Friday, 25 January 2008

Special birds: White-backed Woodpecker

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos is another species that has become very much an "Eastern" bird as it has declined and vanished from most of western Europe. Of all the European Picidae this species is the one most attached to old-growth deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous forests and is rarely found in stands that do contain a high volume of old, dead and rotting timber. It does not tolerate overly managed forests, being a specialist that feeds on wood-boring insects and their larvae, and is less adaptable than its relatives. The largest of the five European Dendrocopos species (the so-called "pied" woodpeckers) White-backed can be hard to find (except when nesting) though often easy to observe when finally located. There are two races, the nominate leucotos in northern and central Europe eastwards into Asia, and lilfordi in southern Europe, in the Mediterranean and Balkan countries.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Destinations: Endla - Estonia

This vast complex of peat-bogs, pools, lakes, channels, rivers, reedbeds and mixed pine-birch forests lies at the heart of Estonia and is everything a Baltic wetland should be. Breeding birds include Slavonian Grebe, Common Crane, White-tailed and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Golden Plover and Black Tern. Drier forests have Capercallie, Hazel and Black Grouse, Ural and Pygmy Owls and White-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers. On passage swans, geese and waders drop in in high numbers. Some bogs (Mannikjarve near Tooma and Kaasikjarve by Lake Endla) can be crossed on boardwalks, other areas will require wellingtons, though in areas marked as Nature Reserve (Looduskaitseala) trails and boardwalks should be kept to and the observation towers used. Spring (April - May) is the best time to visit, summer can be pretty silent, and autumn (September - October) sees good passage. Tallinn is around 130km to the north-west and Tartu 70km to the south-east.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Tour Company Profile: Heatherlea

Based in Speyside, Scotland, Heatherlea Birding and Wildlife Holidays is one of Britain's leading wildlife holiday operators. Their expertise in showing Scotland's wildlife is second to none, but they also travel further afield on "Overseas Adventures" and run several top-quality trips a year to Eastern Europe. This year (2008) Heatherlea are visiting Hungary in Spring and Hungary in Autumn as well as Estonia in May and then Romania: the Danube Delta in June. Some fantastic places and superb birds are taken in on these tours. Follow the links to find out more.

Destinations: Eastern Rhodopes - Bulgaria

The Eastern Rhodopes are arguably Bulgaria's best mountain range for raptors. Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Honey and Long-legged Buzzards, Black Kite, Levant Sparrowhawk and Egyptian and Griffon Vultures breed. A few Eurasian Black Vultures (aka Cinereous Vulture) also visit from time to time. This is mostly barren, often craggy, goat-grazed terrain, dotted with dry woodlands and has a typically Balkan-Mediterranean avifauna. Other birds in spring and summer are Black Stork, Scops Owl, Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Blue Rock Thrush, Isabelline and Black-eared Wheatears, Rock Nuthatch, Woodchat Shrike, Sombre Tit, Spanish Sparrow, Eastern Orphean and Subalpine Warblers and Rock and Cirl Buntings. In autumn more raptors, like Osprey, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Red-footed Falcon and Montagu's Harrier, move through the Arda valley. Some of the best areas to search lie along the River Arda, particularly by the reservoir and dam at Studen Kladenetz and around the village of Madzharovo. These mountains lie in the south-east of Bulgaria, up against the Greek border, east of Kardzali and south of Haskovo.

Special birds: Red-breasted Goose

In some years the bulk of the world population of Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis winters on the plains and coastal wetlands of the Black Sea coast in Romania and Bulgaria. These small, attractive geese breed far to the north-east on the Siberian tundra but pour down in November to spend their winter in a relatively milder climate, usually staying until March. Though there can be 60,000 Red-breasts in this wintering area they can however be surprisingly hard to find as the area (Dobrudja) is vast, the landscape rolling and conditions often tough. Flocks also move on once feeding areas, often fields of winter wheat, are exhausted.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Destinations: Slovensky kras - Slovakia

Slovensky kras (the Slovak Karst) is a hilly, limestone area with dry scrub grassland, meadows, stream valleys, limestone gorges and both deciduous and coniferous forest. It lies in the south-east of Slovakia along the border with Hungary. Breeding raptors include Honey Buzzard, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Goshawk and Saker, and there are both White and Black Storks. Eagle and Ural Owls are also here, but not that easy to find without local help. All ten European woodpeckers occur, though Three-toed is rare and indeed there are better places in Slovakia to search for this species. More common birds include, in spring and summer, Woodlark, Collared Flycatcher, Wood Warbler, Barred Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Rock Bunting. The area is riddled with trails: a particularly pleasant, and easy, one runs through the limestone gorge of Zadielska Dolina. Overall spring is the best time to visit. Much of the area is a National Park and lies east of the city of Roznava just off the main road E571.

Special birds: Ferruginous Duck

Though formally a fairly common breeder across most of the European continent Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca is today very much an Eastern European species. Over the last 100 years it has declined badly in both range and number in Europe and it is now only numerous in Croatia and Romania, though it can also be seen in Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. It breeds in marshes, flood-plains and on fish-ponds (that are not intensively managed) with emergent vegetation and plenty of rush, sedge and reed cover. It is a migratory duck, most arriving in the region in March and leaving in September. In flight its mostly dark chestnut-coloured body contrasts strikingly with its brilliant white wingbars.

Destinations: Lake Vrana - Croatia

Lake Vrana (Vransko jezero) lies on the Dalmatian coast 30km south of Zadar. It is the largest natural lake in Croatia and the best wetland in this part of the country for birds and birders. Besides the large expanse of open water there are reedbeds at the northern end of the lake where Pygmy Cormorant, Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Marsh Harrier and various warblers breed. Getting down to the lakeside is not always easy: the best spot is usually by the ringing station at the northern end. Look for an observation tower which is visible from the road which runs inland from Pakostane. A few paths run down to the lake from the coast road, and there is a marked bike-route, too. The lake is at its best in spring (April & May) and in autumn (September & October) when passage terns, waders and songbirds stop off and join the residents. The surrounding farmland and dry scrub has the likes Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Yellow Wagtail (black-headed feldegg race), Tawny Pipit and Cirl and Black-headed Buntings.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Special birds: Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatchers Ficedula parva can be real neck-breakers to see when they sing from high perches in the canopy. In addition, they are small (less than 12cm in length - Spotted Flycatcher is 14cm) and tend to flit about nervously. They typically breed in mature, upland broadleaved woodlands from the Baltic States south through most of the region to Bulgaria. These dainty birds are summer visitors to Europe, usually arriving in breeding areas in May and leaving in August. On passage they can often be seen in open, more scrubby habitats. Males only show the orangy-red throat and upper breast after 2 or 3 years. Younger males and females lack this red bip. All birds show white patches on the outer tail and these can be conspicuous when the tail is cocked and flicked, as it often is, in typical flycatcher fashion.

Destinations: Bieszczady - Poland

The rolling, forested slopes and sub-Alpine pastures of the Bieszczady Mountains lie in the very south-east corner of Poland, and spill over into the Ukraine and Slovakia. This is a remote region, much of it a national park, and sparsely populated. Time seems to have stood still here and wildlife such as Brown Bear, Wolf and Lynx has found a refuge. There is even a herd of European Bison roaming the forests. From November to March the region is covered in snow and rather difficult to explore, a visit in spring or autumn is best. Birds include Black Stork, Lesser Spotted and Golden Eagles, Hazel Grouse, Ural and Pygmy Owls, Grey-headed, Eurasian Three-toed and White-backed Woodpeckers, Crested Tit, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers and Nutcracker. Bieszczady is 90km south-east of Sanok and is not viable on a day-trip from anywhere.

Special birds: Great (Eurasian) White Pelican

This large, impressive bird Pelecanus onocrotalus has a wing-span of up to 3m. It is a gregarious species that nests in colonies and fishes in flocks. The Danube Delta in Romania is the European stronghold with over 3000 pairs breeding here on floating reed islands each year. Throughout the summer Great White Pelicans can also be seen on other wetlands along the Black Sea coast, in Romania and Bulgaria, though they do not breed there. It is a migratory species, usually arriving in April and leaving in September, and mainly follows the Via Pontica, the Black Sea coastal route. In autumn up to 15,000 birds have been estimated to pass over Bulgaria's coastline.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Destinations: Aggtelek - Hungary

Aggtelek (aka Aggtelek Karst) lies in the NE of Hungary right up against the Slovakian border. It is about 240km from Budapest and 60km from Miskolc. Much of the area is a National Park with fantastic cave systems (which can be visited) being the centre-piece. Habitats include karst hillsides (some open, some covered in scrub), mixed forests, pastures and flood-plain meadows along the River Bodva. Typical birds in summer are White Stork, Wryneck, Nightjar, Woodlark, Red-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, Barred Warbler, Hawfinch and Rock Bunting. Raptors include Honey Buzzard, Goshawk, Short-toed Eagle and Eastern Imperial Eagle. Eight species of woodpecker are resident: Syrian Woodpecker is in and around most villages and Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers in the more mature forests. Some forests hold breeding Black Stork, White-backed Woodpecker and Ural Owl, though these three are not always easy species to find here. The National Park is crossed by a series of well-marked, colour-coded trails.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Special birds: Ural Owl

Ural Owl Strix uralensis is a species that most birders visiting Eastern Europe want to see. It inhabits woodlands and forests throughout the region but some countries are certainly better than others as destinations in which to see it. Estonia, Poland, eastern Slovakia and north-east Hungary are often good, though numbers can flucuate. In some years Ural Owls are easy to find, in others notoriously difficult. Much seems to depend upon the annual population of small mammals. The easiest way to see Ural Owl is to hire a guide who knows the locations of occupied nest-boxes. Finding your own Ural Owl can take time and often a dose of luck. The best periods to try are early spring (March to May) when birds are calling, or winter (November to February) when some owls come out of the forest into more open country to hunt by day.

Destinations: Sumava - Czech Republic

Sumava is an upland area, much of it a National Park, in the south-west of the Czech Republic. It borders Germany (Bavaria) and Austria. There are extensive peat-bogs, meadows and vast mixed forests, mostly conifer (pine) and some mixed old-growth stands. There are two fine forests with large spruces, firs and beeches on mounts Bobin and Bobik. The peaty River Vltava which passes through Prague rises here. Birds include Black Stork, Black Grouse leks, Hazel Grouse, Corncrake, 7 species of woodpecker, Nutcracker, Pygmy, Tengmalm's, and Ural Owls (though the latter is rare), Ring Ouzel, Crested Tit, Firecrest and Common Rosefinch, the latter increasing. The best time to visit for the grouse, owls and most woodpeckers is spring, but be aware that there can be snow here into April and the forest birds do not give themselves up lightly. Sumava lies about 130 km south-west of Prague by road. Alternatively approach from Bavaria.

Special birds: Corncrake

Though they can often be tricky birds to actually see, Corncrakes Crex crex are in fact not uncommon in much of Eastern Europe. From April through summer their rasping calls can be heard in wet or damp hay meadows, pastures, bogs and flood-plains in every country in the region, in both uplands and lowlands. Occasionally some individual birds are very confiding and walk out from undergrowth or fly into the open. Ultimately the best time to see Corncrake is in spring, whem they have just arrived back from the wintering areas and are most vocal. Actual numbers fluctate locally from year to year, depending upon water levels, and some birds that call in a place in spring may move on after a few weeks to other areas.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Destinations: Danube Delta - Romania

Romania's section of the Danube Delta (some lies in neighbouring Ukraine) is arguably Europe's best wetland birding destination. The Delta lies some 3-4 hours by road NE of the capital Bucharest. At most times of year it is superb, and often better than that. Winter, however, is hard here and most non-flowing waters are usually frozen. In the breeding season, from April to August for most species, birds such as Pygmy Cormorant, White Pelican, White Stork, Glossy Ibis, various herons, Ferruginous Duck, Roller, Hobby, Whiskered Tern, Savi's Warbler and Penduline Tit, to name just a few, are hard to miss. Though not as common birds like Dalmatian Pelican, Red-necked Grebe, Red-footed Falcon, Levant Sparrowhawk, White-tailed Eagle, White-winged Black Tern, Caspian Gull and Paddyfield Warbler can also be seen. On autumn passage (August to October) winter there are masses of wildfowl, terns, waders and influxes of raptors. A tip: only consider joining an organised tour to the Delta that includes nights within the Delta on a house-boat, a floating hotel, otherwise you will not see the Delta in all its glory, as it simply cannot be explored adequately from a totally land-based tour.

Special birds: Great Bustard

First up in a series of notes on special birds of Eastern Europe is... Great Bustard Otis tarda. To see this impressive bird one has to visit Hungary. Though there a few small flocks are scattered in neighbouring countries (Serbia, Slovakia, Austria) Hungary, which nestles in the Carpathian basin, is the region's stronghold. The best areas to search lie east of the Danube, on the "Great Plain, and include "puszta" (steppe-like grasslands) and farmlands in the Kiskunsag region and in Bekes, Csongrad and Heves counties. There are Great Bustards on the Hortobagy though, contrary to much that is written, this area is not at all the best in Hungary for this species, though it is for some others. They are resident birds, non-migratory, though there is some dispersal, and can be found all year round.