Though Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia (aka Hazelhen) is a much sought after bird, and one that is often difficut to observe well, it is actually quite common where there is suitable habitat. It is a resident, living in mature mixed forests with rich ground vegatation from The Baltic States to the Balkans. The species is absent from forests which are over-managed. Bold black and white bands on the tail are often all that is seen as birds flush and fly into dense cover. If seen well, males are attractive birds with warm brown, rufous and grey colours, a bold black throat bordered by white and a crest, which is erected when in display. Females are more brown and even more camouflaged than males, as is the case with most ground nesting birds. Sometimes when birds are flushed a strong whirring of their wings is all that is heard.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Country Profile: Hungary

Hungary (Magyarorszag) is a Republic which joined the European Union in May 2004. The capital is Budapest and the currency the Forint (HUF). Hungary is land-locked and bordered by seven countries: Slovakia to the north, Ukraine to the north-east, Romania to the east, Serbia and Croatia to the south, Slovenia to the south-east and Austria to the west. It covers some 93,030 km² and is split roughly in two by the River Danube which flows from north to south through Budapest and the centre of the country. Hungary is usually divided into six main geographical regions (Little Plain, Alp Foothills, Transdanubian Uplands, Transdanubian Hills, Northern Hills and Great Plain) but these can also be placed into three larger zones: Transdanubia, the Northern Hills and the Great Plain. Transdanubia is all of Hungary west of the Danube and is a region with very varied landscapes. In the north-east corner is Hungary's section of the large, shallow Lake Ferto (Ferto-to) which continues into Austria as the Neusiedler See. The wider landscape here is flat and dotted with grasslands, lakes and marshes and called the Little Plain (Kis-Alfold) as it resembles the Great Plain (Alfold) in the east. At the very heart of Transdanubia is Balaton, Hungary's largest lake, and just to the north-west of here the smaller Lake Velence. Forested hills lie above Balaton (Bakony) and north of Velence (Vertes) and along the border with Austria (Alp Foothills). In the north-east are limestone ranges such as the Gerecse and Pilis. South of Balaton there are rolling hills (Transdanubian Hills) and many fish-ponds set within wooded landscapes. In the west of Transdanubia there are flat areas of arable land, orchards and fish-pond systems set in open landscapes. Vineyards are found throughout Transdanubia in both hilly and lowland areas. The Northern Hills run from just north of Budapest eastwards towards the north-east corner of the country. All of the ranges (Börzsöny, Cserhat, Aggtelek, Matra, Bükk, Cserehat and Zemplén) are covered in forests, mainly broadleaved with some conifer plantations. They are fairly low and far from rugged, certainly when compared to the mountains found in neighburing countries.
With over 1000 birds Hungary has a key European population of Great Bustard. In addition Hungary has significant breeding populations of four other threatened species: Eastern Imperial Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Corncrake and Aquatic Warbler. Eastern Imperial Eagle is in its European stronghold with around 75 pairs and increasing, as is Saker with around 150 pairs. There is also Europe's largest breeding population of Great White Egret. Hungary is also of great importance as a migration stop over for Lesser White-fronted Goose and for up to 100,000 Common Cranes in the autumn. The country still holds good numbers of breeding lowland species such as Red-footed Falcon (though numbers recently fell), Roller and Lesser Grey Shrike. Healthy populations of Common Bittern, herons, Spoonbill and large numbers of Locustella and Acrocephalus Warblers, also make Hungary an important country for wetland birds. The Hortobagy puszta is important for grassland birds in general and also a major migration stop-over for Dotterel with trips of 100 birds not unusual.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Special birds: Rose-coloured Starling

Adult breeding Rose-coloured Starlings Sturnus roseus, particularly males, are striking birds. They have bright pink, rosy, body feathers and glossy black wings, tail and hood, finished off with a shaggy crest. They occur almost every year in roving flocks, usually hundreds, sometimes many thousands, in the Balkans and as far north as the Hungarian Plain. These "invasions" arrive in May and by June it is usually clear whether or not they are going to stay to breed in colonies or head back eastwards from where they came. Thus, in breeding years they are fairly easy to see in lowlands in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, but otherwise rather unpredictable. In breeding years they are often gone again by late July. The key factor in all this seems to be food. In years with large numbers of grasshoppers and locusts Rose-coloured Starlings set up colonies in farmsteads, abandoned buildings and haystacks. This photo was taken by Dan Petrescu at a breeding colony in Romania.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Country Profile: Estonia

Estonia (Eesti) is a Republic which joined the European Union in May 2004. The capital is Tallinn. It is the smallest and northernmost of the three so-called Baltic states. It borders Latvia to the south and Russian to the east. Part of the border with Russia runs through Lake Peipsi. The Gulf of Finland lies to the north and the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga to the west.
Estonia is very much like Scandinavia in that the "right to roam" principal is strong and this means that the shoreline of lakes, state forests and unmarked private land must be free to visit. A rich mix of coastal, taiga and boreal species breed in Estonia and many species that nest in the Arctic pass through. Breeding birds include Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Corncrake, Common Crane, Hazel and Black Grouse, Pygmy and Ural Owls, White-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, Blyth’s Reed and Greenish Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Common Rosefinch and Ortolan Bunting. Most of these are widespread. Though not as common Slavonian Grebe, Greater Spotted Eagle, Capercaillie, Great Snipe, Citrine Wagtail and Parrot Crossbill also breed. Estonia's geographical location on a key migration flyway means that millions of birds pass through in both spring and autumn. Very impressive movements of divers, grebes, wildfowl, terns, waders and passerines take place along Estonia's coastline in autumn. Inland lakes, bogs and fish-ponds see flocks of migrants, too. In spring internationally important numbers of Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Bewick's and Whooper Swans, Barnacle and Greater White-fronted Geese, Greater Scaup, Common and Velvet Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks move along the Bay of Riga and through the Väinameri Strait.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Destinations: Hostynske Hills - Czech Republic

These heavily forested hills (in Czech Hostynske vrchy) are one of the Czech Republic's least birded upland areas, but this is not because they lack good species. On the contrary most of the typical birds that inhabit Central European mixed forest are here. Areas of mature fir-beech are dotted around the hills and these are the best places to look for White-backed Woodpecker. Black, Grey-headed, Lesser Spotted and Middle Spotted are also resident. Stream valleys have Kingfisher, Dipper and Grey Wagtail. Red-breasted and Collared Flycatchers, Wood Warbler and Hawfinch are quite common in areas with mature deciduous forest. There is little mature conifer but birds like Firecrest, Crested Tit, Siskin, Common Crossbill and Nutcracker can be found in older plantations. There's also a chance of Hazel Grouse, though this species is not easy. Raptors include Goshawk and Honey Buzzard which are both fairly common. At 865m Kelecský Javorník is the highest peak but it is not necessary to go this high to look for the key birds. The hills lie to the north of Zl¡n in Central Moravia towards the border with Slovakia. Brno is around 90 km to the west. A road from Bystrice p. Hostynem in the north-west to Jablunka in the east cuts through the heart of the hills. Parts of the hills are protected as a Nature Park but are of mostly open and easy access via an extensive network of colour-coded marked footpaths and cross-country skiing routes.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Country Profile: Croatia

Croatia (Hrvatska) is a Republic which broke away from Yugoslavia in June 1991. Croatia is not a member of the EU but will most likely be in the near future. Croatia lies in the Balkans, along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. It is a crescent shaped country with Bosnia-Herzegovina to the east, Serbia and Montenegro to the east and south-east, Hungary to the north-east and Slovenia to the north. The Adriatic coast forms the whole western edge of the country. The capital Zagreb is located in north-central Croatia. The country covers around 56,542 km² and has a very varied range of landscapes. The main four are: the lowlands of Slavonia, the Dinaric Alps (a chain of inland mountains), the coast and an archipelago of more than 1000 islands in the Adriatic Sea. It is an important country for several threatened European species but also has healthy populations of other birds which, though not endangered, have declined badly in western Europe. e.g an estimated 3000 pairs of Ferruginous Duck, Short-toed Eagle is locally common and Rock Thrush and Woodchat Shrike are seemingly doing well though declining almost everywhere else. Croatia has breeding Cory's and Yelkouan Shearwaters, Audouin's Gull, Eleonora's Falcon, Lanner and Great Spotted Cuckoo (though the latter two species are rare). Croatia also has good numbers of several species which, though not threatened or endangered, are very tempting to "western" birders, for example, Rock Partridge, Pallid Swift, Black-eared Wheatear (eastern melanoleuca race), Orphean Warbler (crassirostris race), Olive-tree Warbler (which breeds in Central and Southern Dalmatia and on islands where there are oakwoods and old olive-groves) and Black-headed Bunting

Special birds: Black-headed Bunting

With its bright yellow underparts, rufous upperparts and bold black hood, male Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala is a striking songbird. At about 17cm long it is one of the larger European buntings. It occurs in the very south-east of Europe, for example in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bulgaria, typically in open, dry country with scattered bushes, orchards, olive groves and often around villages and even gardens. Males often deliver their musical song, which usually beings quite harshly but ends more pleasantly, from roadside telephone lines.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Country Profile: Bulgaria

Bulgaria (Republic of Bulgaria) is around 110,910 km² in size. The capital is Sofia. It lies in the Balkans with Turkey and Greece lie to the south, Romania to the north and Serbia and Macedonia to the west. To the east is the Black Sea with a coastline of some 354km. Besides the coastal habitats, there are some inland lowlands but ultimately, Bulgaria is a mountainous country. The highest peak is Musala (2925m) in the Rila range. For most birders from western Europe the key breeding birds will include Levant Sparrowhawk, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, Wallcreeper, Pied Wheatear, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Paddyfield Warbler and Rose-coloured Starling. All 10 species of European woodpecker occur, too. In winter there are large numbers of geese on the Black Sea coast, Greater White-fronts and often large numbers of Red-breasted Geese. On migration 250,000 White Storks and 3000 Great White Pelicans are estimated to pass through, mainly along the Black Sea coast. The main bird conservation organisation is the BSPB (Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds).

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Special birds: Collared Flycatcher

Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis is a rather common breeding bird of deciduous woods in central Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc) from late April through summer. Breeding plumage males have more white on them than their close relatives Pied Flycatcher F. hypoleuca and Semi-collared Flycatcher F. semitorquata, especially on the forehead, wing and nape, hence the albicollis "white collar" in the name. Females and juveniles are very similar to the juveniles and females of those species. The songs and calls of Collared are, however, quite different to those of its relatives. Collared Flycatchers nest in natural tree cavities and especially in old woodpecker holes. They also willingly take to nest-boxes.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Destinations: Bialowieza Forest - Poland

The Bialowieza forest's abundant flycatchers, owls, woodpeckers and raptors and its almost mythical status as Europe’s last stand of virgin forest (though this is not entirely true) are a "must-see". Actually, there are two parts to this forest: the strict reserve of the old-growth forest and the “managed” forest. The old-growth forest is a wonderful and atmospheric place but the key birds occur in both areas and indeed some, such as Hazel Grouse, are often easier to find in the managed sections. The old forest consists of oak, lime, hornbeam, ash and spruce, much dying and fallen wood and swampy areas with alder and pine. In spring this is particularly good for Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers and Black, Middle Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers. There are also open meadow areas, clearings and marshes along several streams and the River Narewka. Birds of prey at Bialowieza include Honey Buzzard, Montagu's Harrier and Short-toed, Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles. Pygmy Owl, Three-toed Woodpecker, Crested Tit and Nutcracker favour the extensive spruce forests. The Palace Park at Bialowieza is the home of the National Park HQ, a hotel and Grey-headed Woodpecker, Wryneck, Thrush Nightingale, Icterine Warbler, both Collared and Pied Flycatchers and Red-backed Shrike. This is a vast and rich area deserving a stay of several days at least. The best time to visit is from the end of April into June, although woodpeckers and owls are more active and thus easier early on in the year. Some migrants may only return in late May. This can be a harsh place in winter though some forest birds, as well as large mammals, may be more confiding. Bialowieza lies on the border with Belorussia in the very east of Poland 222 km from Warsaw. The town of Hajnowka sits at its western edge. The strictly protected zone of the NP can be entered only with a guide which the park HQ can arrange more or less on the spot. Most of the managed forest can be explored at will, though there are some closed reserve sections. The road from Hajnowka to Bialowieza village cuts right through the forest and a surprising amount can be seen along this route and the tracks branching off it.

Special birds: Bluethroat

There are two races of Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, the white spotted cyanecula and the red spotted svecica. The bird in this photo is a white-spotted race taken in Hungary by Dan Bastaja. This is the race which occurs over most of the region, where it is locally common around lowland wetlands with reedbeds and bushes. The red-spotted race tends to breed in uplands in birch and willow scrub, often by streams, but is rare in Eastern Europe. Adult male Bluethroats are striking, with bright blue bibs bordered by orange and with the spot (red or white) located at the centre of the blue. The combination of these colours and size of the spot varies from region to region and also within populations. On rear views the rusty base of the tail is distinctive, too.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Destinations: Low Tatras - Slovakia

The Low Tatras are one of Slovakia's impressive Alpine-like mountain ranges. They lie in the centre of the country, south of the High Tatras and stretch for some 80 km in an east-west direction between the Váh and Hron river valleys. Banska Bystrica lies to the south-west and Poprad to the north-east. Most of the area is a National Park (Národný park Nízke Tatry). Nizke means "Low" but there is nothing "Low" about these mountains, there are several peaks over 2000 m. Several of the highest peaks, like Chopok (2024 m), are accessible in season by chair-lift or gondola. Much of the lower elevations are blanketed in forest, higher up there are tarns, deep valleys, limestone cliffs and impressive rock formations. The high-altitude zone has Ring Ouzel, Rock Pipit, Alpine Accentor and Wallcreeper. Coniferous forests have Hazel Grouse, Capercaillie, Pygmy and Tengmalm's Owls, Three-toed Woodpecker, Common Crossbill, Siskin and Nutcracker. Lower down still beech dominates and there are Grey-headed and White-backed Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Hawfinch. Open areas of pasture and forest edges have Black Grouse, Corncrake, Woodlark and Redwing. Lesser Spotted Eagle is the most likely large raptor. Expanses of old-growth forest lie in the east between the Certovica ridge and the Králova hola peak (1948 m).

Monday, 17 March 2008

Special birds: White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern (aka White-winged Tern) Chlidonias leucopterus is the smallest and arguably the most attractive of the three so-called "marsh terns" that are found in Europe. It is similar to Black Tern but, in breeding plumage, has a bright white rump and tail and leading edge on the wings. Though called "white-winged" it is often the white tail that catches the eye. The species has a very eastern breeding distribution, forming noisy colonies on shallow marshes in eastern Poland and Hungary. However, numbers fluctaute each year, in some years in eastern Hungary they are locally common, in others rather scarce. And the same is sometimes true for Poland. Much seems to depend on subtle changes in water levels. Elsewhere they can be seen on passage. This fine photo is courtesy of Birdinders.

Destinations: Pag - Croatia

Pag is the fifth largest island on the Croatian coast, and the one with the longest coastline. It is around 60 km long and from 2 to 10 km wide. The south-western shore at Pag Bay and Caska Cove slope into the sea whereas the north-eastern coastline, particularly at Stara Novalja Bay, is typified by cliffs, the Lun peninsula, in the very north, is planted mostly by olive-groves. At 348 m Sveti Vid is Pag's highest point. Most of the interior is rocky terrain though there is some macchia, vineyards, olive-groves and juniper-dotted, grass-sage grazing land. Away from the resorts, areas of scrub and cultivated land can be productive for songbirds in spring and summer. Fairly common species are Nightjar, Hoopoe, Red-rumped Swallow, Tawny Pipit, Crested, Short-toed and Calandra Larks, Black-eared Wheater, Melodious, Olivaceous, Subalpine, Sardinian and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, Spanish Sparrow and Black-headed and Cirl Buntings. Other birds here are Kentish Plover, Stone Curlew and Little Owl. Alpine, Pallid and Common Swifts are often over settlements. Raptors include Short-toed Eagle. There are two karst lakes (Velo Blato and Malo Blato) in the south-east of the island which are best during wader passage. In winter divers, grebes and seas-ducks are often just offshore and waders such as Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Curlew, Dunlin and Jack and Common Snipe. Ultimately, this is a site to visit in spring, though there many birds winter. Away from settlements Rock Doves possibly still authentic, rather than "feral". This is one of Croatia's most accessible islands as besides being close to the mainland it is also connected to it by a bridge at its southern tip, about 25 km north of Zadar.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Special birds: Red-footed Falcon

Now here is a true Eastern European bird, the petite Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus. They typically breed in colonies, often in rookeries, though sometimes they take whatever nests are available (those of Magpie, Hooded Crow) and then pairs are more spaced out. Lowland Hungary is a stronghold, and they also breed in Romania, Bulgaria, northern Croatia and Serbia, and a few are found in the very east of Slovakia. They winter in Africa. This photo of an adult male with his blue-grey plumage, red bill, rusty undertail coverts and orangy-red feet, was taken in Hungary. Females are quite different, having a rusty-orange crown and underparts, barred upperparts and a black mask.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Destinations: Curonian Spit - Lithuania

Lithuania's coastline is just 99 km long but it is lined with superb habitats. It is sandy, rather than rocky, and dominated by the Curonian Spit (Kursiu nerija) where there are dunes, scrubland and pinewoods. This strip of sandy beaches and dunes separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea and continues south from Lithuania into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The Lithuanian stretch is about 50 km long and varies in width between 3.8 km (at Cape Bulvikis 4 km northeast of Nida) and just 380 m (near Sarkuva). The main woodland cover is pine, with some spruce, fir, larch, birch and alder, and there is scrub and grassy meadows and heathlands. The spit is a migration bottleneck, mainly in autumn, and in peak periods tens of thousands of pigeons, doves and songbirds pass this way, including various wagtails and pipits, Bluethroat, Siskin, Bullfinch and Lapland and Snow Buntings. The most numerous species (100s of 1000s) are Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Robin, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Wren, Goldcrest, Chaffinch and Brambling. The spit is also the kind of place where "anything can turn up" and rarities for Lithuania here have included Azure Tit and Siberian Accentor. In various periods there are good numbers of storks, 3 species of swan, Tundra and Taiga Bean, Greater White-fronted, Barnacle and dark-bellied Brent Geese, Greater Scaup, Common and Velvet Scoters, Common Goldeneye, Smew, Red-breasted Merganser, Little Gull and Sandwich, Common, Arctic, Little and Black Terns. Raptors include Honey, Common and Rough-legged Buzzards, Merlin and Hen and Montagu's Harriers. The spit is also home to a good range of breeding birds, with Common Shelduck, White-tailed Eagle, Black Kite, Hobby, Corncrake, Spotted and Little Crakes, Dunlin, Greater Ringed Plover, Nightjar, Wryneck, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Woodlark, Firecrest, Crested Tit, Tree, Meadow and Tawny Pipits, Serin, Greenish Warbler and Common Rosefinch all here. Herring, Yellow-legged, Common, Lesser Black-backed and Greater Black-backed Gulls are around most of the year. Smiltyne lies at the very northern tip of the spit and Nida at the south. Regular car-ferries run from the mainland at Klaipeda to Smiltyne and take 10 minutes. The spit is a national park (Kursiu Nerija Nacionalinis Parkas) and there is a fee to enter.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Destinations: Bukk Hills - Hungary

The Bukk Hills lie in NE Hungary about 2 hours NE of Budapest, just to the west of Miskolc. It is a heavily forested range, mainly deciduous. Breeding raptors include Honey Buzzard, Short-toed, Lesser Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles and Goshawk. Booted Eagle is sometimes seen. There are White Storks in villages and Black Storks in the more secluded forests. Ural and Tawny Owls are also here, but not always easy to find without local help. Eight woodpecker species are resident. Songbirds include, in spring and summer, Woodlark, Grey Wagtail, Red-breasted Flycatcher (rare), Collared Flycatcher (common), Wood Warbler, Barred Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Rock Bunting. The area is crossed with marked walking trails. Spring (April & May) is the overall best time to visit though autumn and winter can be productive for woodpeckers, too. Much of the Bukk is a National Park

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Special birds: White Stork

White Storks Ciconia ciconia breed throughout Eastern Europe from the Baltics to the Balkans. Often nesting on village rooftops, chimneys and telegraph-poles, they are a familar roadside sight from April to September. They spend the winter in Africa and the Middle East, the first birds often returning in March. Lithuania has around 13,000 pairs which, given the size of the country, translates as the highest breeding density of the species in the world. Poland has an estimated 40,000 pairs which is 25% of the global breeding population. In autumn large flocks gather in fields before heading off southwards to warmer climes. An estimated 250,000 pass along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast in late August into September.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Destinations: Pape - Latvia

A narrow strip of land, about 1km wide, at Pape runs between the eastern shore of Lake Pape (Papes ezers) and the sea and this, together with the fact that the coastline here heads slightly to the south-east, makes it a fine autumn and spring birding site. There is an Ornithological Observatory here, too. The most birds in spring are numerous are usually Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Long-tailed Duck, Velvet and Common Scoters and Greater Scaup. In autumn many diurnal raptors, pigeons, doves, thrushes, pipits, tits, warblers, finches, buntings and corvids stream this way. October and November nights with easterly winds often produce migrating owls. Bean and Greater White-fronted Geese use the lake and the Nida Marsh to the south as a stop-over. Vagrant passerines have included Pallas's, Dusky and Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers, Isabelline Shrike and Rustic and Little Buntings. Of course, despite all this, nothing is guaranteed. Westerly winds and rain are not unusual here and migration can be suspended. Always check the local weather forecast before visiting, though periods of bad weather offshore can mean good sea-watching. Sooty Shearwater and Leach's Petrel are just two of the rarities that have been seen off Pape. And this is still not the whole story. As the sea, beach, dunes, lagoon, freshwater lakes, reedbeds, bogs, thickets and pinewoods are all in close proximity to each other, there is a good range of breeding bird habitat, too. Lake Pape and its adjacent pastures and meadows have Common and Little Bitterns, Common Pochard, Corncrake, Little and Spotted Crakes, Whimbrel, Tawny Pipit, Penduline Tit and Savi's and Great Reed Warblers. There is a bird-tower at the southern end of the lake. Pape lies on the Baltic coast just north of the Lithuanian border, about 45 km south of Liepaja. From Liepaja take road A11 to Rucava and then turn west towards Pape. Once you see the lighthouse, you are almost there...

Destinations: Paklenica - Croatia

The Paklenica National Park is part of the larger Velebit Mountain range. The park lies in Dalmatia about 2 hours north of Split by road and begins at almost sea-level and rises up into sub-Alpine habitat. The centre-piece of this rugged karst area is the gorge of Velika Paklenica near the village of Starigrad. This gorge is a scenic place to bird, but prepare for some uphill walking and often the company of rock-climbers and on weekends parties of day-trippers. The Paklenica area as a whole is an excellent place to look for Rock Partridge, almost any rocky hillside is worth a try, and at any time of year. Other birds include Scops and Eagle Owls, Peregrine, Short-toed Eagle, Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-eared Wheatear, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin and Eastern Orphean Warbler. Besides birds a rich range of butterflies occurs in summer and the dry limestone landscapes are ideal for reptiles such as Hermann's Tortoise, Dalmatian Algyroides, Balkan Green Lizard, Dalmatian Wall Lizard and many others.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Special birds: Aquatic Warbler

Aquatic Warbler Acrocephalus paludicola is one of Europe's rarest breeding warblers. It is most definitely an "eastern" bird but has very special habitat needs in the breeding season and thus is only locally distributed. Good numbers occur in marshes, fens and wet meadows in Poland and a few hundred singing males are found in the Hortobagy National Park in Hungary. They occur in these areas from late April through to August, but are only really visible in spring when they are singing. They are delicately marked little birds with yellowish stripes on the crown and mantle. Though they occur in reedbeds on migration (even in western Europe) they rarely enter this habitat in the breeding season. The English name "Aquatic"implies some fondness for water, though in fact overtly wet places are avoided, certainly those with deep open water.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Special birds: Three-toed Woodpecker

Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus is a smallish woodpecker, between the slightly larger Great Spotted Woodpecker and slightly smaller Middle Spotted Woodpecker in size. This species is unique amongst European woodpeckers (but not globally) in that it only has three toes on each foot whereas its European relatives have four, hence its scientific and vernacular names. Three-toeds appear compact, stocky, large headed, short-necked and blunt tailed. On a perched view they appear rather dark, mainly because of the minimal amount of white on the wings (compare with Dendrocopos woodpeckers). The nominate tridactylus race of this species occurs in the boreal zone, particularly the fairly continuous area from Scandinavia eastwards into the Russian taiga but there are scattered populations in lowland forests in the Baltic States Poland and Belarus. The alpinus race is found to the south, in several rather fragmented populations in areas such as the Alps, the Bavarian Forest, Sumava Mountains, the Carpathians, the Rodope Mountains, the Balkan Range and the Dinaric Alps. It is worth noting that the Carpathian population is geographically isolated from the Alpine one by some 300-350km though the same race occurs in each. Though Poland hosts both races, their breeding ranges do not seem to overlap. The northeastern Polish population of tridactylus at Bialowieza is around 400km from the nearest alpinus birds in the Carpathians in southern Poland.

Destinations: Triglav National Park - Slovenia

At the heart of this upland national park in the Slovenian part of the Julian Alps is Mount Triglav (at 2864m the highest peak in all Slovenia). This is real Alpine terrain with glacial valleys, boulder dotted plateaux, scree, grassy pastures, meadows. This is the home of Ptarmigan, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor, Alpine Chough and Wallcreeper. Be prepared for hiking and bring the right clothing and gear. Areas to try for the above species include Mount Triglav itself, the karst of Dolina Triglavskih Jezer and Kriski Podi, a rugged plateau with sinkholes and tarns. The Vrsic Pass (the highest road in Slovenia), Mount Mangart (2678 m) and the Predil Pass, on the Italian border in the very north-west of the NP, are other good areas. At lower elevations there are forests of spruce, mountain pine and larch and then mixed conifer-beech with resident Capercaillie, Hazel and Black Grouse, Ural Owl, Black, Three-toed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Ring Ouzel and Nutcracker. In the north-west the spruce forests on Ciprnik have many of these species as does the forested Trenta Valley south-west of Trenta village. In the south the forests of the Bohinj Basin have Hazel and Black Grouse and Nutcracker. The village of Stara Fuzina, to the north-east of the reservoir, is a good starting point for birding the Voje Valley and Mostnica Gorge. The Pokljuka plateau is blanketed with old spruce forests and there are pastures at Rudno polje and Velo polje. Hazel Grouse, Three-toed Woodpecker and Ural, Tengmalm's and Pygmy Owls are possible here. Roads from Bled and Bohinj are kept snow-free even in winter. In the north-east the forested slopes of Mežakla tower over the passing motorway and host the same species, but this is a more difficult area to work, being steeper and lacking good roads. Rock Partridge and Rock Thrush tend to occur at lower elevations on the warmer western and southern slopes. Raptors include Goshawk, Peregrine and Golden Eagle. Fieldfare, Grey Wagtail, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin, Black Redstart, Goldcrest, Willow, Crested and Coal Tits, Siskin and Common Crossbill are often around settlements. Many "good" birds are here all year round, though it is particularly tough going in winter. This beautiful region is very popular with tourists so visit off-peak .

Special birds: Grey-headed Woodpecker

At around 26cm long Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus (aka Grey-faced Woodpecker) is slightly smaller and more compact than its close relative Green Woodpecker. It is a medium sized woodpecker, similar in size to White-backed Woodpecker, larger than Great Spotted. It is mostly olive-green in colour with grey on the head and shoulders and black on the lores and with a thin black malar stripe. Males have a red forecrown. It's characteristic song is 6-10 quite musical notes “poo-poo-poo-poo-poo-poo” or perhaps “pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu” which often fade away at the end of the phrase. The global range of Grey-headed Woodpecker stretches beyond Europe as far as Japan and down through Indo-China and the Malaysian archipelago. The nominate canus race occurs in Europe, though usually in low densities and it is often rather localised. The species is certainly more common in eastern Europe then in the west. It typically inhabits older open deciduous forests but also parkland and floodplain forests, occasionally in mixed deciduous-conifer forests.