Thursday 13 February 2014

Caspian gull!

If the water pipit happened close to home, my next chase was certainly a bit further away. Reports of a Caspian gull (kaspimåke) all the way south in Fredrikstad. I have kind of decided not to go for this species - especially in Fredrikstad. The reason is simple. It is a very rare bird, and the place they usually are seen (thanks to a few very gull dedicated birders), is either at the rubbish tip in Fredrikstad, or in the town Mandal even further south. The two places has in common that the gulls there are almost never seen two days in a row. In Fredrikstad it is a simple reason for this. There are thousands of gulls feeding at the rubbish tip, and to find one stranger amongst all these take even more than luck. The birds here tend to fly a lot around in the area, and even when sitting, you can be sure they don't sit for long before they take to the wings again. A very difficult place indeed, and you never feel that you manage to check them all. In other words, a place excellent for giving you frustration!

Anyway, this time, the bird was reported at a harbour in downtown Fredrikstad. Even though close to the rubbish tip, it was seen at the same place twice and happily was attracted by bread. I decided to give it a go!

Starting 2 in the morning from home, ment driving all night. Advantage by driving during the night is that you save an hour because you don't need to meet all those driving in 60 km/hours (and believe me, there are lots of them! )The disadvantage - especially in winter is the number of moose (elg) along the roads. I almost got hit by one and a near moose death experience made the trip a bit more exciting than I liked. Because of the forestry industry and that Norway has eradicated all large predators that feed on moose, Norway has an extremely high moose population. Some believe that bears and wolves are dangerous, but the really dangerous animal in Norwgian forests is the moose. Several people get killed each year in car vs moose accidents. This time I managed to stop the car only 5 meters in front of moose, that pretended to be king of the road for a moment. I didn't dispute him. I hade 3 moose crossing the road in front of the car dueing this trip, but only one close one. Moose out of the way and 600km later I was surprisingly bright and shiny - ready for some gull action Fredrikstad.

But the story repeat itself...all day throwing bread in all different directions, but no caspian gull. About 7 years ago, I was at the same place for the exact same reason, and did the exact same thing - offering the finest bread I could buy for all gulls in Fredrikstad without the caspian taking the bait. Although a few caspian look alike, the star himself didn't want to put on a show. I wanted to try the next morning again, as I felt pretty sure the bird was in the area. Later that evening, news came out that the bird had been seen at Øra, the rubbish tip. The challenge was on - or the nightmare if you prefer...

My view for the whole day. Some gulls, but not any caspian....

Well, next morning after some more bread throwing exercise without any luck downtown Fredrikstad, I made my way to Øra. My hope was very slim but sometimes even I get lucky. Two hours searching, and suddenlly there it was. Sitting amongst a few hundred other birds. Flat head profile, white head and breast and pale upperparts. A small black eye, and long relatively slim blackish bill. I am far from any gull expert, but this individual stood out quite well from the rest. The most important feature though, was obscured by other gulls. I didn't manage to see the length of the legs properly. One gull moved, and I managed to see briefly one of the legs. Suddenly, as the only gull in the flock, it took to the wings, but I managed to take a few pictures of the beauty before it dissappeared amongst the herds of other gulls. Despite being in the area for 2 more hours, I didn't find it back. The whole observation only took 1 minute, but what a minute it was! This was not only an adition to my Big Year list, but also a twitch for my Norway list! Big thank you to the finder, that also was the one to find it back on Øra in the evening and made me try a second day. Here is some pictures. Sorry for the bad quality as these are already cropped almost 100%.

Flat and white head, long blackish bill and small dark eye. Black tail band stands
out quite well as the rump is almost all white. This bird, a 2nd winter, is late
for the time in the moulting. Normally, they would show more pale feathers
on the back.  

This was a very big bird, and much larger than most of the herring gulls (gråmåke).
Actually when I first saw it, I was thinking more of ruling out Black-backed gulls
(svartbak) than herring gull. Because of the size, it is probably a male. Even though
identifying these birds is extremely challenging due to the huge variateion that herring gulls
show, I feel that the jizz ans shape of caspian gull is very different from herring gulls.

While scanning for the caspian, I also came across some other interesting individuals, which I put into the box for variation of herring gull. The distance was very long, and almost all these pictures are cropped and even enlarged a bit. With such bad picture quality, it is impossible to make anything out of it, but I anyway want to show some of them to illustrate the difficulties these gulls represent.

White head and breast, and farily long leggs, as well as quite a pale back
remind us of caspiean features. However, head shape (round head), pale eye
and probably some other plumage feature I dont't have the knowledge to
comment on make this a herring gull in my eyes. 

Different individual than the one above. Again, very pale head and breast,
 and generally pale above reminds us of some of the features for caspian.
With its rounded head shape and short bill, jizz is however all wrong for caspian. 

At Øra, I saw two, maybe three adult "yellow-legged gull". This individual is
probably the most promising. Very little white in primaries, bright yellow legs,
all white head without any dark markings (most herring has at least some
 dark mottling on head this time of year).  Bill is stout, meaning short and heavy.
Unfortunately, the distance to this bird was too long for decent photos. But I do
think this is a very good candidate for Yellow-legged gull L.michaelis (gulbeinmåke). 

A different "yellow-legged gull" than the previous picture. This still has white
head, and yellowish legs. Bill is fairly short and heavy,  and the black on primaries
goes quite far towards the arm . Maybe too many white spots in the primaries to
make it something else than herring. I don't know. 

With the caspian gull safely bagged, I started the long drive home. I was planning to try a little owling, but too much wind made all the owls silent. I did however see two tengmalm's owls feeding along one of the many forest roads. A handsome addition to my Big Year list. At 4 am I was finally home after the 1500 kilometers long trip from start to end.

13 February
Inspired by the gull fest down south, I did go to my local patch today to feed the gulls. Just a hundred meters or so away from my garden, I was surprised by a Tundra bean goose (Sædgås ua rossicus) - a very welcome garden twitch!

A rare treat for my garden! 

Well, tomorrow I am off for some family business  and holiday in Turkey. So my Big Year list will stand still for two weeks, before I really will start my birding effort in March.

New species: 2
Total: 116


Monday 10 February 2014

Water Pipit!

What a week! Started off with the Black-throated thrush vividly explained in the previous post. Then a couple of days in the office and then a few days in the local forest searching for some of the forest special. A lot of wind makes forest birding challenging, but on a Saturday search for Great-grey owls (lappugle) I managed at least to find a very welcome Pygmy owl (spurveugle).

This particular place, I have had pygmy owls since more than 10 years. So, if this is the same male holding the territory all these years, it must be a quite old one by now. Owl season is now starting in Norway, and I do look forward to the next weeks when I will be out searching for these fantastic critters. Eagle owls (hubro) are usually first out, starting to sing their hearts out already in last half of Februrary. By mid March, it should be good activity on tengmalm's (perleugle) and Tawny owls (kattugle) as well. This year seems to be recenably good one for rodents, so it will be a fun year out owling. There are still a lot of Hawk owls (haukugle) about, and the other day I managed to find a pair. Will be interesting to follow this site during the spring, and hopefully they will start breeding soon.

During my owl search, both a Black woodpecker (svartspett) and a European jay (nøtteskrike) flew over the road and by that made their way onto my Big Year list. Most of the smaller roads I was planning to drive in the search of Great-grey owls (very rare, and probably some of the harder one to get this year), were closed during winter (I know, bad planning) and this has to take its share of blame for my lack of success. Despite driving 600km, no owls apart from the pygmy owl on the very first stop for the day were seen.

A presumably very old pygmy owl, responding to my whistling

Later that night, I received a message from a friend about a very interesting picture. It was out there as a rock pipit (skjærpiplerke), but the colours and plumage looked very promising for the extremely rare Water pipit (vannpiplerke). This is a species I have been searching quite a lot for during the years, and I really do have a lot of respect when it comes to id these very similar species that only fairly recently were split into two different species. Even though the pictures looked very promising, I didn't want to celebrate too loudly before I went to have a look at the critter myself. With the extreme variety that rock pipit can show (in the line of herring gulls (gråmåker) I would say), it was an exciting moment when some friends and myself were approaching the place Sunday morning just after light. We quickly found the bird, and what a beauty!

All the classic features, white belly with fine streaking, brown back with even a more paler brown rump and diagnostic head pattern and behaviour. It was indeed a water pipit! And just outside Trondheim on a well known birding site in on the island Tautra. This is the northernmost record in Norway (and probably in the world), and to find this species in this part of the country I consider a mega find! Big congrats to the finder, and thank God for pictures! There have been reports of a few rock pipits all winter at this site, so who knows how long this particular bird has been present.

Water pipit is a species breeding in the mountains of Central- and Southern Europe, and normally migrate only a short distance to lower areas during winter. In Norway, there are only about 30 records of this species, with the first one as recent as 1997. This bird was my 6th in Norway. It is a typical winter bird in Norway, and I have kind of been waiting for the long drive awaiting me when the news of one turning up in Southern Norway on one the more classic sites in Norway (Lista, or Tjøme). But hey, I'm not the one to complain when it turns up only one hour drive away!

Other new birds this day was Crested grebe (toppdykker) and Slavonian grebe (horndykker).

Out of respect for the many birders on its way to see the water pipit, I didn't
try to go close to take a picture close up. But I promise, that the bird is on this
picture, walking in the grass on the far side of the lake, above the white hat on
the person just to the right of the middle in the picture. 

  I arrived back home, and in the neighbour's garden - a second year male Goshawk (hønsehauk) was playing with the local crows (kråker).

Goshawk silhouette in an urban landscape.

New species: 6
Total: 114


Thursday 6 February 2014

Black-throated thrush

On the way back form Finnmark, I got the exciting news of a Black-throated thrush (Svartstrupetrost) in Bergen, western Norway. The bird was visiting a feeder in a garden, but there was one problem. The garden is impossible to see from any public road or from the outside. However, this proved not to be a major problem at all, since the owner happened to have a big interest in birds herself. She was happy to invite me inside in her living room, and before I even had finished the stairs up to the second floor, the thrush was seen jumping around on the lawn competing with the local Blackbirds (svartroster). It was a second year female, and this is only the second time in my life I see this species. As my first one back in 2006 was a male, I have never seen a female before. Needless to say, and thanks to Ellen Sophie's amazing hospitality, this turned out to be a very nice experience indeed. The bird was jumping only a few meters outside the window and I got some frame filling views! And the bird was a "walk away bird" - meaning I left the bird while it still was visible.

Black-throated thrush is a taiga species, and breeds from the Ural mountains and eastwards. It is, as far as I know 30 previous records in Norway, so this was the first Big Year rarity!

As my flight was a bit early, I also had time to visit the local park in the city center. In between drug addicts and busy students hurrying to school, I managed to tick off Hawfinch (Kjernebiter).

On the way home, I was unfortunate to miss the airport buss by a few meters. Reason: the buss left two minutes before schedule. The buss company, of course refuse to admit any fault as expected. Because of this mishappening I missed my flight back home and had to order a new flight ticket which of course wasn't cheap. Ups and downs are the nature of the Big Year life style, and you only have money to spend them - right?

The bird made the news as well - an article with video in Bergens Tidene about the happening and some of my pictures was for a long time on the front page of their web: Black-throated thrush in media

It even made it to the local radio in Bergen.

A big thank you to my friend Frode Falkenberg, that took his time to drive me around in Bergen, and arrange the visit to Ellen Sophie, so that Black-throated thrush safely could be ticked on my Big Year list!

The day before I left to Bergen, I got to squezze in a visit in Trondheim to see a flock of Tundra bean geese (Sædgås, ua rossicus). This make my total Big Year list to 107.

New species: 3
Total: 108

Saturday 1 February 2014

Searching high and low

I have just returned from my trip up north in hope to see the enigmatic Snowy owl (snøugle). We were searching high and low, day and night. Covering tens of miles with car and snow mobile. I guess we haver searched along 80% of the tracks allowed to drive with snow mobile up in the mountains around the remote village of Båtsfjord, and all open roads that goes through snowy owl habitat. But the white bird was nowhere to be seen. I am not really surprised, as this is not the first time in my life I try to see this bird. I knew it would be extremely difficult, but then again - you never win big if you don't take risks. It seems, that the snowy owl and me, is never going to happen. But what can I do - except continue searching.

Even though the snowy owl eluded me once again, I owe the owner of Arctic Tourist, Ørjan Hansen, a big thank you for a very memorable trip even so. This was a hard core winter trip, with temperatures of minus 20 degrees celsius most days and many hours out in the mountains. Without Ørjans experience and expertise, this trip would have been much more dangerous. Camping in a cabin high up in the mountains, only with a few reindeer as the only neighbours made you realise the remoteness of the palce. Since the snow is white, and the snowy owl is white, we actually found the most effective way to search was during the dark hours of the day using a strong torch. Even though we were dressed in so many layers of clothes that it was difficult to move, we found several foxes, wolverine (jerv) tracks and lots of Ptarmigans (fjellrype) and a few Willow grouse (lirype) in the lower grounds. Both new species for the Big Year list.

One of several Ptarmigans (fjellrype) found during our nocturnal search. This female is not
 easy to distinguish from the very similar willow grouse, but very small bill is the key,
as well as the shape of the forehead and bill. 

I must admit, it was quite an exotic experience to drive in pitch dark, in the harsh
mountains, only with the light of my torch and the snow mobile to guide our
way along the white fields. And of course, the sky was filled with dancing
Aurora borealis to keep us warm in the freezing cold. Very spectacular indeed!
You might think that one of the reasons we didnt find the snowy owl was because,
we held the torch straight up in the air.....I can assure you that this pose was for the
picture only, and that the light usually was hold in a more horisontal position.

This is a picture I took in the same area last year. Just to give you an idea
of how the roads and nature of this hostile mountains can be like. Yes - the
shadows you see in the white are cars, presumably driving on a road....

Even though we didn't manage to find the snowy owl, I am not surprised if this will be one of the trips I will most strongly remember by the end of the year. First time driving snow mobile, and spectacular nature and light and mountains. Norway is a fine place to live indeed!

And then the long flight back home....only interupted by the news of a
 Black-throated thrush (svartstrupetrost) in western Norway, in the town
Bergen. When one adventure ends - another begins.

I have already booked my tickets to try for the Black-throated thrush in Bergen. Two long trips so far in the Big Year, and both have ended with a dip. Will this third try for this huge rarity change my luck? Keep follow this blog to see what happens and if I succeed or not.

New species: 2
Total: 105