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Closing in on the Magic Double Century - 10,000 Birds

Six months of the year have now slipped by, so time to review the state of my bird lists – my UK list, and my European list. Three months ago the former was on 139, but it’s now grown to 180, while the European list was 173, but has now reached a much more satisfactory 303.   My target at the start of the year was 200 species in the UK and 300 in Europe, so I’ve achieved the latter, while the chances of reaching the former are pretty good. An everyday bird, the Woodpigeon. This one was photographed in my garden on a wet day in April. One tends to take woodies for granted Brown but not boring: a Meadow Pipit An everyday bird it might be, but the cock Blackbird’s song is one of the best. Blackbirds sing from February through to July My UK list is, in reality, an English list, as I haven’t wandered into the adjoining countries of Wales, Scotland and Ireland this year, and I have no plans to do so. Until last month it was an East Anglian list, as I hadn’t ventured far from home, but a trip to Northern England last month did add some northern specials, such as Dipper and Puffin. That trip was fun, as it reminded me of the delights of watching birds like Golden Plover and even Meadow Pipit on their breeding grounds. I see lots of Golden Plovers in the winter, but (like so many waders) they are birds transformed when in their breeding finery. Golden Plovers are so much more handsome when in full breeding plumage I’ve seen a mere 21 species of waders in the UK this year, compared with 35 in Europe, and it shouldn’t be difficult to add several of the birds I’ve seen in Europe to my UK list in the next few weeks, as autumn passage gains pace. I haven’t, for example, seen a Greenshank in the UK, nor a Spotted Redshank or Wood Sandpiper, all three of which are relatively easy to see on the Norfolk or Suffolk coasts in July and August. To be honest, this does highlight the slightly ridiculous practice of keeping two lists – why not just one? The answer is because BirdTrack (the bird- recording system I use most) reminds me whenever I log-in on the state of my British list, but I have to scroll down to Explore Data to check on how my overall World list (just Europe this year) is progressing.  Wood Sandpiper. This bird was in Cyprus in April; I have yet to see one this year in the UK There are, inevitably, a few birds that I really should have encountered by now but have failed to do so. I have seen only a single species of diver (loon) this year, Red-throated, but if I try hard enough it shouldn’t be too difficult to add Great Northern and Black-throated to the list by the end of the year. Nor have I see a skua (jaeger) of any species. Both Great and Arctic Skuas are not difficult to find in Norfolk in September, as they are attracted by the tern colonies as they migrate south. Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas are also possibilities, and the former occasionally winter in the North Sea, off the Suffolk/Norfolk coast.  Though I have seen Red-throated Diver this year, I have yet to find either a Black-throated or Great Northern anywhere There are a number of birds that I’ve encountered just the once, but they were memorable encounters. One of the best was the Long-eared Owl which floated past me one evening when I was out looking for Nightjars on my local heath. It was too dark for photography, but great to see. Equally memorable was the Corncrake, rasping away at dusk on the Welney Washes in late June. Two centuries ago Corncrakes were common birds in Britain, but we now only have a small remnant population that survives on the islands of the Hebrides. The Corncrake I heard was part of a reintroduction project. For some people this devalues the bird, but it doesn’t for me, while this was the first time that I’d ever heard a Corncrake singing in England, with all my recent encounters in Eastern Europe.  Crakes are among the most elusive of birds, and none are easy to see in the UK. In Cyprus in April I delighted in watching several Little Crakes plus a splendid Baillon’s Crake, all of which proved easy to see, if not photograph. Spring migration is the best time to see these secretive birds, as once on the breeding grounds they tend to stay in cover and rarely show themselves.  Crakes are difficult to see on their breeding grounds. This Little Crake was on migration in Cyprus Raptors are always exciting to encounter, and I was delighted earlier in the year to enjoy a couple of sightings of wandering White-tailed Eagles in Norfolk. I haven’t done well with Golden Eagles, with just a single bird, seen briefly, in Greece, in May. For the first time in many visits I failed to see Griffon Vultures on Cyprus, where they are seriously endangered, but I have seen many in Spain this year in Andalucia and both Cantabria and Castile y León. Northern Spain also produced my best views of Honey Buzzards (I did see one briefly in Greece in May). Two years ago three summered in Norfolk, and I saw them several times, but there have been no reports this year, so this is one bird that seems unlikely to be added to my 2024 UK list. A wandering White-tailed Eagle in Norfolk in April. This was an unexpected encounter Griffon Vulture: common in Spain, but seriously endangered in Cyprus Shrikes are one of my favourite families of birds. My first shrike of the year was a Great Grey in the Brecks in March, not too far from home, while Kerkini in Greece gave me the opportunity...

When the sun beats down with anger - 10,000 Birds

The outside temperature in the shade reads 47 degrees Celsius and I’m about to enter a hide to photograph birds. At times like these, I question my sanity. But I keep coming back for more. It was only two weeks ago that I was on a bleak moor on Shetland and now I wish that I had the cool temperatures, the cloud and the rain that I had moaned about then. This is central Spain instead, and I am well into the worst time of year for birds. For three months, often more, temperatures here are in the forties Celsius and there is no rain. The ground is parched, the plants are yellow and dry and many birds are clearing out. Many of the Black Kites now heading south are juveniles. The clean plumage and scaly pattern on the back are diagnostic Already in the Strait of Gibraltar, to the south, the Black Kites Milvus migrans, are leaving south for Africa. These are the Iberian populations. They were the first to arrive, in February and early March, so as to make the most of the mild temperatures and the food supply which becomes available with the rains. They time breeding so that the chicks are fledged before the height of the dry season. Now, they head for south of the Sahara to catch the rains in the Sahel. Black Kites, and many other Iberian birds, spend their lives tracking the rains on either side of the Sahara Desert. This makes the idea of spring-summer-autumn-winter redundant. Instead, much of central and southern Iberia experiences an intense hot and dry season, from June to September, and a wet season. The onset of the rains is highly variable. Where I live, in Gibraltar, it may start some time in September but some years it may be after Christmas. The pattern in the past few years has been for the rains to arrive late. Adult Black Kites have just finished breeding and their plumage is abraded Many Black Kites are in moult while on migration. Note the new tail feathers sprouting in this individual giving the effect of a “double tail” Time to go. Black Kites heading south for Africa What do birds do during the dry summer? Many, like the Black Kites, migrate. They simply leave the area altogether. Other species are tied down. Poor flyers, such as Red-legged Partridges Alectoris rufa, simply hold out as best they can. Many will die during this worst time of the year. Drying river beds and other ephemeral water bodies are the only sources of relief. That is why I’m in a hide, close to a small water body. It may be unbearably hot and uncomfortable but it gives me an opportunity to photograph birds in these difficult circumstances. Time to learn fast. Red-legged Partridge brings her newly-born young to water Slightly older juvenile Red-legged Partridges are quick to learn. Photograph courtesy Stewart Finlayson Juvenile Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis coming down to drink Many species need to drink. Here is a Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius enjoying a good soak Juvenile Crested Lark Galerida cristata panting to cool down. Photo courtesy Stewart Finlayson Magpie Pica pica trying to keep cool. Photo courtesy Geraldine Finlayson Juvenile Crested Lark spreading itself out to lose heat. Photo courtesy Stewart Finlayson I often read claims of trans-Saharan migrants overwintering in Iberia. Most are mistakes by those who try to understand Iberia in the classic spring-summer-autumn-winter manner. The Victorian naturalist Abel Chapman, describing Doñana, called it a little piece of Africa in Europe. That could equally apply to much of the south of the peninsula. It has a wet and a dry season and the birds move accordingly. The White Storks Ciconia Ciconia, which are now leaving with the kites, start returning in October – it is their “spring”. The Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica are back in January – they’re not wintering birds, they are back for their “spring”. Great Spotted Cuckoos Clamator glandarius start coming back from October, having left in July and August. The return of birds to Iberia varies, depending on their food requirements. For the Woodchat Shrikes Lanius senator it is not until March and for the Roller Coracias garrulus it is April. But they all have one thing in common, come July it is time to leave. Roller. Among the birds heading south now Juvenile Woodchat Shrike also heading for Africa during this and next month