vrijdag 5 september 2008

Wryneck - Jynx torquilla

Until last year, I had never even seen a Wryneck. I had tried to twitch it, but without succes. I missed birds, while friends had just seen it a couple of minutes before. And I had searched for them during Spring and Autumn migration. This species however stayed an enigma. Not only because I wasn't able to find one, but also because every birdwatcher in the Netherlands gets enthousiastic when they start talking about Wrynecks. What is it, that makes this bird so special?

First of all, it's rare in the Netherlands. Rareness makes a bird often more special. Simply because you won't get to see it very often and every time you do, it gives some extra excitement. This is probably a human trait, since human interest often increases if things are uncommon or rare. You'll also find this in economics or in art. Coals and diamonds are both allotropes of Carbon, but people get much more excited when they find a diamond then a piece of coal. And this also accounts for art, since true masterpieces are rare.

Wrynecks are Woodpeckers. They have, like other woodpeckers a very long tongue for grasping insects out of places that are otherwhise hard to reach. Their toes are placed zygodactylly (i.e. two toes pointing to the front and two pointing to the back) and their call is somewhat comparable to other woodpeckers. For the rest they don't look like them at all and are therefore placed in their own Genus. The Genus consists of two Species. The Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla and the African Rufous-Necked Wryneck Jynx ruficollis.

Although Wrynecks are woodpeckers, they don't behave like them. They usually don't climb vertically on treetrunks, they don't excavate their own nest and they don't drum. If you are lucky to get to see this bird (otherwise take a look at my pictures), you'll easily find these behavioural differences in it's morphology. Most woodpeckers have a pointed tail with very strong tailfeathers. They use their tail for support when they vertically climb treetrunks. The Wryneck however, doesn't very often climb this way and therefore doesn't need such a tail. Their tail is rounded. It's bill doesn't look like that of the true woodpeckers, not a chisel shaped strong bill, but more that of an insect eating Passerine. Furthermore the Wryneck is the only woodpecker with a regular long distance migration. They winter in Africa and migrate every year. Some other species of woodpecker sometimes disperse over long distances, but they won't do so every year and they won't make the same distances as the Wryneck does. Other species of woodpeckers show small irruptions, when unfavourable conditions force them to move. But these shifts are uncomparable to the long distances that Wrynecks fly.

Wryneck... Strange name, isn't it? If you wonder why it bears this name, take a look at this small movieclip:


You'll see a Wryneck wrynecking. It is twisting its neck in all directions. In many languages it bears a name that is pointing to this weird behaviour. In Dutch it is called "Draaihals" and the latin "torquilla" means turning. But why does it do this? Apparently the stretching of the neck and the turning make it look like a snake. It even makes a snake-like hissing sound. Wrynecks breed in old used woodpecker holes and if they are disturbed they can probably scare the predator with this behaviour. But they also seem to use it in courtship.

I was very lucky when my friend Casper Zuyderduin discovered this year a wryneck in Katwijk, since it was the first time I had a reasonable view of this bird. I had seen my first last year, but that was not really satisfying since it was on our bird ringing station and I had to leave the bird, because I was disturbing our nets by watching it and we had a small chance of catching it. So I was asked "friendly" to get into the hut. Off course we didn't catch and I was not as happy as I expected to see a bird so high on my whishlist. The Wryneck, Casper dicovered wasn't easy to find. At first we didn't find it and I made plans to never twitch a Wryneck again, but then suddenly Casper saw it again. And so did I, Magnificent! But things got even greater this year, when I was present when two Wrynecks were caught.

One was at the famous bird ringing station Castricum, where my friend Vincent van der Spek and I were to do our bird ringing exam for a Dutch ringing permit. I got to ring a Wryneck! Fantastic, but also a bird I had never ringed before and this didn't make my exam easier. Of course the identification was no problem, but the ageing was a bit harder. The pattern on the primary coverts was important to age the bird and this bird appeared to be a first calender year. It was an incredible day, with a lot of new ringing species, but because of all the excitement and the number of birds we got to ring, there was hardly time to enjoy the birds. The next day was therefore a fantastic second chance.

Vincent and I both got our permit. We were very excited and couldn't wait till we could ring on our own station (V.R.S. Meijendel). The next day we arrived at Meijendel where Maarten Verrips (one of our tutors) had already set out the nets and welcomed us. There were many many birds and we had to work very hard. Luckily Kasper Hendriks and our guest Engbert van Oort were also there to help. Then when numbers decreased a bit, Vincent and I walked a round to get the birds. We were joking and laughing a little and celebrated our ringing permit. Then ... a Wryneck!! Vincent got a Wryneck from the nets.. We walked on and unbelieveble, the next bird we got was a Thrush Nightingale!!! But that's a story I will write about later.

The Wryneck was beautiful. It looked like a moth or a reptile. At least something ancient. The cryptic colourpatterns were very nice. Now there was time to enjoy the bird. The sound, the feet, the twisting of the neck... We took some pictures and released the bird. It flew off on it's way to Africa!

I found this interesting blog about European woodpeckers, where you can read more about the wryneck: http://woodpeckersofeurope.blogspot.com/search?q=wryneck

dinsdag 15 juli 2008

Montagu's harrier - Circus pygargus

In the North-east part of the Dutch province of Groningen is a small stronghold of a magnificent species: the Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus. These harriers were quite common in the nineteenth century, but the habitats it inhabited (open dunes, moorland, reedbeds) changed and got apparently useless for the harriers. Above the changing landscapes came the DDT problems. Montagu's harriers feed on rodents and large insects, and the use of DDT as an insecticide took its toll on the harrier population. Apart from the accumulation of poisoness chemicals there were also no large insects left. The numbers of Montagu's Harriers declined in the Netherlands and by 1987 there were only 3 pairs left. Things didn't look very promissing.

By 1990, when everybody probably gave up on the Montagu's Harrier as a Dutch breeding bird, things changed unexpectedly. In that year the European Union decided to no longer subsidize the wheatfarmers in order to get rid of the surplus of wheat and to get a better and more natural wheatprize. Instead of subsidizing the farmers for their production they subsidized the farmers when they took agricultural land out of production. Since the wheatprizes were so low, the farmers could better set-aside some of their land and benefit from the European money. Unexpectedly this set-aside agricultural land, had an amazing side effect. Many species that were having difficulty in surviving in the barren Dutch agricultural landscapes, florished in this newly created mozaic. Two species that were never seen before breeding in agricultural land started to breed in the Oldambt area. One was the Corncrake and the other was the Montagu's Harrier. The area became some kind of surrogate Steppe area. But because this was off course still agricultural land, the birds needed some kind of extra protection. In order to provide the birds with this protection, a Foundation was created: Stichting Werkgroep Grauwe Kiekendief. They were succesful, numbers increased to about 40 breeding pairs, last year! the project co-operates closely with its German counterpart.

The project is really nice. Everybody seems to co-operate, from politicians, to farmers, to volunteers and to scientists. The birds are ringed, wing tagged and some receive a satellite device. The volunteers build nest-protectors and the farmers don't harm the nests. In order to keep people involved, they name some of the satellite birds after the farmers or the volunteers. The project gathered a massive amount of information about these beautiful birds. Read all about them on the website of the foundation: http://grauwekiekendief.nl/index_eng.php

The satellite tracked birds gave us more insight into their lives, especially during the time they were on migration into Africa. It all started with two females Marion and Beatriz. Read here about their sad but fascinating stories. Every satellite bird tells his or her own story, which makes it really personal and very interesting, more birds got a satellite device and I can advise you to read their stories as well. If this got your interest, there are more projects concerned with satellite telemetry of Montagu's harriers: http://malimbus.free.fr/trakindx.htm

My friend Vincent van der Spek, joined the project for an internship. He invited me and some other friends to help him with his project. It was mutual benefit, since we would be able to enjoy the Montagu's harriers and he would have some company and a car to drive him around. I'm still very thankful, since the two days I was able to visit him, were absolutely fantastic. And especially the first day, was one of the best Birding experiences I ever had.

One of the nesting sites
Nest protector

Vincent showed us that the Montagu's Harrier is colony breeder. Don't think of a colony like that of herons, but think of a couple of nests in the same wheatfield a couple of hundred metres apart. All kinds of interesting facts were told and seen in the field. We saw the adult males bringing food to the nests and females co-operatively chasing away a Marsh Harrier. What beautiful and elegant birds! We heard their calls, saw a young and tagged bird and enjoyed the landscape. Then when our survey time was over, Vincent had another surprise.

There was a nest to be ringed that afternoon and we were allowed to be present. Wow! That was a great wish. It was just as I hoped it would be. We measured, ringed and wingtagged 3 birds. Have a look at the pictures (from both days) and you probably know how I felt.

female of the second day.

The ringer: Erik Visser

The day wasn't over yet. There was a good wader area called Polder Breebaart. A few days before, there was a sighting of two Broad-billed Sandpipers and a Marsh Sandpiper. We (Ben Wielstra, Luuk Punt, Vincent van der Spek and me) had already been there in the afternoon, but then things weren't really promissing. When we returned in the evening, with the right tide, things were completely different, there were many, many birds. At least a thousand Dunlins and a couple of hundred Spotted Redshanks. We scanned the area and saw a few Curlew Sandpipers in breeding plumage, a few Red Knots and then Ben discovered a Broad-billed Sandpiper. We didn't have much time to enjoy watching it, because Vincent discovered an odd looking Golden Plover. It was indeed odd and after an identification discussion (small bird, long-legged impression, dark undertail coverts, barring on the sides, yes, ...dark underwings, ...) we agreed it was a Pacific Golden Plover! A bird that can look much the same as an American Golden Plover, with which it was considered conspecific in the past and as a Golden Plover, so we had to be careful with the ID. But everything was alright for this species. What a discovery and what a day!!

The second day I was with Kasper Hendriks, Rob van Bemmelen and Maarten Verrips. We weren't as lucky as the first day, but this was also a very nice day. We could join two ringing sessions of two different nests. But this time much more people were present. A nice thing was that the proud farmer was also invited. The wader area was however less succesful. We weren't there with the right tide, which did matter! I did see about 75 Common seals and a couple of thousand Common Shelducks, which was also nice.

The farmer, who owned the land where this bird hatched.

Common Seals at the Dollard.

The Montagu's harriers might be under pressure again. This year, for the first time in 18 years, there were hardly any lands set-aside. The European Union stopped subsidizing this out of production taking, since there is a shortage of wheat and other agricultural food products on the world market. This year will therefore be a very important year for the harriers. How will they cope with this change of land use? Will they be able to get enough food? And will they be able to adapt? Please contact the foundation if you like to support them!

zondag 13 juli 2008

Balearic Shearwater - critically endangered

Sorry for my low output lately. I just couldn't make time to write and also lost a bit of interest in writing (June is always a bit of a quiet period for birds in the Netherlands). But things changed completely yesterday!

My friends (Luuk, Frank and Ben) called me to go birding in the province of Noord-Holland. Their main goal was to try to get a view of a Balearic shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus. Problem with Balearic Shearwaters is, it takes hours and hours of watching over an empty sea to get a short glimpse of this bird. The species is really hard to get in the Netherlands. Not really promissing, certainly not when the weatherforecasts were also not really nice. I had plans visiting some Musea and said no to them. After an hour, fear took over me. Ben was quite convincing, Lucky Luuk was part of the team and although early in season it was the right time of the year: Saturdaymorning 5.20 a.m. I stepped in Luuk's car to visit Camperduin (the best place to see this species in the Netherlands!). On the way, clouds became darker and darker and there was heavy rain. When we arrived at the spot, there was no way we would go and watch this empty sea for hours in the rain. We decided to change plans and visit a sad grounded Eurasion Griffon Vulture in Wieringen. (our luck with the Balearic Shearwater would change later that day, please read on!)

The Eurasian Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, was discovered two days before. Probably due to the bad weather the bird had stayed here. Vultures need thermal vents to fly without using too much energy. It was a sad sight, the bird didn't move at all and looked more like a beheaded stuffed bird than a large fearcefull scavenger. A bit boring, but it was at least something.

The wheather changed a bit and things looked more promising. We went to Den Oever, where a few White-winged terns had been seen lately. There were loads of beautiful Black terns (it's closest relative). They were foraging in flocks, have a look at Luuk's weblog to see a picture of the Black terns: http://vogelverslagen.web-log.nl/mijn_weblog/2008/07/vaal.html
We didn't see the White-winged terns, however.

We visited some more bird areas (Saw a nice juvenile Little owl and some breeding plumage Sanderlings) and then we decided to have another try at Camperduin. There's a hut (without a roof though...) built as migration point where we settled ourselves. Within half an hour we were succesful! Incredible, I discovered the bird at really close distance, only about 150m away. We had splendid views, better than this you probably won't see a Balearic Shearwaters in the Netherlands. We followed the bird until we lost it behind the dike. We just couldn't believe it and we were really happy with this sighting.

To read something about their identification: http://www.noc.soton.ac.uk/gg/SWSW/id_guide.html (sroll down to the Balearic Shearwater identification article)

The hide:

The dike where the bird vanished (called Hondsbossche zeewering):

As I already said, Balearic Shearwaters are really hard to see in the Netherlands. The only place where you probably have a reasonable chance to see one is Camperduin. But only if you are willing to put time and effort into it. There's another thing, which makes it more complicated to see one: Balearic Shearwaters are rare on worldscale, and they become rarer and rarer everyday! The total population is probably about 2000 breeding pairs, they breed on the Baleares (Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera). Predation by feral cats and rats takes a large toll at the breeding grounds. After breeding the birds leave the Mediterranean Sea and forage in the Atlantic. Adult mortality is also unusually high, probably due to long line fishing. The birds live close to the shores, closer than other close relatives. They have learned to follow fishingships to profit from fish discards, but with long-line fishing this trait is not very profitable to the birds... Read this interesting article to get a better insight into the problems Balearic Shearwaters are facing: http://bycatch.env.duke.edu/species/balearic-shearwater
If things aren't changed the bird might go extinct within 40 years!

Although the birds become rarer, chances of seeing one in the Netherlands might paradoxically increase. The birds are actually cold water specialists. The cold waters are much more productive in food for the Balearic Shearwaters than the warm parts of the oceans. Since the temperature in the oceans is increasing due to Global Warming, the birds have to travel further north to get their food: http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2006/09/balearic_shearwater.html

See also:
But things are probably more complicated than this and a lot of research is still needed:
For more overall information and some pictures:

zondag 15 juni 2008

Tiengemeten, Kinderdijk and other bird areas - Views in the past and in the future.

Yesterday we left for Tiengemeten: a small isle in the province of Zuid Holland. None of us (Luuk, Frank, Ben and me) had ever been there, but we had heard some good reports of other birdwatchers about this place. Tiengemeten is an island in the Haringvliet. It is the last true island that is left of the Dutch Delta (a large delta where several large rivers end in the Northsea), all the other islands of the Delta are connected by bridges to the mainland nowadays. If you want to read more about the history of the island, read this nice and very readable report: http://islas.ruudbijlsma.nl/tgm_en.htm

Tiengemeten was bought by Natuurmonumenten (an organisation concerned with nature conservation) with aid of the Dutch Government. The main idea was to create a Nature island, with some low-profile recreation. (A fantastic choice since there were all kinds of plans with the island in the past, like the creation of a nuclair power plant or plans for a second airport for the city of Rotterdam). The new plans are immense. Not only is the entire area large (the total surface of the island and the area outside the dikes is over 1000 hectares), the plan also includes to break open some of the dikes, to relocate all inhabitants (the last farmer left in 2006) and in the future there are also plans to get back the tidal movements of the sea by periodically opening the sluices of the Haringvlietdam. This will mean the water will also become brackish again. We only visited the North-east part of the island. There was a strange historic atmosphere with the abandoned houses still present. The fields were gone, the ground lowered and a large part was inundated. The inundated fields were full of birds: about 50 Spoonbills, 30 Little egrets, 4 Black-necked Grebes, 1 summer plumage Dunlin, 4 Grey Plovers, about 10 Mediterranean Gulls, 12 Little Gulls (we even heard them calling), over 500 Black-tailed Godwits (not a good sign, these birds probably lost their nests), numerous Redshanks and several species of ducks.
But the 15 Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus were the best treat of this island. Black-winged Stilts are rare in the Netherlands, to see 15 birds is even rarer. The birds were breeding, we saw at least 4 nests! Then we had to quit our visit, a heavy thunderstorm and rain came closer and closer and we decided it would be safer to leave the open fields and return to the visitors centre.

We took the little ferry and returned to our car.

In the meantime the weather had improved and we decided to continue our trip. We tried the Scherpenissepolder. A Marsh Sandpiper had been reported and we quickly found the bird. Areas like the Schakerloopolder, Het Stinkgat, Krammersluizen were visited. Het Stinkgat looked nice when we arrived. There were some waders present near the viewing point, but when we walked towards it, a group of bored cows decided to bully our day. They decided to take a walk and scare away the birds... On the right, in the picture you can still see the flock of birds flying off...

Yellow-wort Blackstonia perfoliata along the path to the hut of the Krammersluizen:

Our last destinastion of today was Kinderdijk. Kinderdijk got worldfame by it's Dutch mills, but also have a look at the way it got its name (it's a nice legend!). Nowadays these mills are UNESCO world heritage. It's the only place in the world where you can see so many of these types of mills together and it therefore attracts many visitors from all over the globe. To help you out of your dreams: Holland is not full of tulips, we don't walk on wooden shoes and most of the old windmills have already vanished long ago. Nevertheless the mills and hydraulic systems are an important part of our history and it is a good thing this site got on the UNESCO list. I had never been to Kinderdijk before and I must say, I was impressed by the view of so many old windmills. We stood between two newly built houses next to a busy road and looked over the fields towards the mills. It was like watching through a keyhole into the past.

Our goal was not the mills though. A white-winged tern Chlidonias leucopterus had been reported on the ponds right behind the houses. The pond was filled with floating leaves of Yellow Water-lily Nuphar lutea and on these floating leaves there were nests of the closely related Black Tern Chlidonias niger. Black Terns breed in small colonies and prefer to breed on floating plants in fresh water marshes. Sometimes they breed on man-made small rafts, specially created for this species. In winter they stay in large flocks at sea in Western Africa. The numbers of Black Terns decline. In the breeding atlas "Teixeira R.M. 1979. Atlas van de Nederlandse Broedvogels. Pp. 182-183. Natuurmonumenten, 's Graveland" a couple of reasons are hypothesized: Most important reasons are probably the fact that marsh areas and agricultural grassfields were drained and waterlevels were lowered. Other reasons probably are the strong decline of the plant Water Soldier Stratiotes aloides, the decline of large insects, and increased watertourism. I can understand the watertourism problem; when we arrived there were two people fishing, their boat was very close to a nest of a black tern. The fisherman probably weren't even aware of it. The nests are not strong at all and a large wave would probably make it sink...
Just immediately after we parked the car, we saw the White-winged Tern. We were very lucky, since 2 minutes later a Marsh harrier (a bird of prey) arrived. All the terns were alarming and trying to get the harrier away from their nests. The White-winged Tern joined the other terns. But then when the Harrier flew off, so did the White-winged Tern without any obvious reason. We waited for about half an hour (and enjoyed the still present Black terns), but the White-winged didn't return. We decided to leave it, and went home.

zondag 8 juni 2008

CES Constant Effort Site - Bird ringing

CES, or Constant Effort Site is a specific method of bird ringing. The idea is to monitor birds over a long period of time, with standardized methods. If you keep record of the age and sex of the birds and if you also record recaptures (i.e. when you catch a bird, that you've already ringed before), you are able to tell something about the demography of the birds in your area. The ratio of adult and juvenile birds give an impression of productivity, the recaptures tell you something about survival and site fidelity. Off course the power of your reasearch is in numbers. Not only the numbers on your own location but also the numbers of the hundreds of other CES ringing locations in Europe. This large dataset could be a powerfull tool for monitoring population changes. I'm not going into more details about the CES methods and guidelines. If you want to read more about these things, please read the EURING guidelines for CES ringing in Europe (Pdf)

One of the important things in CES ringing is the ratio Adults:Juveniles. If you want to produce data for this ratio, you have to have knowledge about the plumages of the different age classes. Sometimes it's very obvious a bird is a juvenile: There are bird species that have a juvenile plumage which is completely different from their adult plumage. For example the well known Robin Erithacus rubecula: On the picture below you'll see a juvenile bird on the left and on the right an adult bird. The juvenile looks completely different, doesn't it? You could hardly believe that the spotted brown bird grows into a brightly coloured individual. The Pictures are taken at "Vogelringstation Meijendel" in the dunes of Wassenaar.

In those cases it's easy to tell the age, but you have to know how the juveniles look like, otherwise you might think you're dealing with a complety different or even unknown species.

There are also cases in which it isn't that easy to tell the age and you have to look for more subtle differences. Sometimes it might even be possible that those subtle differences don't exist and you have to do without an age classification. Some feathers (or all, depending on the species) get moulted during the season. When feathers are moulted, it might be more difficult to age the birds. Have a look at the Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes: On the left you see a juvenile bird, which lacks the white tips of the undertail feathers. On the right you see a bird that was photographed in October. It shows white tips of the undertail feathers. Is it then an adult? No, sorry, you can't tell. First calenderyear birds (1cy) moult their body feathers in the end of summer (so also their undertail feathers). Once moulted, there's no difference between the undertail feathers of adults and of juveniles.

So during CES you constantly have to be alert to make the right ageing decissions. As I help as a volunteer on the Bird ringing station Meijendel, I will try to show you more often what we are doing over there and how you could age, sex or identify different birds.

During CES, we spend quite some time around the ringing area, in the middle of a beautiful nature reserve. As a bonus for our efforts, we often get to see a lot of other nice birds, plants, mammals and amphibians. Today was really special, I got a magnificent view of two Golden Orioles (male and female) Oriolous oriolus. We heard the male calling all morning long. But getting to see them is something different. Orioles spent most of their time high up in the canopy. Deeply hidden between the leaves and branches of the trees. But if you're willing to put some time into it, there's a good possibility of seeing them. So I decided to wait and search the canopy. Then all of a sudden the male showed itself. It was singing completely free on a dead branch (I made a painting, so you get an impression of the splendor of this species). There we no leaves or branches blocking the view. It was absolutely marvellous! Then I even got to see the female. I was daydreaming of catching them on our ringing station, but off course this will never happen. Ah well... it's always good to keep something to wish!

zaterdag 7 juni 2008

The Goat-Sucker - Caprimulgus europaeus

No, I'm not talking about cryptozoology. So sorry, this is not a story about the Chupacabra monster, also called the Goatsucker. Nor is it about new swearing words or strange sexual obsessions. It's about nightjars and other nocturnal birds.

The European nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, bears in many countries a name that's related to the sucking of goats. Goatsucker, what a strange name, isn't it? Does it really suck goats? No, they prey on large insects. The name goes back to ancient Greek times and is based on folklore. Nightjars are active from dusk till dawn. The birds can sometimes be found near catle, probably because the cows and goats flush large insects, which the nightjars eat. Mysterious birds, night active and in the neighbourhood of goats... what would you think? Off course: they must be drinking the milk of the goats and make them sick.

Nightjars and the combination with the landscape in which they live, leave a mystical impression. If you go to the right places (moorland, forest clearings, heathlands) in the right time of the year (they are summer residents and migrate in winter to Africa) you might be able to find one. Numbers are increasing in the Netherlands, so your chances of seeing one will also increase. When the sun sets and night comes, you hear a churring sound*, first coming from far and flowing over the moorland. It is not monotonous, the churring changes a bit in highth and slowly you get hypnotised. It's a pleasant feeling, the temperature is warm for a night, moth are flying around you and you dream away. Then you hear a "sqeek" sound * and then a rolling and a bit gutteral "kroo...kroo..kroo". All of a sudden you're out of your dreams, the bird flies above your head. Fantastic! If you're really lucky you can also hear them clapping their wings. I'm not sure how this "kroo..kroo.. kroo" sound is produced, it might be made with the wings, you can hear it at the end of this recording: http://waarneming.nl/sound_details.php?id=902. The males have a white patch on their underwing, probably used in courtship. It is said the males strongly react on white objects. I'm not so sure about this. I still lively remember an episode of Bill Oddie goes wild, where Bill Oddie runs over the moor with his white handkerchief, without succes... We however did try the white object trick with a white shirt and it seemed to work, we got a nice view of a bird flying over our heads, so it might be worth trying!

Tonight we (Ben, Reinder, Luuk and me) left for a long trip. On the programme were Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, Corncrake Crex crex, Baillon's crake Porzana pusilla, Spotted crake Porzana porzana, and with some luck maybe some owls. Apart from the Corncrake, we got them all. It was a nice night, and also Luuk's birthday, which we celebrated at midnight. The evening started with Common quail. When we arrived at the place where we hoped to hear them, there was no activity at all. When we gave up hope and just wanted to go, we heard a bird calling from a ryefield. We heard the "wet my lips" call *. We waited for about half an hour when we suddenly saw a bird crossing a path between a grassfield and the ryefield! My first real sighting of a quail ever. All my other birds were only on sound. That was a good start! We even saw one flying, which is a rare sight, since they are reluctant to fly. Even when they are flushed, they prefer to crawl away under the vegetation in stead of flying. They do however fly over large distances: they migrate to Africa in winter.
(I made the drawings of the nightjar and the quail, since I couldn't get pictures this night. I also don't want to take too many pictures, since you sometimes have to be careful putting too much effort in getting a picture while you should actually enjoy the birds you are watching!)

We decided to go on and searched for a good spot for nightjars. We didn't have an exact location, but the area looked suited. When we were waiting for the nightjars, we got a magnificent sighting of a hunting Long-eared Owl Asio otus. I had never seen a Long-eared owl like this, in the back we heard it's young calling. A couple of hundred calling Natterjacks Bufo calamita (toads), blurred the first nightjar. Then when we walked on, we heard the nightjar better and got to see it. Beautiful birds with their strange jarring sound (they get their common name from this jarring in the night), their long wings and tail and their rather slow flight. There were at least two birds calling at this location.

We left the area and headed for the Baillon's crakes. Luuk and Ben hadn't been there this year, for me and Rein it was the second time this week. But it was Luuk's birthday so we didn't care. We tried a Corncrake but weren't succesfull. Tired, but still hungry for more species, we got a nice Little owl and ended the night with a Spotted crake (we heard it's call, which sounds like a whip). Birding by night, fantastic experiences, but it's a shame you always get so tired of these fanatic tours.

* The churring, the "Squeek" and the "wet my lips" soundrecordings can be found on Latvian Birding: http://www.putni.lv/index_balsis_eng.htm

woensdag 4 juni 2008

Creatures of the night - Baillon's Crake

Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity. - Henry Beston - *

Last night we (Rein Genuït, Remco Hofland and I) did some nocturnal birding. Birds at night is something completely different from birds by daylight. It's a whole new dimension, which I discovered about 10 years ago, when I helped as a ringing assistent on a project for Corncrakes Crex crex. First of all you have to get used to the fact that there's no or hardly any light. Your eyes are useless, it's your ears that count! Although this looks obvious, it took me some time to get used to this idea. Even up to now, you can find me wearing my binoculars by night, even when it's pitchdark and impossible to see anything. I'm probably still in denial...
Our main goal this night, was to hear some of the recently reported Baillon's crakes Porzana pusilla. Baillon's crakes are beautiful birds, but they are very hard to see, at least in the Netherlands they are. If people see one, it is often a glimpse, like in this youtube movie:

You have better chances at night. You won't see them but you will hear them. Their calling activity is higher at night, like most raills. I never saw a Baillon's crakes and they are rare in the Netherlands: Between 1800 and 1997 there were at least 93 sightings in the Netherlands (but I wouldn't be surprised if numbers of sightings were higher). In 2005 there were at least two confirmed succesfull breeding attempts (where young birds have been seen) in "Polder Achteraf" and in the "Nieuwe Keverdijkse Polder". This was the first time since 1972 that breeding was confirmed.

Apart from the confirmed breeding records in 2005, there are a few historic reports of breeding Baillon's crakes in the Netherlands (about 15 between 1863 and 1972) and I think I have also heard of eggs and nests in old English museum collections that were once collected in the Netherlands. At the time these eggs and nests must have been collected there were not as many people concerned with birds as nowadays but still they managed to collect nests and eggs of this illusive species. These old records (if they really do exist and if they are correctly tagged) might therefore suggest that Baillons crakes used to be a commoner breeder in the Netherlands. Baillon's crakes are of least concern according to IUCN criteria, they have a large distribution in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The African and Australian population is resident, the European and Asian population are migratory. Although the world's population is probably large, there's to my opinion a need for more research. The migration routes and the population size is not well known. This bird is one of the least known birds in Europe, mainly due to it's illusive lifestyle. The European population is very scattered and as far as I know they are nowhere abundant. The population may have declined, and if so, it is probably due to habitat destruction. They are very illusive in their breeding territories and are maybe commoner than we think because birds get overlooked. On the other hand, their calls can sometimes be confusingly similar to frogs or a Garganey, so some of the identifications from the past might be wrong and numbers could be even lower. Beaman and Madge for example, warn in their book "the Handbook of Bird identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic" for published sound recordings of this species that were in fact recordings of frogs!

If you like to read more about them, this site is a good starter'and off course Wikipedia.

We heard the two of the reported birds of Polder Achteraf in Breukelveen in the province of Utrecht. It was a strange experience, standing there at night, in the middle of nowhere with your hands behind your ears to be able to listen even better, with about ten other birdwatchers. We heard frogs everywhere, two grasshopper warblers, a Mole cricket and a Waterrail and then we heard the Baillon's crakes callinig. Apart from the joy of listening to this species (for Rein it was even a lifer), we also came to hear the specific calls these birds were making. They were not producing the usual male advertising calls *, but made a strange and interesting sound *. I recently found out through the Waarneming.nl forum that in 2005 some Dutch birdwatchers were confronted with a call they suspected to be of a Baillons crake, but nobody knew for sure if it was really that species. They recorded the sound* and when they played back the call, all of a sudden a Baillon's Crake showed up, they were even able to film the bird. They had lured the bird with the sound they had recorded and were able to pin this sound to the species. At least in 2005, 2007 and this year the same call was heard at Polder Achteraf (it was also recorded and compared to the Friesian recordings). Rumours are, these calls might be of female birds, but this needs to be confirmed. There's still so much for us to discover, especially in birdsounds and most of all in nocturnal birdsounds!

I ended this night with a Savi's warbler singing on my newly discovered local patch and with two very nice Hedgehogs of which this is one:

* (I'm not so much into quotes, I'll be honest to you, I got the Henry Beston quote through this website: http://www.quotegarden.com/ To be even more honest, I'm always a bit annoyed about those webpages that start with quotes. So my humble excuses to the people who feel te same. But I liked this one and since I didn't have many pictures and since I had to start with something I fell in the trap and used it anyway.... so I wouldn't be surprised if you'll find more quotes on my blog in the future... )

*The soundrecording of the "strange and intersting sound" of a Baillonscrake was recorded on the 1st of June 2008 by Mathias Ritschard and can be found on the http://dutchbirding.nl/ website. Click in the left menu on "sound gallery" and search in the gallery for Baillons crake ("kleinst waterhoen" in Dutch).

*The sound recording of a usual male advertising call was made by Teus Luijendijk on 22nd of June 2004 and can be found on the http://dutchbirding.nl/ website. Click in the left menu on "sound gallery" and search in the gallery for Baillons crake ("kleinst waterhoen" in Dutch)

*The soudrecoring of 2005 is from Dusan Brinkhuizen and can be found on the http://dutchbirding.nl/ website. Click in the left menu on "sound gallery" and search in the gallery for Baillons crake ("kleinst waterhoen" in Dutch)

zondag 1 juni 2008

Do it yourself Lesser yellowlegs

Yesterday we participated in a Birdrace. The whole idea of this Birdrace was to combine a Big Day with casual birding. It's the combination of both that make things interesting. We discovered a nice surprise on this event. (The picture above shows my four friends (Luuk, Frank, Ben and Sjaak) with whom I participated)

On a normal Big Day you start with a team and you get as many birdspecies as possible in a fixed area within 24 hours (period can be shorter but has to be within a calender day, so from midnight to midnight). The area could be a province, a municipality, a place where you often go birding, a country or whatever geographical borders you and your friends like to set. The rules themselves are not that important, but it's important everybody who participates, plays according the same rules. Most of the important rules are about:

  • Which birds are countable and which aren't? (How to cope with injured birds, introduced species, escapes and established species?),

  • How many people of a team have to see a species, before it gets a tick on the list? Most days work with the rule that all members of a team have to see a birdspecies (or at least a high percentage of the team members). There are two main reasons for this. First of all, for the fun of the team; everybody likes to see as many species as possible. The team has to stay together because only this will give them the highest daylist. It's communal benefit, your teammembers help you and you help your teammembers in getting as many species as possible. The other reason to have this rule is to diminish problems with wrong identifications. On days like this, you're prone to make mistakes because you're in a hurry and want to see... nééd to see ... a species. On such moments it is always good to have a critic second opinion by a teammember.

  • Are you allowed to use information by people who are not members of your team, during the day?

To get an idea of these rules, read the rules of the American Birding Association:

Many birdwatchers in the Netherlands don't like this way of birding. They probably think it's much to stressfull and overdone. Often it is hard to get enough people who want to join you on such a day. The Birdrace we participated was however different from normal Big Days. The most important thing (apart from just having fun) was to realise a big specieslist. Not for individual teams but for the total of all the teams. There were prizes for the best discovery of the day ánd for the team with the longest species list. So therefore teams could chose wheter they would come for quality or numbers, or off course both. Actually there were no rules, apart from time and area. The area (provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe) was an area where we were not really familar with. That is, we didn't know every exact location of commoner species. It is clear we could therefore probably never win a normal Big Day in this region without days of extensive pre-research. We didn't put effort in pre-research, since we just wanted to join for the fun of it. And because we already wanted to go to the area and because we liked to contribute to the total list, we subscribed ourselves.

Our real idea behind this subscription was off course, to profit from the succes of other birdwatchers ;-) About 50 good birdwatchers joined and it was only waiting for something good to show up. We decided to take it easy and look for some stuff around the Lauwersmeer. We didn't receive any phonecall from the organisers of the race. What was going on, no rarities? We phoned Martijn Bot, but he was also surprised that nothing really good had been seen. Apparently it was up to ourselves whether we would see something good that day. Things were not really bad, we had seen a White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, a brown variety female Cuckoo, heard a Eurasian Golden Oriole and seen some other nice birds, but we were a bit disappointed by the low numbers of waders. When we arrived in the Ezumakeeg (probably the best place in the Netherlands for waders), things were looking bad. The birds where we had hoped for (Broad-billed Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Red-necked Phalarope) were all gone. Then we got a telephone call by an other team. They discovered a Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus. Before we would go to there, we decided to finish our check of the Ezumakeeg first.

What a fantastic decision! Only a few minutes later we discovered a Yank! An american wader: the Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes. It was Frank van Duivenvoorde who found the bird first. He first thought it was a Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis but things weren't right. Then the bird flew a few metres, and things were getting clear. About the size of a Redshank, but much more slender. The bill was fine, the neck gracious and the bird looked longer. The legs were yellow to yellowish orange. But most important, there was no sign of a white triangular rump patch. There was only a square white patch, like in Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola. It was flying towards us and landed at about 30 metres away from us. Luuk, put the sighting on the pagersystem and I called the co-ordinator of the Birdrace, so that everone was aware of this rarity. Then within a few minutes, it flew off to another place where it was later rediscovered by some other birdwatchers at far greater distance. We were really lucky, to get such magnificant views.
See better pictures from Sjaak and Luuk here:

And even better pictures from one day later:

We won the prize for the best discovery and got a lot of congratulations (and the total of all the teams together was 181 species!). It made birding that day a lot more relaxed. We scanned some other places and then returned to the Ezumakeeg to have a last look at the Lesser Yellowlegs. At the north part of the Ezumakeeg, where we discovered the Lesser Yellowlegs, were some Ruffs displaying. Before leaving we enjoyed their magnificant plumages and beheaviour, then we went home. Satisfied after a good day of birding!

vrijdag 30 mei 2008

The Nine Killer (Red-Backed Shrike)

The Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio looks so sweet and harmless, but behind their mask these birds are ferocious killers! They eat large insects, small reptiles, small mammals and young birds. You wonder where the colloquial name "Nine Killer" comes from? This is an old folk name, it was thought that the Red-backed Shrike killed nine prey before eating them. Shrikes have a habit of impaling their prey on branches or barb wire. They don't eat everything immediately and that's where the story originates; that they kill nine animals before starting to eat them. It's remarkeble that this bird got this name in several countries (German: "Neuntöter", Dutch: "Negendoder"), so you almost start to wonder whether there's some thruth in the name. There's no other bird family in Western-Europa that impale their prey. So if you ever find impaled prey animals, you know there's a species of shrike present.

These beautiful birds were once widespread as breeding birds all over Europe. Nowadays numbers are declining, especially in north-west Europe. In the UK there's hardly any breeding birds left. In the Netherlands the species also declines, but there are also some new colonisations. The species needs the old European structure rich landscape, with small waste lands, scrub areas and hedges, which was rich on insects. These types of landscapes vanish and so do the birds that depend on them. Birds like Ortolan Bunting, Corn Bunting, Whinchat (see picture), Little Owl and Red-backed shrike are all declining in the Netherlands or are already extinct as breeding birds. There's some hope however. Some of these area's are restored as cultural and natural historic areas. Global warming might also help, the species have their strongholds in the southernparts of Europe, maybe if temperature will increase this will give good opportunities for these species to return.

Today, I got a telephone call by Jaap. He discovered a Red-backed shrike in an area called Lentevreugd. I couldn't come immediately, but called some friends to tell them the good news. A Red-backed Shrike is a rarity nowadays in the province of Zuid-Holland and even if it wasn't, you could still never get enough of shrikes, they are simply beautiful! When I arrived later in the afternoon, the bird was still present. It was a beautiful male in full colours with it's grey head and the black mask throug it's eye. He had a beautiful pink breast and a very nice chestnut coloured back. Red-backed Shrikes migrate in winter through south-east Europe into East Africa, on the way back, they take the same route. This bird just arrived (probably it was still migrating) and was wearing a metal ring. The ring looked rather large and new and it was a shame we couldn't read the inscription, since it didn't look like a Dutch ring. I had great views of the shrike, which was catching insects and was even singing! At a certain moment I even saw it regurgitating a pellet of indigestible insect parts.

Very very very nice!
For some better pictures of this bird see the pictures of René van Rossum:

maandag 26 mei 2008

European Scops Owl (Otus scops)

It was 11.00 p.m. when I got the first telephone call, I didn't even noticed it. The second and third call came by 11.15 p.m. The calls were made by two brothers and great friends. I wasn't very disturbed since they are able to call me for almost any small thing in the middle of the night. Probably a mouse, or a young Tawny owl or maybe they were playing some kind of practical joke on me... I was tired and decided to call them back tomorrow. Then, when I got the fourth call by another birder (Rein), I knew things were serious. When I picked up the phone he told me there was a European Scops owl calling at only 10 kilometres from my home! Amazing, but was it really this species? And how did I get there?

I was suspicious: two years ago some of my friends made the classical mistake in identifying nocturnal nature sounds. They mistakenly took the sound of a Midwife toad Alytes obstetricans for an European Scops Owl. How could you mistaken the sound of an owl with that of a toad, I hear you think? Well, the sounds are very similar and I must admit there were also some extenuating circumstances:
-When they heard the sound, they just returned from a long night of birdwatching and were very tired,
-they weren't aware of a feral population of Midwife toads which was close to the location of the discovered sound, no excuse off course ;-)
-There were a couple of toads present. This made the sound look as if it was moving: One toad could be calling for a few minutes, fell quiet and another toad 10 meters away would start calling.
-They saw something flying (whatever it was, it probably wasn't a scops owl...)

The sighting fooled experienced Dutch birdwatchers, even people who had experience with both species (toad and owl) abroad, so be aware! The next day, the truth was revealed, when we arrived, we saw a nice midwife toad walking through the grass in the sandy dune, although it wasn't a Scops owl, I liked it anyway since I had never seen an adult Midwife toad before. I've heard (I'm not sure whether it is just rumours or whether it is really true), that there are apparently even Birdsound cd's with recordings of Midwife toads in stead of the Scops owl (the species they claim to have recorded), so even learning from cd's might give you the wrong ID. The picture is from that second day, photographer is Maarten Wielstra. If you want to learn more about confusingly similar animal sounds, read this interesting article:
Insect, Amphibian or Bird? British bird, 77, No. 3, March 1984
(link will only work for a week, after that period, you have to search for it in a library or subscribe to British Birds)

So what about this new sighting? News spread quickly and within a few minutes transport was arranged. I got another phone call, a sleepy voice at the other end of the line: "Hi, they called me out of bed, I'm putting on my clothes now and I'll be at your place as soon as possible. It was hard to explain to my girlfriend, she'll probably never understand it, but I was able to get her car anyway. Be ready!"
Then another phone call of a friend (Maarten) who was already at the spot: "Wouter, it's the real thing!!" he said. I could even hear the bird calling through the telephone. When we arrived, there were about 30 people present. Mainly local birdwatchers. It looked ridiculous: 30 people, mainly men, staring with their binoculars in the dark, talking with lowered voices and pointing with their microphones to a ...tree...
No pictures this time, but this is what we heard:
A fantastic scops owl! Apparently the bird was already present since the 12th of May. Residents heard already for a couple of days some kind of alarm... So it's not only Midwife toads that can be confusing.

The next day there were a little more people than the 30 I described above... About 300 (!) people came to visit the Scops Owl:

The European Scops Owl breeds in Southern Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. In the Netherlands there are about 7 previous records of which 3 were found dead and 2 were caught. This was only the second twitchable bird for the Netherlands, the last twitchable bird was already ten years ago, so it is still a true vagrant. However it is a species that's supposed to benefit from Global warming and it is thought to expand it's breeding territory northwards. So maybe we can expect this species more often in the oncoming years.

zaterdag 24 mei 2008

Fochteloër Veen

The Fochteloerveen is a special type of peatbog, called "hoogveen" in Dutch or raised bog in English. It's the final stage of a vegetation succession. Succesion starts with a pond or lake, waterplants die and the pond gets filled by layers of dead leaf material. Under water oxygen levels are very low and therefore the plantdebri hardly decays. Slowly the pond gets filled completely by non-decaying dead plant material. When the pond is filled, slowly a forest can devellop. But even the forest will not be the final stage. Rainwater is the only source of water, which is low on nutrients and it has a relative low PH (it's a bit acid). Nutrients will be washed away and acidity will increase. A lot of plants and trees can't cope with this and die. In the end, you get a very special vegetation of all kinds of rare plants and peat moss Sphagnum. Peat moss can grow continuously. It dies at the bottom and grows at the top. It forms a kind of lens and the area gets a bit uplifted. That's why it's called raised bog.

In the past, large area's of the east part of the Netherlands were covered with this "hoogveen" habitat type. But in the past centuries most area's were destroyed for turf collecting. Now only a few relatively small area's remain, of which the Fochteloërveen is one. There is hardly any turfcollecting left and the area could be retained as an important nature conservation area. You can find here very rare animals and plants. Nowadays waterlevels are being kept high artificially and some other restoration is taking place. The Fochteloerveen restoration is a successtory. Amphibian and reptile numbers are high, numbers of dragonflies are impressive, rare plants are doing well and rare bird species returned or discovered the area. The best succes so far, was the return of breeding Common Cranes Grus grus. (The picture of the crane) isn't from today. The Fochteloereveen becomes one of the most important area's for species that are declining in the rest of the Netherlands.

Our return to this beautiful area wasn't a successtory, though. We wanted to have another look at the group of Red-footed falcons, but they were gone. The last birds left the day before... We couldn't find the reported Red-backed Shrikes, and a possible sighting of a Short-toed eagle was far from satisfying. Things got even worse when friends (Ben and "lucky"Luuk) discovered a red-throated pipit in a different part of the Netherlands. When we started the day there was some sort of funny competition between our two cars, who would find the best birds and the most species and it seemed as if we were the losing today. But although we "lost", we did see some good stuff like European Honey Buzzard, loads of Hobbies, two Red-necked Grebes (in Diependal) and two displaying Common Snipes. To see displaying Common Snipes is a rare thing nowadays and we were very happy with the sighting.

Because there were not as many rare birds as we had hoped for, we had to do with other stuff, like these two species of carnivorous plants:

<-- Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia

<-- Oblong-leaved Sundew Drosera intermedia
(the leaves are covered with willow seeds)

Even though things were not really succesfull today, the Fochteloerveen remains a beautiful place. So I can only say:
I'll be back!!!