Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Looking back at birding in the 0's, part 2


This was a sweet year, due to two good news.
The first of the two good news came early in winter - it must have still been January or February - and actually started with what was a bit of bad news really: someone approached the company I was working for (a private consulting company specializing in environmental laws and impact assessments) because he planned to construct a fricking golf course right inside the potential home range of a known pair of Lesser-spotted Eagles.
European readers may know what this means, North American readers may not, so I’ll try to come up with an analogue. It’s not quite as severe as planning a parking lot on the last remnants of Louisiana’s Singer Tract in the 1940ies, but it also isn't that far away from it severity-wise. We have less than 100 pairs of the eagles left in Germany and they are not fairing too well.
Okay? So it’s bad, and it was our job to see if it was possible at all under German nature conservation law – I am not going to say it was our job to make it possible although that’s really what it was all about.
Well, the obvious thing to do was map the exact territory use of the eagles within the usual 3-km diameter around their nest and hope that by lucky chance and coincidence they would not be using the one field the golf course was planned on.
And the mapping of the eagles became a project of mine, which meant I was to patrol the entire potential home range for 10 days between April and September, scanning for the eagles or any other conservation-relevant bird species, mapping their movements, monitoring their behaviour and just have a really, really good time doing so.

The second of two good news had to do with my then-girlfriend-now-wife nearing the completion of her PhD and getting an invitation to spend three months at a lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Of course she asked me to accompany her for as long as possible and I was able to take a whole month off work. By circumstances beyond my control, the first month of her internship - where I was to come along and bird, err, help her organizing stuff and get settled - just so happened to be May.

Around the Great Lakes.
Yes, May.
I didn’t really mind that a lot.

I’ll continue with my Michigan spring birding extravaganza and get back to the eagles afterwards because the best birding there was in August anyway.
Okay, so it was May around the Great Lakes and boy, did I have a good time.
First, my wife and I travelled to New York City for a week of sightseeing and a very tiny bit of birding, then she was to start working and I went to visit Point Pelee, Rondeau Provincial Park, the surroundings of Ann Arbor, the Sleeping Bear Dunes area and the eastern Upper Peninsular of Michigan.
Here is a short excerpt from the travel report’s introduction I wrote after getting back to Germany:

“This must have been one of the most enjoyable and successful birding trips of my life, not only in terms of species seen but also because most species were seen at very close range. And there are so many really beautiful species around it is hard to believe you are outside the tropics. Seeing a Northern Cardinal, a Yellow Warbler and a Blue Jay at close range within five minutes will probably bore the locals, but it is a breathtaking experience for anyone else. I recorded a total of 230 species, most of which were actually seen (which only means I did very badly on identifying them by sound alone). Amongst them were 36 species of wood-warblers (two of which – Prairie and Worm-eating - were only heard, but that still leaves 34 which I saw, and this apparently is a pretty good number compared to other trip reports I read) and 14 species of sparrows (not counting the Towhee and House Sparrows), including highlights such as brilliant views of Henslow’s, Le Conte’s and a beautiful Lark Sparrow.”

Other very noteworthy species (in my world) and good candidates for bird of the year were both American and Least Bittern actually seen, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Spruce Grouse, Sandhill Crane, Piping Plover (inland!), Upland Sandpiper, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Phalarope, Red-headed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo (yes, I know, but I never reported it), Cerulean Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Kirtland’s Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Summer Tanager, Clay-coloured Sparrow, and Evening Grosbeak, just to name quite a few.

Now we quickly jump back to Germany, the meadows and fields surrounding a prime forest and the quest for the Lesser-spotted Eagles.
As if surveying for the eagles wasn’t already grand enough, the entire area turned out to be extraordinarily good for large birds, particularly raptors, and after informing local birders to this who repeatedly went there in the following years, we found that this might just be one of the most species-rich area for raptors in all of Germany (I kid you not). On my tours in August I would regularly see the following species of large, large birds:
Grey Heron, White Stork, Black Stork, White-tailed Eagle, Osprey, of course Lesser-spotted Eagles, Red and Black Kite, Marsh Harrier, both Hen and Montague’s Harrier were occasionally around although not breeding (in later years I even found a vagrant Pallid Harrier), tons of Common Buzzards (later in the year many Rough-legs as well and a few years later a vagrant Long-legged Buzzard was found by others), Honey Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Common Kestrel, Hobby, (in later years and/or other seasons also Red-footed Falcon, Peregrine, and Merlin), and Common Cranes, both breeding and migrants.

Well, you’d better be!
This isn’t all, however.

The area is right next to the Baltic coast and the salt meadows of Karrendorf, where I spent two lunch breaks of an hour or so each on my two survey trips in August (you know, just getting a short raptor break to prevent overload). On these two short birding lunch breaks, I found:
Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Marsh Sandpiper, Great Snipe, and Pectoral Sandpiper.

Again, North American readers my not fully appreciate that list. Okay, here’s the translation:
It is like visiting Point Pelee (or Central Park for that matter) for no more than an hour twice in May and finding yourself (not twitching others’ sightings) Kirtland’s Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Nelson’s Sparrow, Summer Tanager, and Western Tanager.
You do get the picture.
All these birds, from the raptors and storks to the shorebirds, are more than deserving to be named bird of the year.

And now, the drawing of the winner:
It was hard.
You see I had a fabulous time in North America, packed with amazing birds, and the birding in Germany was also extremely rewarding, with an almost equal amount of absolutely equally amazing birds.
Which of these to chose as bird of the year?

Well, I gave it an entire lot full of thought and am now convinced that the bird of the year just has to be the Henslow’s Sparrow.
Well, I don’t know, but I give you another excerpt from my travel report:

“YES, HENSLOW’S !!! This was one of the species I wanted to see the most. The precise reasons for this aren’t even clear to me today and I can’t put forward any rational arguments for enjoying Henslow’s so much. Surely it is a North American endemic that is difficult to find in general and it is declining over most of its range, but this is also the case with other species I encountered that didn’t even get me half as excited. Well, it all comes down to personal liking and that’s just what it was: I somehow desperately wanted to get good views of this chap!
And these I surely got.
Many thanks to Chartier and Ziarno for their excellent description of the species’ habitat in the Michigan guide. Without their guide and habitat description I would have certainly missed out on one of my most wanted species of the trip. On the way to one of the sites mentioned for Henslow’s in their guide (where by the way I also would have found it according to the Michigan email forum. What a book!), I stopped at a grassland beside the road that looked promising, switched off the engine and the first thing I heard was … a Field Sparrow to be honest, but the Henslow’s started singing just seconds afterwards and had me running to the patch of prairie like I was on drugs. I then stood on the edge of the small stretch of prairie for at least half an hour and only got brief views of flying birds that dropped into dense cover after what were at best a very few seconds. Without them singing constantly I would have not gone looking for them in that particular patch in the first place and I also would not have been able to put an ID on any of the small brown jobs that zoomed across the meadow.
Eventually, a bird started singing about 50 metres away from me on a high perch right on the edge of the grassy area and I knew instantly that this was my chance! Silently crawling on my belly I managed to approach the bird and finally enjoyed extremely brilliant views of it singing right in my face at what must have been less than 10 metres. Amazing when you can see the feathers on its throat vibrate in full song. What a beautiful species!!
I am also very proud to say that I didn’t set a single foot into its habitat (crawling along the edge of the prairie), hence not damaging anything (which is completely out of the question anyway, but I just thought I’d mention it) and that the bird singing in front of me also left because it wanted to have a word or two with its opponent on the other side of the field, not because of me watching it.
CHEERS, Michigan!”

Yupp, that sums it up nicely: Cheers Michigan!!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Not dipping on a Dipper

As some of you (particularly those who regularly read Dale's excellent Discovering Alpine Birds) might know, I spent two weeks in January in and around Tirol.
The main reason of course was a ground breaking international event Dale's blogged about here (and that I will blog about at a later point in time if time herself, who is a river, will permit) but of course, while I was there and the family was with me, I thought that I might also try to get some birding done.
And yes, I did.
Well, I had visited the Alps before on a few occasions in the 1980ies and late 1990ies and was thus familiar with the very vast majority of its special birds, so there was no real rush to get lifers. However, I very much looked forward to re-connecting with a few enigmatic species I hadn't seen in a long, long time.
Amongst these species was the Eurasian Dipper.
The Dipper is a bird frequently found along mountainous streams and creeks (and therefore not a tricky bird to see or get), yet I had spent 12 years in the flatlands of northern Germany where it is but a rare visitor from Scandinavia, and one that had basically avoided my detection for the entire period there .
It was thus with great pleasure that I found a mountain creek with a lovely weir and heaps of boulders along its banks was running through our little holiday destination of Kiefersfelden, right on the German-Austrian border. And by a stroke of luck (aka a good and long nap of my son), I found myself searching said location on my first full day there, for the Dipper.
I will let the pictures do the telling in a few instances, and it will suffice to write that I found not one but five Dippers along the 1.5 kms of river I searched, although the first 5 minutes were spent in a state of anxiety when the weir, my expected hot spot, held only Mallards.
Shortly after the weir though is where this blog post really begins:

The weir where the Dipper wasn't at first - but was on later day's visits I won't blog about...

The river above the weir where the Dipper wasn't where the Dipper was at first - but wasn't on later day's visits I won't blog about (the weir is in the background)...

And here it is, the star of this post:



The passerine diving machine - going...

... going ...

... gone - what an unexpected end to this series!

And it's back up again.
The claws of this species, by the way, must be amongst the world's sharpest. Because those rocks can be dippery when wet.

I had watched the Dipper for well over half an hour when I realized it got dark and that it was time to return home to the family.
Walking along the river bank back towards the weir, a strange and barely audible whispering caught my ear.
I stopped in my tracks.
There it was again, and this time I was able to locate it as coming from amongst the boulders underwater.
In tune with the waves' rushing and purling but clearly discernible against its acoustic background, there was a tiny, soft, and repeated "Who", and like Horton I bent down to investigate further.
To my amazement, I found a choir of caddisfly larvae had gathered on a small area of sand amongst the rocks where the current was subdued by their larval cases and the boulders sheltering them, and they sang a sad and mellow song that I will reproduce here to the best of my abilities and as I noted it out in the field, lying down in the snow by the river, and I will call their tune The Ballad of Jack The Dipper.

The Ballad of Jack the Dipper

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jackbill has The Dipper, dear
And he keeps it out of sight

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows start to spread
A white bib, though, wears The Dipper, dear
So there's not a trace of red

On the embankment...around sunset,
Lies a dead aquatic critter
Someone's diving 'round the river bed
Is the someone Jack the Dipper?

From a boulder in the river
A small pebble’s drooping down
Yes, it’s from a larva’s case, dear
Bet you Dipper's back in town

Makes you wonder if we owe one of literature's finest stories to Brecht & Weill spending one too many holidays at a creek in the Alps ...