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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Samhain in Seewinkel

Samhain is the Pagan festival that falls midway between the Autumn Equinox (Mabon) and the Winter Solstice (Yule) and is traditionally celebrated on 31st October. It comes deep into Autumn; only a few stragglers of the summer migrant birds linger on, whilst the geese and thrushes from the Arctic tundra are already pushing southwards. Nipped by the first frosts, the golden leaves of the deciduous trees have mostly fallen to the ground, dislodged by the autumnal gales.

Certainly one can still relish mild, mellow days, but the sun is low in the sky, its radiation weak, and to imagine that there is any remnant of summer is simply to kid oneself. Summer is gone.

This year I am passing the Samhain period around the Seewinkel National Park, close the borders with Slovakia and Hungary, on the eastern shore of the inland steppe lake of Neusiedler See (Lake Neusiedl).

A Hungarian White Donkey greets the Samhain dawn
(see here for more information on these unique donkeys)
The birch trees start to look bare as they lose their leaves
against a backdrop of fine-weather cumulus cl

The golden beds of Phragmites reeds echo the poplar trees
The hay is baled up...

...and the grapes have been harvested for the 2009 vintage.
One small bunch has escaped and will become food for the birds

Winter visiting birds like this Great Grey Shrike are starting to arrive...

...and Clouded Yellow butterflies take advantage of the weakening sunshine to sip the last nectar before looking for a crevice to hibernate.

The village of Illmitz, in the heart of the Seewinkal National Park, catches the rays of the setting sun in the gathering gloom of an evening storm

I wish a Happy Samhain to all my readers

Friday, October 23, 2009

Black-necked Grebe round-up

Every year, thousands of Black-necked Grebes migrate south from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra to moult and spend the winter in the south of Europe. There is a particular concentration that favours the salt pans (salins) near Huelva in Andalusia. They feed mainly on the larvae of aquatic insects.

Here, there is a long-term research study in which samples of the grebes are captured during the moulting period (when flying is weakest) for ringing and measurement. I was fortunate to be invited to participate in one of the capture events.

The salt pans are also the home of thousands of Greater Flamingos (this individual is flying from right to left)

The Black-necked Grebes swim off looking suspicious... they have seen this all before!

The Expedition of about 50 participants assembles

The nets are prepared...

...and the Director, Luís García, explains the strategy with a stick in the sand.

Then it is into the water where the team pushes the net forward through the brine...

...corralling the grebes int a smaller and smaller area...

..until they are so concentrated they can be plucked from the water like fish.

The grebes are not web-footed (like ducks) but have these lobed feet as an adaptation for swimming and diving

Groups of grebes are transported to the processing station where...

...they are kept in holding pens until... is time for each to be ringed and measured in turn.

The Director photographs the extended wing of every bird to keep a record of moult progress.

A final look at these delightful water birds before...

...release when they scamper of towards the middle of the lake.

A total of 242 Black-necked Grebes was processed that day. The Director joins the group for a few beers after a hot, and very salty, day's work.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More birds of Andalusia

Birds that are caught in the mist nets are secured in clean linen bags and returned to the ringing station. The Director José Luis takes a bag for processing. What could it be?

Iberian Chiffchaff - the target species for study. This species is very closely related to the Common Chiffchaff (in fact, taxonomists have only recently "split" them) but appears brighter and greener, and the measurements are a little different

Iberian Chiffchaff (front) and Common Chiffchaff. The Iberian has a greener tail, but you need good light to see it properly!

Male Blackcap (compare with the female in the post below)

Cetti's Warbler which has only 10 feathers in the tail (most species have 12)

Female Subalpine Warbler

A handsome male Sardinian Warbler with his red iris

Excitement as a beautiful Azure-winged Magpie is caught going to roost. It's quite a handful!

The eponymous Azure-winged Magpie showing the azure wings and tail

There are still more pictures to come!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Migration through Doñana

Although we already know a great deal about the migration strategies of trans-Saharan migrant birds, there is still much to learn about the details of the timing and location of stopover areas between species and within population categories (age and sex classes) of individual species. There is considerable evidence that climate change is affecting migration patterns and this needs to be understood.

Accordingly, the European-African Songbird Migration Network was established to study the migration of birds in key sites throughout Europe and Africa. Birds are caught and ringed, and details measurements, including weight and fat load, are observed and recorded.

The European-African Songbird Migration Network uses standardised methodology in the study of migrating birds in key sites through Europe and Africa.

One of these sites is in the Coto Doñana and I was privileged to participate in the programme with a team of Spanish ornithologists for a couple of weeks this Autumn. The Coto Doñana is an area of marshes ("marismas") in the delta of the River Gualdalquivir in Andalusia, Spain. Now a National Park, it is recognised as one of the most important wetland habitats in Europe and where countless waterfowl and wading birds, and other wildlife breed.

Moreover, the area is of crucial importance as a final stopover and "fattening-up" location for migrant birds as they refuel to make their make their way across the sea and the Sahara desert on their way to their wintering grounds in southern Africa.

Sunrise over the marismas, when our day's work began

The sun burns off the early morning mist... reveal our village of El Rocio across the marismas (Can you spot the Cattle Egret among the feet of the horses?)

The field station, set among the umbrella-pines,
is constructed according to traditional methods

Birds are captured in mist nets like this set among the tamarisks...

...and are processed at the field station. Here, Maalie measures the wing...

...of a female Blackcap (yes, the female Blackcap's "cap" is brown!

Neus meticulously records every detail

A curious Hoopoe looks on

This is the first post of several about my visit to Spain. I will show pictures of individual birds species the we caught in due course.