Bird of the Year 2007

It’s that time again. Last year when I did this, I’d been birding in Spain in the spring and then the Galapagos and Ecuador in the autumn. This year has been less dramatic—no albatrosses or toucans—but I did see some great stuff in Crete in April.

First, though, some local stuff. There have been Little Grebes in the local park this year, I think for the first time, and they successfully raised a chick, so that was good. And also in the park, a Mandarin Duck (an Asian species, but there’s quite a large breeding population in the UK now). Back in February, this Stock Dove was the year’s only new bird for my garden list:

stock dove

And there were also a couple of birds which I haven’t had in the garden for a long time; I heard a Tawny Owl in July, and perhaps the most exciting of the lot, I saw a House Sparrow on the bird feeders in August. Sadly, she was the only one.

On, then, to Crete. Crete was pretty fabulous, bird-wise. Lots of stuff, and some of it special. Apart from anything else, what could be nicer than being in the Mediterranean in the springtime? It’s nice just seeing all the common Mediterranean species like Crested Lark, Serin, and Sardinian Warbler:

Sardinian Warbler

Then there were species I’d seen before, but not for a long time, or not very well, which I had great views of; like the amazing flock of Golden Orioles flying one by one up the valley above Paleohora, or the oh-so-elegantly coloured Blue Rock Thrush nesting in a cliff face I saw from about the same spot, or the Wryneck I eventually saw after about an hour spent wandering around the Lasithi Plateau, trying to track them down by their call. Or this Cirl Bunting, a bird I think I last saw at Mycenae when I was 18.

Cirl Bunting

And Woodchat Shrike, Griffon Vulture, Squacco Heron and Purple Heron, which were all species I also saw last spring in Andalucia, but no less pleasing for all that.

I saw eight lifers in Crete, which I think is pretty good for a holiday in Europe. Any life tick is pleasing, but the least exciting would be Short-toed Lark (small, brown, distant; even the name is boring) and Ferruginous Duck (a good bird, but a very brief, distant sighting). Black-eared Wheatear [below] and Collared Flycatcher are both really attractive birds; Quail are famously skulking and difficult to see in Britain, so when a couple of them suddenly flushed out from almost under my feet it was a bit of a rush.

Black-eared Wheatear

But my best photographic opportunity came at the reservoir at Ayia. A lot of the birds were remarkably approachable, I think because they were simply exhausted by migration. I got close to some commoner species, like Whinchat and Cuckoo, but the really amazing sightings were two species that are, normally, very difficult to see because they spend all their time lurking in deep vegetation. The first was a species I’ve seen before, but never expected to see as well as this: Little Bittern.

Little Bittern

Both times I’ve seen them before, it was just a quick moment as a bird flew from one reedbed to another. I never expected to be able to approach one to about 25 feet, set up a telescope and take a picture. Even better, though, was another species, Little Crake. The bittern eventually, when I got really close, ducked into the reeds and stayed hidden. But the crakes just wandered around feeding at the water’s edge, blithely ignoring any birders nearby as though they were natural exhibitionists. I saw about eight individuals, and the only reason I didn’t get more good photos of them was that the little buggers never stayed still for a moment. Still, I’m particularly pleased with this one:

Little Crake

But even that wasn’t my bird of the year. My bird of the year was a European Roller. It’s big and colourful, I’ve wanted to see one ever since I had my first bird book—so probably for about 25 years now—and, just as icing on the cake, it’s even a rarity for Crete. I didn’t have my telescope with me when I saw it, so I couldn’t take a picture, but since it’s my bird of the year, here’s one taken by someone else:

» ROLIEIRO, posted to Flickr by sparkyfaisca.

Blogger Bio-blitz #1: Ayia Lake

blogger bioblitz

On April 21st, I went birding to a reservoir near the village of Αγια, written as either Agia or Ayia in Roman characters. Ayia is about 9 km SW of Chania, the capital of the westernmost province of Crete, and the reservoir is a good spot for migrating waterbirds. The reservoir is surrounded by reedbeds and then agricultural land; the walk down to the lake goes past orange groves.

To quote the post I wrote on the day, now with some pictures: “The guide to birdwatching in Crete listed, among the possible birds for the site, Little Crake, Spotted Crake and Baillon’s Crake. I’ve never seen any of those before, but I didn’t get my hopes up because all the crakes are notoriously difficult to see; they skulk.

So I arrived and pretty much the first thing I saw? A crake! In full view! And I had one of those panicky moments of trying to put down the telescope in a controlled fashion and get a proper look at the bird and check the field guide, all at the same time, thinking I had to make use of my lucky moment, while the crake just kept pottering about at the edge of the reeds. After I’d had a long look at it and decided it was Little Crake (plain blue underside and no barring on the flanks, since you ask) I had a quick check in the other direction along the lake, and there was another one! And it became apparent that not only were they not bothering to skulk, they were extremely approachable.

male Little Crake

I can only assume that they are so tame because they’re on migration and their priority is eating furiously to get their strength up. From Africa to, say, Poland is a long way to fly for a little bird with stubby wings. I also got incredibly good views of a Little Bittern that just sat and looked at me as I approached instead of ducking into the reeds. Again, it was probably knackered from all the flying.”

female Little Bittern

All that black around the edge of the picture is vignetting from the scope. Normally I’d zoom the camera to cut it off, but the bird was so close that I’d have to cut off its feet.

Here’s the rest of the list for the day, with a few comments:

Linnet
European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

These finches are all residents on Crete, and may well have raised one brood already, even though the passage migrants are still heading north.

Spotted Flycatcher
European Pied Flycatcher
European Stonechat
Whinchat (below)

Whinchat

Nightingale (only heard)
Great Tit
Yellow Wagtail (the black-headed subspecies, Motacilla flava feldegg)
Sardinian Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Common Blackbird

Barn Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

sand martins and swallow
Barn Swallow and some Sand Martins resting in the reeds. Most Barn Swallows in Europe have pure white underparts; the reddish breast of the one here is typical of the eastern Mediterranean. And I’ve just learnt that what I call a Sand Martin is known as a Bank Swallow in the US, so if you were thinking they looked familiar, that might be why.

House Sparrow – the subspecies known as ‘Italian Sparrow’, Passer domesticus italiae.

Hooded Crow

Common Swift
Alpine Swift

Eurasian Coot
Common Moorhen
Little Crake

Little Bittern
Black-crowned Night Heron
Grey Heron
Little Egret (below)

Little Egret

Little Stint
Common Sandpiper
Black-winged Stilt
Yellow-legged Gull

Common Kingfisher (below)

kingfisher

Common Cuckoo (below; another surprisingly tame bird)

cuckoo

Little Grebe
Ferruginous Duck
My second lifetime tick for the day, after Little Crake. I was just settling down to a coffee (Greek, medium sugar) and saw a couple of birders intently peering through a scope at something which, when I wandered over, turned out to be a distant but definite Ferruginous Duck. It obviously pays to be nosy.

European Marsh Harrier
Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon

And one non-bird:

European Tree Frog

tree frog

That barn owl bio blitz button is derived from a photo on Flickr by Nick Lawes used under a by-nc-sa licence; the button is therefore available under the same licence. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jennifer’s BBB buttons, but I wanted something to match my colour scheme.

Birding the dictionary 3

Today we start with the word ‘plover’.

plover (‘plʌvə(r)). [ME. and AF. plover = OF. plovier, later L. *plovārius belonging to rain, f. L. pluvia rain; in mod.L. pluvārius pluviārius; cf. Sp. pluvial plover, ad. L. pluviālis rainy, also Ger. regenpfeifer, lit. rain-piper, and Eng. rain-bird.]

Belon, 1555, said the birds were so called because most easily taken in rainy weather, which modern observation contradicts.

I’ve never tried to take a plover myself, so I couldn’t judge. I’d like to believe that the OED have a crack avian behavioral research squad who were sent up into the Peak District in rainy weather with strict orders not to come back until they checked this. But probably not. It carries on with more suggestions:

…because they arrive in flocks in the rainy season… because of the restlessness of the bird when rain is approaching… Others have attributed it to the appearance of the upper plumage, as if spotted with rain-drops.

The most appealing of these, the last one, strikes me as the least likely. But judge for yourself:

Pacific golden plover, originally uploaded by Doug Greenberg.

As the caption says, that’s actually a Pacific Golden Plover, whereas the original plover was presumably either the European Golden Plover or the Grey Plover (what Americans call Black-bellied Plover). But the appearance is very similar.

Plovers aren’t the only birds to be associated with rain, of course. In Britain, the obvious one is the Green Woodpecker, Picus viridis, known as the rain-bird because its call is supposed to mark the approach of rain. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this to be true myself. The call is one of the classic sounds of the English countryside; you can hear it here. It’s often described as laughter, although if you heard a person laughing like that you’d be a bit worried. Their other common name—yaffle—is derived from the call. This is typical yaffle behaviour; hunting for ants in someone’s garden lawn:

Yaffle II, originally uploaded by vlad259.

The dictionary has two other entries for ‘rain-bird’. The first is a bit vague: ‘A Jamaican cuckoo’. A little detective work narrows it down to the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Saurothera vetula. I don’t know what the connection is with lizards, but I can tell you that it’s also known as Old Woman Bird because of its cackling laugh.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Langooney.

Finally, the OED also mentions a couple of Australian usages. This is one of them, the Grey Butcherbird, Cracticus torquatus:

Grey butcherbird, originally uploaded by pierre pouliquin.

The other is the Channel-billed Cuckoo. In fact, though, Google turns up another Rainbird in Australia, the Asian Koel, also known as Stormbird; ‘Stormbird’ in turn can also refer to the Pheasant Coucal. For some information about the Stormbird’s place as an aboriginal storytime character, go here.

I know it might seem like I’m being too thorough here, but bear with me. Under the entry for rain, we also learn about the ‘rain crow’. Which isn’t actually a crow:

Dry Tortugas April 2006 Yellow Billed Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Jay Bass.

To quote Meriwether Lewis’s journal entry for 16th July 1806 from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which is one of the dictionary citations)

I saw both yesterday and today the Cookkoo or as it is sometimes called the rain-craw.

And yes, it does appear to be ‘craw’ unless there’s a typo in the dictionary, though all the other citations are for ‘rain-crow’. I guess you don’t employ explorers for their spelling.

As I said earlier, I am sceptical about the claim that the woodpecker’s call is an accurate predictor of rain. Some people have a disproportionate respect for traditional wisdom; in my experience it’s rather hit and miss, and weather lore is exactly the kind of area that’s likely to attract a lot of dubious theories. However, it’s very striking that of the seven birds I’ve mentioned, no less than five are cuckoos or their relatives: koels and coucals are both members of the Cuculidae. And in separate parts of the world people have, presumably independently, decided that they call more before the rain. It seems like more than a coincidence. If anyone reading this lives in one of the places where these birds live, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Returning to plovers; the dictionary lists no less than 60 from ‘bastard plover’ to ‘yellow-legged plover’. A few of them—Crab Plover, Ringed Plover—are still standard species names, but most are old or local names for waders we now know as something else. It really makes you appreciate standardised naming. There are ten names for ‘Golden Plover’, and eleven for ‘Grey Plover’; a few can mean either. Least helpful of all is ‘stone plover’ which can apparently mean Stone Curlew, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dotterel, ‘any shore plover of the genus Aesacus‘, Bar-tailed Godwit, or Whimbrel.

One last thing before I finally put an end to what was originally intended to be a short post. One of the dictionary’s citations for plover is this:

1486 Bk. St. Albans F vj b, A Falle of Woodecockis. A Congregacion of Pleuers.

The Book of St. Albans, by Dame Juliana Berners, is a book about hawking, hunting, and ‘fysshynge wyth an angle’, and is presumably one of the sources for all those irritating lists of collective nouns: a murder of crows, a heckle of alligators, a flashback of policemen. I don’t care if it does go back to the fifteenth century, I just don’t believe that anyone has ever actually called a flock of plovers anything other than a flock. All it proves is that whimsical linguistic pedantry is a 500 year old English tradition.

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