Monday 29 September 2014

Røst 3 - no birds for days, but then...

It is just an hour until my flight leaves, and my stay here at Røst has come to an end. Before I came, I had a vague hope of getting about 15 Big Year birds - I got 4....It is safe to say that bird wise, it has been a little bit of a dissappointment. Despite several birders out in the field every day, trawling gardens and tall grass fields, very few rare birds were found this year. But this is how "island birding" is. It is all up to the weather, and during my 14 days stay, we have had predominantly northerly winds. The polar front has been a little bit further south than normal and probably pushing the eastern vagrants a little bit south of Røst this time. Also, a big low pressure system has been quite steady over northern Finland and north west Russia further pushing birds in a more southerly route than Røst.

So, despite a lot of common migrants in the gardens, no real "sibes" were seen. The very last days, we got a strong low pressure system with 55 knots wind coming in quickly from the West. Such weather give hope of American vagrants, and as soon as the wind dropped and made birding possible, my friend Håvard discovered a Buff-breasted sandpiper (Rustsnipe) - an American wader. This was good news, as this was a lifer for me, and one of the birds I was hoping to see during my stay. Røst has proved to be a good place to see this species in the past.

However, of course things shouldn't be that easy. As my friend was on the phone to alarm me about the bird, the bird lifted and dissappeared far. In short, after walking about 25 kilometers searching, I had still not seen the bird, and had more or less given up on it. While searching, another friend alarmed me about another very good bird - this time an Eastern vagrant - Olive-backed pipit (sibirpiplerke). My friend and I decided to try for this instead and rather go back to search more for the sandpiper later. As we were leaving the area, a small flock of shore birds flew over head. 7 Golden plovers (heilo), 2 Grey plovers (tundralo) and two smaller waders. One was quickly identified to Sanderling (sandløper) but the other - wasn't that? YES, indeed - Buff-breasted sandpiper (rustsnipe) was flying back and forth overhead not really wanted to land. After doing this for a while, the sandpiper finally looked like landing in the area it first was discovered.

Buff-breasted sandpiper in flight before landing, showing the diagnostic
wing pattern of dark "comma" in primaries. The bigger bird being a
golden plover (heilo)

On the ground, showing rusty coloured neck and head. Very long, pale legs.
Lifer, and a long wanted bird on my Norwegian list as well! X

A lifer was safely ticked, and Big Year bird number 289. This bird alone, more or less saved my stay here at Røst for the whole 14 days. 

After this great experience, I went to the north side of the island, where my friends had already relocated the olive-backed pipit and unusual for this cryptic species - it flew up and perched on a fence - letting me see all the id features easily. Great! 

Not very easy to see details on this picture unless you enlarge the image, or
dobbel click on it. Olive-backed pipit (sibirpiplerke) - I promise!

With the pipit also being a Big Year bird, my total is now up in 290. I admit I feel like I am a little bit behind schedule at the moment, and getting to my goal of 320 species seems difficult. I havent given up yet, and at least the record of 311 should still be possible. The next weeks, I need to step it up a bit and just go for every new bird that is turning up in this country. 

I will start tomorrow - with trying for a Woodchat shrike (rødhodevarsler) which is not updated since the storm 3 days ago, and then continue to try for Hoopoe which are seen a couple of places the last days. 

Wish me luck!

New birds: 2
Total: 290


Tuesday 23 September 2014

Røst 2, on a rarity island with no rarities...

As mentioned in the previous post, I am on one of the biggest rarity magnets in Norway. Autumn birding, or island birding like I am doing at the moment is all about patience and not losing faith. To keep working, to keep walking, to keep birding, to keep being alert and think that every bird is a potential rarity. Every bird should be carefully identified, and double checked. Island birding like this, is either like being in paradise or hell. When everything comes together, when the weather is just perfect - you might experience what is called a fall. Birds practically raining (or falling) down from the sky, and every garden is alive with birds. Days like this normally also produce a lot of rarities and it all happens at the same time. It is getting very busy indeed. The only problem is that days like that are far apart, sometimes weeks apart - sometimes they never happen....It is all about not loosing hope. To keep being optimistic. To keep checking weather forecasts and pretend you understand when it is going to happen. To keep seeing the positive trends in the empty days. To keep blocking what bird alarms of rarities other people find - even on an island near yours when you are seeing nothing. Sometime it is indeed very hard to keep the motivation on top - but so far I am managing pretty well I think.

I have now been on this island for 7 days. So far, only two new Big Year ticks has been added. Even though there have been a lot of birds in the gardens - no rare ones have been spotted yet. Not a single one! I am definitely working a lot for the goodies this time. Even though Røst is not a very big island - it is certainly big enough. According to my Step counter on my mobile - I am doing an average of 25 000 steps a day - which means about 21 kilometers walking in bogs and on roads and through gardens and on stones every day. Only one of these days has been enough to beat my total for the whole of June and July combined (working on a ship all summer is not ideal for the adding steps walked in your life)!

19 September
Almost no wind, but a gentle stroke from east, north east. Clear in the morning, cloudy and rainy from about 13:00. Again a very probable Olive-backed pipit (sibirpiplerke), came in calling its rather characteristic flight call with a much more rolling "R" than most tree pipits (trepiplerke) and landed on a power line. A bit too far to see details, but I did pick up a rather contrasty belly and upper breast. A trait a tree pipite would never show in my mind. Before I managed to get closer to see the details of the head pattern, a big truck came on the road and scared the bird off. It flew into the marsh land and disappeared forever. Another 99% bird. Something that should be a theme of the day as both a likely Turtle dove (turteldue) was flushed out from a bush by a passing car, and disappeared behind a house before I could get a positive id. Also, I flushed a very likely Great snipe (dobbeltbekkasin), from a garden. No call, and no zigzagging flight, but unfortunately is also disappeared behind a house a was never found again despite some searhcing in the area. The only trait that was not seen properly was its white outer tail feathers. But as this would be a first for the island, it was just seen a little bit too poorly for a safe identification. The garden birding was rather slow, but a the Yellow-browed warbler (gulbrynsanger) was still at site, as was a wood warbler (bøkssanger). 10 Garden warblers (hagesanger), 2 Dunnocks (jernspurv) and about 20 Ring ouzels (ringtrost) were logged as well.

In the afternoon, me and some other birders went out at sea. I still need Leach's storm petrel (stormsvale) on my list, and there is no better place than Røst to try for it. On the way out to sea, we stopped by the very small island Skomvær, only to see that no rare birds had chosen to rest on this island either. After searching the island for an hour or so, we went further out at sea and started chumming. 14 minutes later, the first British storm-petrel was seen around our boat. A juvenile Pomarine skua (polarjo) was harassing the few kittiwakes (krykkje) attracted by our chum. Also, a total of about 7 Sooty shearwaters (grålire) came by our boat to see what smelled so delicious. In total we logged about 10 storm petrels as well, but unfortunately no leach's.

Sooty shearwater (grålire) passing close to our boat. 

20 September
Wind turned to Soutwesterly 3-4 m/s. Raining more or less all day. Yesterday evening, a new team of five very experienced birders from Southern Norway arrived the island. More birders out should in theory mean increased chances of finding something jucy. Good numbers of birds in the gardens, but still no rarities found. 20 Garden warblers (hagesanger), 10 Black caps (munk), two Lesser white-throats (møller, first for the season), Redstart (rødstjert), at least 4 Yellow-browed warblers (gulbrynsanger) and Black-tailed godwit (svarthalespove). Also, the first Song thrush (måltrost) was the first one during my stay. The Wood warbler (bøksanger) was still around.

21 September
Strong wind with 15m/s from the North ment nearly impossible to bird the gardens. I went out in the open, and walked the fields in hope of finding some birds that not normally need to perch in a bush. My hope was Richard's pipit (tartarpiplerke) or maybe even a Short-toed lark (dverglerke), but no luck on the hunt. I saw a sooty shearwater (grålire) passing close to the shore and I also found an old carcass of a Sperm whale (spermhval) that had drifted ashore. Unfortunately, someone had already removed all the teeth. They are very valuable and can be sold for lots of money on the illegal market. Last half of the day, I actually spent catching up on some office work and waited for the wind to drop.

22 September
Still northeasterly. Partly cloudy with some rain showers in the morning. Sky clearing by midday. Temperature has dropped considerably, and in the distant mountains of Lofoten there were already snow capped peaks. Fortunately, the wind had dropped to only 3-4 m/s - meaning good conditions for garden birding. Almost all the Sylvia sp warblers seemed to have left the island. A couple of new arrivals in the form of two Yellow-browed warblers (gulbrynsanger), 6 Northern wheatears (steinskvett), Jack snipe (kvartbekkasin) and in the late evening a Turtle dove (turteldue) flew past me as I was watching a chiffchaff (gransanger) catching insects.

Hopefully, the turtle dove is a messenger pigeon that means something good is about to happen. However, the highlight of the day for me was a very cooperative Spotted redshank (sotsnipe). I spent almost an hour photographing it as this is a species that I actually don't have in my archive from before. A great encounter indeed! I also finally managed to document one of the many Yellow-broweds the last week. The foliage on the bushes is still very dense, and despite trying for several - I have until now only failed in my attempt to photograph one for my Big Year archive.

If you have seen any my photography work earlier - you will probably
already know that I love silhouettes. Spotted redshank (sotsnipe) surrounded by
beautiful ripple pattern in the water.

More silhouettes....
This is how it looks like when not backlit.

and some rain - something I have got used to during these last days.

Spotted redshank is normally a very shy bird, but this one was happy to be
photographed and kept coming closer and closer.

Spotted redshank might look a bit similar to redshank (rødstilk), one of the
very few other red-legged birds in Norway. The strong loral stripe is a
good identification mark of Spotted redshank - as well as the spotted
appearance on the back. 

Not sharp, not very good, but finally I at least managed to document a
Yellow-browed warbler (gulbrynsanger) for my Big Year.

For the next three days, the forecast says light east-southeasterly winds. In theory, this should mean good  birding and very high probabilities of something rare turning up. I am still optimistic, I still have hope that the next bird will be a rare one. I am still patient.


Thursday 18 September 2014

Røst 1

Røst - arrived and already on my third day on this rarity magnet of an island. Through the years, no island in Norway has built such an impressive species list in such a short time. Especially during autumn migration and for eastern vagrants, this island has earned its reputation. And here I am - for the next 11 days.

Røst has not only a lot of gardens, but also a lot of installations for air drying
fish. Røst is very much still a community based on fishery, and especially the
 winter cod fishery. The fish is air dried, and then sold mostly to Italy.
Underneath these installations is a rich vegetation ideal for pipits and other ground
living birds. 

16 Sept,
Arrived late yesterday evening, way after closing time for food store. This ment, early morning in the garden without anything to drink (drinking water here are unsafe to drink unless boiled due to too many sheep and  birds using the same water) or eat. And when you are out in the field, you quickly get absorbed into the birding mode. The hunt for the next rarity - or any rarity. Each garden is like a treassure coffin that just waiting to be unfolded. You never know what you find or when you find it. This also means that you forget to eat, and it would not be until about 19 in the evening that I realised I had forgotten to eat anything.

What I did find on this sunny day was a bright sun that always seemed to be in my eyes. I also found that the gardens were extremely difficult to bird, as there are still a lot of leaves on the bushes and the gardens here at Røst are big and not easy to get a good overview. They also seemed very empty - hardly a bird to be seen anywhere.

After a few hours of birding, I did however get my first expected Big Year list addition as a Barred warbler (hauksanger) flew out from a garden and into a bush further up the road. I never found it back despite searching. Some twenty gardens later I found my second semi rarity for the day, a Wood warbler (bøksanger) was actively feeding in a tree until it got scared away by one of the surprisingly many cars on this rather small island.

New birds: 1
Total: 186

17 Sept
Low clouds  and kind of misty. At midday even some drizzle before everything cleared by about 15:00. The rare treat of no wind. Birded the gardens, and what a change from yesterday! Gardens were filling up with birds as I was working my way from one garden to the next. This was a fall. Before long, a well known call was heard and a pipit flew over head. Unfortunately the almost certain Olive-backed pipit (sibirpiplerke) never landed and disappeared out of sight. It never made it to the list. A call and bird I have extensive experience with both from Norway and abroad, and even though the call is similar to tree-pipit, the calls are rather different. A bit later I did see a tree pipit in a garden on the other side of the island. Very different call indeed, but due to the rarity magnitude of olive-backed, I don't want to include it on to my Big Year list without a proper visual.

It was soon clear that this day was very different from yesterday, as every garden had birds in it. My very expected next Big Year bird soon appeared. The always beautiful Yellow-browed warbler (gulbrynsanger), was seen here and there. In total at least 5 indivuduals werer logged during the day. Despite a lot of birds on the island, nothing very rare was found.

I have already mentioned the dense vegetation in the gardens. This does not only make it hard to spot the birds, but also to photograph them. Despite trying to document both the barred warbler, and some of the yellow-broweds, I never managed to get a clean shot of any of them. Documenting birds on this island is very hard indeed at the moment, and I am looking with some horror until a bird we really need to document turns up - like a skulky Acrocephalus or maybe Norway's first Siberian blue robin.....

One of the many sheep on the island - for the moment not hiding in a bush,
but still helping to conteminate the drinking water on the island. 

New birds: 1
Total: 187

18 Sept
Cloudy, but more wind today from the north east ment more difficult to spot the birds in the moving bushes. It seemed like a lot of birds had left the island as well as only one Yellow-browed warbler was seen. Several small flocks of Ring ouzels (ringtrost) arrived and dropped in. Total of about 15 were logged. A few Garden warblers (hagesanger) and about 15 Chiffchaffs (gransanger). A female Sparrow hawk (spurvehauk) was new on the island since yesterday, and flock of about 120 Brent geese (ringgås) migrated pass as well as two White-billed divers (gulnebblom).

Tomorow, the weather forecast is easterly and south easterly. Cloudy in the morning and then it will start to rain. Almost no wind. This should be text book weather for a big fall out, so I can't wait for next morning's birding. Hopefully something good will come, and I can add a few to my Big Year list.

New birds: 0
Total: 187


Monday 15 September 2014

Big Year birding again

Big Year project is again up and running after a few weeks at sea. As I am not earning any money by doing the Big Year, I need unfortunately to work a little bit now and then to be able to still have a place to live and food to eat in 2015. I love my work, but in a Big Year context, it is also frustrating to be watching polar bears when I know I miss out on good birds at the mainland (I know this sounds spoiled – but you know what I mean). However, now it is time to take back all the lost species. The remaining of September and all of October are devoted to purely birding. A period that traditionally will produce lots of exciting birding, and by end of October I will probably know if my record attempt is successful or not.

News since last time is that I have had time to surf the internet, and actually found that there have been a lot of Ruddy shelducks (rustand) around in Western Europe in May. Both single birds and flocks in both Finland and Sweden, as well as other countries, seems to prove that there really was a real influx of wild birds of this species this year. Because of Ruddy shelducks being so popular in bird collections, single birds turning up here and there are usually considered to be escapes. I have therefore not included this one on my list so far. However, due to the big influx earlier in spring about the same time as the bird I saw at Kvassheim 25 May (during a dip on Woodchat shrike (rødhodevarsler)), it is likely that this bird was part of this influx and a true migrant - and therefore a wild bird. For this reason, I have now included this one onto my list.

A juvenile White-blled diver (gulnebblom) passing our ship in Svalbard. A rare
 bird in Svalbard and even though not new for my list - nice to get a pic of it like this.

11 September
Touching mainland after 4 weeks at sea didn’t mean any time to rest. Landed at 19:30, and already at 5 am the following morning a friend and I were on the road. A Cattle egret (kuhegre) up in the highlands towards the Swedish border had been there for a week, but only known to birders since two days ago. This is only about the 6th record for Norway, so even though I have seen hundreds of thousands abroad – cattle egret is a very good bird for my Big Year list. Arrived at scene at about 6 am, a bit before sunrise and just as the cattle were released out onto the pastures after being milked. We quickly learned that insects and cattle egret on the other hand, don’t wake up before several hours after. As the first insects started to buzz around, the egret also arrived the scene from its night roost at about 08:30. Big Year bird number 281 safely ticked!

In the evening I went to a good place for waders trying to find Curlew sandpiper (tundrasnipe). A very common bird in autumn migration in Norway, but because I have been out at sea, I still needed it for my list this year. Just as I was interviewed on the radio and talking about how I had missed several good species the last week due to work at sea, a nice flock of 7 Curlew sandpipers flew by me and landed in the bay in front of me. Plan A worked smoothly, and it was nice to tick a bird live on radio!

Taking pictures of the sunrise and the local cattle while waiting for the
Cattle egret to wake up. 

The star attraction for the day - the cattle egret awake and in ready for feeding.

This Cattle egret truly lived up to its name as it was always walking around
the cattle feeding on a fly or two that rested on the cattle itself. In early morning, it
favoured the black cows as I guess the sun heated their fur more and therefore had
 more flies on their back.

New birds: 2
Total: 282

12 September
Next day was spent doing some long needed office work. In the evening, I did a short hike in the forest trying to see a bird I am very surprised I have not yet seen this year. Nutcracker (nøttekråke) is a very common bird many of the places I have been birding this year but it was still missing on my list. It was time to change that, and before long, a couple of birds started to call nearby. After this had been ticked off, I have only two birds left that I feel 100% certain that I will see before the end of the year. Common crossbill (grankorsnebb), arguably an even more common bird than the nutcracker, is still missing on my list. The problem is that you need to see them very well to be able to distinguish them from the similar Parrot crossbill (furukorsnebb), which I ticked already in January. I have had several crossbills flying overhead during this year, but none of them safely identified to common (even though probably many of them were). The other one is a regular autumn migrant from Siberia, and I hope to find it already this week – namely the Yellow-browed warbler.

In the evening, I got a message from my friend that he had seen back a Short-toed lark (dverglerke) from last week, and he had also seen a harrier that was seen too briefly to identify it. It has been a few Pallid harriers (steppehauk) around in Norway lately, so with that in mind, and since Smøla is only a few hours away – the decision was easy.

New birds: 1
Total: 283

13 September
Arrived Smøla and the place for the Short-toed lark early morning. Searched all the fields. No lark. A Gyr falcon (jaktfalk) almost hit my head as he was hunting pigeons, and it should soon turn out that he was not the only pigeon hunter out this morning. After a couple of hours searching for the lark, two guys came yelling at me and shouting that I should get the H….off the field. They had payed money to rent the field from the farmer so that they could hunt crows (kråke) and pigeons. I went straight over and explained the situation, and to be honest, I am quite proud of myself for not shout back at them and ask them to piss off as I had all my legal rights on my side and just as much right to walk on the field as they had. In Norway, grain fields that are cut are "free country", and everyone can walk freely on them. Well, I managed to behave (after all, they did have guns…), and we actually agreed on me and some other birders leaving the field so they could hunt for a few hours and then I could come back to search more for the lark later. I anyway needed to search for the harrier, just in case it really was a pallid.

As I was staring into my phone, checking flights to southern Norway due to reports of pallid harrier (steppehauk), rose-coloured starling (rosenstær) and a booted warbler (tartarsanger) that were all tempting. Something made me look up, and the harrier was outside my window hunting in the distance! A small falcon was chasing it, and as I quickly found the shape of the falcon to be a bit funny – something in between Kestrel (tårnfalk) and Merlin (dvergfalk) I didn’t really know which one to follow of the two. The harrier disappeared behind some trees, but the falcon luckily landed in top of a small bush. Difficult light ment only silhouette views, but I got a feeling of a dark facial mask. It flew off again, and as it passed the tree I could see the dense barring in the upper tail. A short flight and it landed again in the bush. I was now confident that I was indeed looking at a Red-footed falcon! The falcon kept at almost 1500 meters distance. I alerted my friend, a local birder that had seen probably the same bird a week ago on the other side of the island. Leaving his pregnant wife and abandoning plans of shopping - It didn’t take long before he entered the scene. In the meantime, the falcon had flown off.  As we were standing, discussing what to do next, the two raptors reappeared, and we both got decent views. My friend managed to take some pictures of both the falcon and the harrier. The harrier turned out to be a juvenile female Hen harrier (myrhauk), and now in better light, it was possible to see all the identification clues on the falcon as well. A very good bird to add on the list! And even though it was probably the same bird that had been seen a week ago, it was a big surprise finding it back.

I had a few hours more of daylight. I decided to head back to the lark field. Now, we were four birders searching together. We flushed a Quail (vaktel), but still no lark. Even though I have heard many singing, this is actually the first time I get a visual of a quail in Norway. As we were searching for the lark, a big surprise in the form of a Turtle dove came flying by and landed in the field. Just after this, another one flew by. Again – a great bird to add to my Big Year list, and lets hope the pigeon hunters don’t mistake it for the wood pigeons (ringdue)…

Juvenile Turtle dove (turteldue) in flight hoping not to get shot by the hunters.

New birds: 2
Total: 285

Now, I am again off to the famous birding island Røst in Northern Norway. A place which has proven good for rare migrants to turn up in autumn. I will spend two weeks at this place, and hopefully add some new birds to my list. It is nothing more exciting than walking around - checking every bird you see in the hope of it being a rare one. Garden birding like this is the highlight during a birding year, and I really look forward to the weeks ahead. It is birding time!


Wednesday 3 September 2014

On the seven seas - or just the Barent's sea

I am still out at sea, doing a bird survey. That means birding every day,  but not in a way that necessarily increases my Big Year list very much. However, when you are out there, there is always hope. One seabird I did hope to see during this scientific cruise was the Sooty shearwater (grålire). This year however, has been really poor for them in the waters I am at the moment. Normally on cruises like this, I see a couple of hundreds of them around. But this year, I have only seen two. Luckily, one of them was just when we were almost touching the coast with our ship, and thus within territorial waters so it could be ticked on my Big Year list. Just below the famous North Cape cliff, one was passing our ship and joining a group of fulmars (havhest). This day was a pretty good birding day actually with long tailed skuas (fjelljo), great skuas (storjo), an unidentified phalarope (ubestemt svømmesnipe) feeding at sea as well as no less than 9 Manx shearwaters (havlire) – the highest number I have ever recorded in one day in Norway actually.

Sooty shearwater (grålire) just passing our ship once - but that is all that is
 needed to be included on my Big Year list.

When we are doing bird surveys like this, especially in the autumn, sometimes land birds also land on our ship. Some are regular migrants going about with their normal migration such as snow buntings (snøspurv), redpolls (gråsisik) or wheatears (steinskvett), but now and then something slightly more spectacular happens. Through the years, I had the fortune to be visited by Red-breasted flycatcher (dvergfluesnapper), Citrine wagtail (twice – sitronerle), Rough-legged buzzard (fjellvåk), Wood warbler (bøksanger), grasshopper warbler (gresshoppesanger) and turtle dove (turteldue) just to mention a few. The fun and exciting things about seeing a passerine far out at sea onboard the ship, is the same as on a remote island – you never know what it is before you get a proper look. I am still waiting for the snowy owl (snøugle)....

The other day was such a day. When waking up in the morning, I heard rumours from the crew that there was a sparrow onboard. The crew is competent in many things, but identifying small brown birds is not one of them, so it was with some excitement I started to search all the corners of the ship. Our ship isn’t very big, but I have often been surprised how well the birds manage to hide themselves here. I didn’t find any bird until many hours later, when I again was sitting on the bridge counting seabirds. Suddenly a medium sized bird dropped down from the roof of the bridge and dissapeared towards the stern of the ship. I hurried out, and down on the trawl deck and finally caught up with the bird – to my surprise it was a nice juvenile Red-backed shrike (tornskate). The position of the ship, you can see from the map – it is pretty much in the middle of the ocean. According to Google maps, 272 kilometers north of nearest mainland – the northernmost coast of Norway.

The yellow pin is the position of our ship at the sightign - 272 kilometers north
of Norway! The Red-backed shrike (tornskate)  is supposed to migrate in the
opposite direction of the North Pole - to Southern Africa.

The shrike was not new for my Big Year list, but it was exciting to see. That said – seeing these birds so way off course and so far out from any land is always a mixed pleasure as I know that the birds will die in a day or two. Small birds have a pretty fast metabolism, and they need more or less constant access to food. On our ship – far north in the Barent’s sea there is not much insects to be found. The bird lingered on the ship for the whole day, but wasn’t seen again. I did write a small piece on it for the cruise diary of Institute of Marine Research (IMR), and the NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting) picked up the story and also made a small article about it as well as a radio interview. So in a way – the bird has now got eternal life ….

Red-backed shrike - tornskate onboard our research vessel FF Johan Hjort.

Despite a very warm and sunny autumn in Norway, the fall migration is on full swing back home. Soon I am off this ship, and will resume my Big Year exercise – Can’t wait!

New birds: 1

Total: 280