Alan Dalton post's birding diaries and original artwork from Sweden. Established in 2006, this now long running blog is now a complete overview of my birding experiences. As an artist I greatly enjoy sketching birds in the field and you will find a wide selection of that work here, from fieldwork to finished paintings. I am very passionate about my artwork and try to depict birds in their natural habitat, as I see them in the wild. My artwork is for sale and can be viewed at http://www.alandalton.net/
As regards to my photography, since 2008 I have used a Nikon D90 DSLR camera coupled with a Sigma 150-500mm OS lens for since March 2012 for bird photography, all previous images being digiscoped. Regarding sound recording, I have been usung a Telinga Stereo Dat Mic and parabol to record birds in the field, coupled to a Marrantz 661 digital recorder, a superb piece of kit. Interest in butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies has recently seen the accquisition of a Sigma 150mm macro lens. I hope you enjoy the blog and please feel free to leave comments or contact me at alandltn@gmail.com

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Return to Batumi, Georgia with the BRC; 13th September-3rd October 2014

 Honey Buzzard. A juvenile passes Shuamta in September 2012, by far the commonest species at Batumi with over 500,000 migrating through the bottleneck each autumn

From this coming Saturday 13th September I will be returning to Batumi, Georgia to help monitor perhaps the most awesome avian spectacle the western paleartic has to offer, the raptor migration that takes place at the site each autumn. All this in a year which already looks set to break records with regard to the sheer numbers of migrating raptors, the count is already at a staggering 688,641 raptors, the count having started on August 17th. The majority of birds so far have been made up by an incredible 629,588 Honey Buzzards, which peaked in early September, with two bird days almost hitting 100,000 birds. Such phenomenal migration totals underline the importance of the Batumi bottleneck on the shores of the Black Sea as a monitoring site and mean that the site is almost unrivalled in Europe for dramatic large scale movements of birds of prey. In addition some 32,000 Black Kite and 11,000 Harrier Sp. have been logged this autumn already and with peaks of other species still to come, notably Steppe Buzzard, which can reach into the hundreds of thousands. I sumation, it looks as if this year may well be yet be another record breaking year at the site and I, for one,  am very much looking forward to being part of one of the great avian spectacles in the world. This experience, which is difficult to describe in words and is best experienced on the ground. The sight of raptor migration in full swing, on such a massive scale is nothing short of breathtaking..


 Short Toed Eagle and a pale phase Booted Eagle to the right here. Both species pass through in big numbers and late September sees a peak in migration for both these smaller eagles.


 Black Kite. Again, there is a huge passage of this species in Batumi. This is a juvenile bird at Sakhalvasho station which I photographed two years ago on a memorable day when thousands were logged and could be seen streaming across from the Caucasus.

I will spend three weeks counting at the site and though most of the huge passage of Honey Buzzard has passed(despite tens of thousands to come) there is much still to see. Mid September to early October will see the peak of other species, with Steppe Buzzard the most numerous of these. Steppe Buzzard have tended to show a dramatic peak over a few days in late September when massive movements can take place, when days with many tens of thousands can pass, often in huge pushes over just a few hours. In addition large scale movements of species  such as Black Kite continue, whilst Marsh, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers continue to move through. One of the biggest plus points of this period are the passage of eagle species, with Booted Eagle and Short Toed Eagle prevelant. It is the passage of Aquilla eagles which is a personal highlight, with days of hundreds of Lesser Spotted Eagles interspersed with rarer Greater Spotted Eagle and Steppe Eagle in their midst offering identification and ageing challenges in the field. One of the joys of the period is the sheer diversity of raptor passage and one can expect upwards of thirty species of raptor in the period..


 Lesser Spotted Eagles, a juvenile below in contrast to the immature above. The immature is probably a fourth calendar. Batumi offers stunning opportunity to familiarise one self with the aquilla species, in particular ageing these birds in the field. Late September sees large numbers on certain days...


It is not just about monitoring numbers of raptors, one of the goals of the BRC has been to age as many of the key species as possible in order to help build a better picture of of population dynamics and breeding success in any given year, many of the observers at the site being expert at identification, ageing and counting in the field. This leads to a sharing of expertise and a real learning opportunity for all who take part. As if the spectacle of one of natures greatest natural events was not enough, there is the added attraction of working with like minded individuals from all over Europe. At the counting stations, as birds pass, observers pass on knowledge to each other in the field, share the experience and workload, laugh and joke and generally connect with each other. This is one of the aspects of the volunteer count that really makes a visit to Batumi special, it's not just about the birds, but also the birders. Lasting friendships are formed here and the birding community becomes a smaller one..


 Black Storks are a species that can also be seen at Batumi. Far from just raptors, many other birds migrate along the Black Sea coast and are seen whilst on station. Bee Eaters, Roller, Storks, Wagtails, Shrikes, Pipits and many others are seen....

Day to day at Batumi one slips into an easy routine, due to the superb organization of the BRC team. On arrival you are instantly made to feel at home and are introduced to the other volunteers, count coordinators, host family and BRC staff. There are two counting stations, one above the accomadation at Salhalvasho and one at Shuamta, a site of quite incredible natural beauty at higher elevation inland, to which you are transported to each morning by minibus. Volunteers are alternated between stations and the previous night you know which station it will be. Breakfast is waiting on the table each morning, prepared by the host family at BRC headquarters, where all the volunteers stay. Lunch is provided for the day at the counting sites and on return an excellent, hearty evening meal is provided. Each week volunteers get a couple of days off, which are generally spent birding at the Chorokhi Delta, a superb wetland site, packed full of migrant species. The area has fantastic birding potential, is relatively untapped and still largely an unknown quantity. The coastal beaches are often full of migrants after large falls. Large gull flocks provide interest for larophiles. Locally interesting species such as Kruper's Nuthatch, Green Warbler and Armenian Gull only add to the birding spice...


 Steppe Buzzard migration can be spectacular and shows a remarkably concentrated peak in late September when tens of thousands can pass in a single day, a breathtaking spectacle, as is the entire migration at Batumi. This shot, showing only a small section of sky on the day was taken with my iPhone!


 Honey Buzzard, a dark phase juvenile here. As September draws on the numbers of these birds drop after the ealy September peak, often allowing the rarer Crested Honey Buzzard to be more easily pick out amongst them.

For those interested in rarities there is much to hope for raptor wise, and it is the eastern flavour that provides much interest. One of Batumi's specialties is the annual presence of a much sought after Western Paleartic rarities such as Crested Honey Buzzard. Saker Facon is another distinct possibility, with several annual records. Eastern Imperial Eagle is regular late season. Batumi boasts an incredible raptor list and is missing only a few species, such as Bonelli's Eagle, Sooty Falcon and Barbary Falcon. Surely more eastern species will appear, such as Amur Falcon and Eastern Marsh Harrier?


 Aquilla passage is a real highlight in late September at Batumi and I am greatly looking forward to this aspect of the trip..

The real joy of Batumi is the experience of being there. Unwinding after a long day count is done after dinner on the balcony most nights to the sound of crickets, chatting about the days birds and sights with birders from all over Europe, enjoying a beer together and talking the night away. Birder's can talk forever about destinations, sightings, other birders and experiences abroad. Occasional forays into Batumi for a meal where you meet locals and experience warm Georgian hospitality and traditional music. Perhaps an evening relaxing on the beach along the Black Sea, or an early night.


 Shuamta, site of count station B. A quite stunning location, high in the mountains of coastal Georgia, overlooking the Black Sea.

This time around I hope to make a decent record of my experience, through videoscoping and photography, all of which will, in time be shared here, in order to try and share the experience. The Batumi Raptor Count started only as recently as 2008 and was the result of a few intrepid young birders with an aspiration to count what they figured could be a significant passage of raptors. It has been proved since that the Batumi bottleneck is vitally important as a site where the population of raptors can be monitored through annual count. Though these birds only pass through here briefly, the count itself allows an insight into the health of the population, not only through numbers, but also through the analysis of data with regard to aged birds, relations to weather patterns and correlation with other raptor watchpoints, such as Eilat in Israel, the Bosphorus in Turkey, even as far as Gibraltar in Spain. The BRC seeks to study more than just the figures the count produces, but also hopes to changes attitudes towards the birds that pass through. There is a hunting culture in Georgia, as there is in many parts of the world, and the BRC is undertaking long term measures to counteract this. Education is the key, big strides are being made with regard to local efforts to show that ecotourism is the way forward. Schools are approached, a number of jobs are being created and the knock on effect of events such as the BRC organized  Batumi Birding Week, which will run from 21-28th September 2014, will see an influx of visitors from abroad and bring real income to local families, hoteliers and businessmen.


 Short Toed Eagle directly overhead at Sakhalvasho. Views like this make Batumi an unforgettable experience..

So, three weeks in Batumi. Personally, as a birder I can't wait.
A link here to the BRC website, which has details on the latest count, bird festival and other relevant information for those interested...
www.batumiraptorcount.org

Greater Spotted Eagle, a juvenile as Shuamta was one of four birds recorded at the station on a day the yielded hundreds of eagles.




Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hällögern; 23rd August 2014

A female Velvet Scoter with a late brood of twelve Young. One of three females offshore this morning with young...


 Black-throated Divers around 700m ofshore at first light...


White Wagtail


After an absolute washout yesterday I was relieved to awake to no rain today. The weather has been nothing short of appalling this week and this was the first dawn in five Days I could spend watching visible migration. The wind has now shifted to northeast, a cold affair which has killed the hirundine passage, a feature of the first few days. However, there was an amazing increase in one species today, Brambling. Todays total would come to 611, the vast majority in the few hours after dawn and also juvenile birds, often in flocks averaging twenty or thirty birds. Whether this was local movement or more extensive migration(it seems to early for that), there was a marked movement of these birds today. Tree Pipit were again moving with 58 noted, over 60 Yellow Wagtails also. Three migrating Ospreys were all juvenile, as were 6 Common Buzzard. New to the trip list were 14 Linnet and a Calling Jay, this now stands at 76 species. A single 3rd calender White -tailed eagle was seen as well as 7 Common Crossbill, 32 White Wagtail, 2 Curlew, 7 Chiffchaff, 5 Spotted Flycatcher, 3 Black-throated Diver, 16 Red-throated Diver. Several unidentified flocks of waders at extreme range in heat haze was frustrating.The afternoon was spent watching for raptors with little success. apart from a few Hobby, though as Always, northern species like Crane, Velvet Scoter, Divers and Brambling were Always present for interest.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hällögern; 21st August 2014

 Velvet Scoter female with Young...

After rain at dawn I managed 80 minutes from 06.20am Before the cursed rain began again. Curlew was added to the trip list early on, whilst 102 Yellow Wagtail, 34 Tree Pipit, 168 Swallow, 25 House Martin, 61 Cormorant, 1 Cuckoo, 5 Brambling, 1 Whooper Swan and a handful of Swift were noted. A thrilling highlight was watching two Hobby hunting for Swallows cooperatively, eventually making a kill after a few thrilling chases. A quite remarkable sight and simply an awesome aerial display.
Again I was rained off, but got back early afternoon when raptors were on the move. A Honey Buzzard juvenile was followed by 4 Common Buzzard and a female Marsh Harrier, Before an Osprey put in an appearance. Later a third calender White Tailed Eagle drifted south. The two best records of the day were an adult Caspian Tern and 6 Temmink's Stint which flew past me Calling, making a trip list total of 71 species after a late Redshank flew in. It will be tough going to add to this in the coming days as expected species are, by and large, already on the list...

 Images below; Marsh Harrier, a second calender female or older, this one well over a kilometre away in the lower picture, whilst in the upper shot a pair of Common Buzzard  at even greater range.


Hällögern; 20th August 2014

Sand Martin at rest; digiscoped at around 400m. For this trip I decided to digiscope and save myself lugging around a lot of camera gear in order to be able to sketch, little did I know it would rain constantly...

Again, I awoke to pounding rain and heavy grey skies. Eager to get out as I was there was no Point in going out in such bad weather as nothing was passing over at all and it was 08.20am Before it stopped. On arrival at the tip of the Island I picked up a few bedraggled Chiffchaff and a single Willow Warbler in the alders, reminding me this place must have potential in autumn proper. Three Teal and a couple of Ringed Plover were soon added to the trip list. After just twenty minutes the heavens reopened and I was forced to quit. I remained housebound until the evening when it cleared nicely and I could get out and enjoy some visible migration. Soon, Yellow Wagtails really started to pile over, as did hirundines. Acouple of adult Spotted Redshank floated by in stunning black dress, whilst 2 Pintail were more unexpected, my first ever on the island. Then a juvenile Marsh Harrier floated southwards. Final migrant totals for a few hours were excellent as the birds took advantage of a brief window of decent weather. 566 Swallow, 48 Swift, 323 Yellow Wagtail, 8 Common Crane and 15 Common Crossbill among the birds recorded. Then a real treat as a pair of Hobby hunted Swallow overhead, Before a big juvenile Goshawk appeared from nowhere and took a juvenile Black-headed Gull over the water in front, making this an evening to remember. Wonderful stuff..
Trip list now at 64 species after day 2...

Hällögern; 19th August 2014

 Above and below; Yellow Wagtail, abundant right now on the island...


A trip to the far North to the summer house is always anticipated, we arrived the previous evening in atrocious weather, driving rain and thunder. I got to bed early and awoke at dawn to find the rain still beating down, an absolute deluge. It hammered down until 08.30am, when I quickly made my way to the northeast tip, where I found to my dismay that the water levels were so high that the waders prefered area was underwater. I have never seen the water so high here, though the rain in th past few days has been remarkable and caused flooding over much of Sweden. I settled down to see what might pass overhead. A slow passage of White Wagtails, Yellow Wagtail and the odd Tree Pipit was apparent, whilst other better birds came eventually. A migrating Cuckoo was nice, as were three White-tailed Eagle out at sea. A rarity then went over, a Carrion Crow, in with a small group of Hooded Crow, I had excellent views as it passed, a rare bird this far north, if not the most sought after species. Three juvenile Arctic Skua were most welcome, two of them joining forces to terrorize the local Common Gulls as they passed. Then came two Grey Plover, flying southeast, as did most of the migrating birds. The weather then closed in again and heavy rain soon drenched me and passage stopped.
 Later in the afternoon came a second dry spell and I watched from the west of the island, as it was very obvious that a huge passage of hirundines was taking place. I pulled out a sunbed for comfort and started to count as Swallows streamed by, the odd Swift and Martin in their midst. The final totals would be 1,135 Sawllow, 78 Swift, 31 House Martin and 2 Sand Martin. Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Willow Tit, Velvet Scoter with Young, Wood Sandpiper, Brambling, Common Crossbill and Common Crane were also noted nad Before the weather once again closed in I had a very good total of 62 species recorded, an excellent day on such a small Island...

Monday, August 11, 2014

Early moulting juvenile Argentatus Herring Gull at Skeppsbron; 11th August 2014

 A large, chunky juvenile gull this, which gained my full attention after I noticed the newly moulted scapulars, which can clearly be seen here. Herring Gull rarely shows moult this early this far north and this can be a good indicator of a Yellow-legged Gull. Tertials seems not as dark centred as I would hope for in YLG, also the greater covert's seem rather piano keyed and a better fit for Herring Gull? Head looks rather pale with a dark mask around the eye, not a bad fit for YLG? Note the slightly worn coverts on this bird...a very interesting individual.


 Could these tertials be within what one might expect on YLG? How about those greater coverts? Both seem perfectly acceptable for Argentatus Herring Gull. Furthermore I would expect a Yellow-legged Gull to show reddish brown tones around the mantle and hindneck, a slightly deeper base to the bill and a whiter head., perhaps a slightly longer primary projection at rest. On this side just a single scapular is moulted.


 Again the other side, which again lacks reddish brown tones on the mantle and hindneck as mentioned. The pale fringes on the tertials are notched and extend in to the greater coverts, supporting Argentatus Herring Gull.


 In flight, the only decent flight shot I got. Note the rather broad tailband, rather white inner tail and rump, not apparently unlike what one would expect in YLG? I was quite struck by the tail pattern and rump as being quite good for YLG. Note however, a small number of Argentatus  do show this rather Mich like tail pattern and the white tips to the tail feathers are a litle thin and irregular for a Yellow-legged Gull.  In flight the greater covert's look ok for YLG, but not the inner primaries. Here the feathers look pale, with light lozenges on outer webs of P1-P3, better for Herring Gull. This for me is the clinching feature and leads me to the conclusion that this is an early fledged Argentatus showing early scapular moult and a tail pattern that is rather Mich like. Note here the flanks are rather finely marked, lacking the large blotched marking usually associated with Yellow-legged Gull.


At rest here, looking too short winged for a Yellow-legged Gull. Again note the classic, notched greater coverts, supporting Argentatus. All things taken into acount this seems fine as a Herring Gull, albeit one that shows some characteristics of YLG. Here in Sweden, the presence of these big northern Argentatus types make identification of Yellow-legged Gull even tougher, due to structural simularities in the first instance, whilst birds showing Mich like tail patterns and darker plumage only serve to further compound the identification on occasion. Careful observation, patience and assessing the full suite of features involved require good views and experience and not a little objectivity. 

Gulls at Skeppsbron; 11th August 2014

Above and below; Caspian/Herring Gull intergrade, still present it seems. Note again the small, dark notch on P5 in the flight shot below. This gull has already been fully dicussed here a few Days ago, scroll down for more...




1st Calender Baltic Gull, one of at least six birds in it's age Group at the site today..


Nice to finally get some images of this 2nd calender Baltic Gull on the deck and Close to the lens...


Above; A juvenile Herring Gull already showing moulted scapulars? by far the most advanced bird at the site today. Could this a bird born earlier in the year to the south? Very unusual to see moult this early in Herring Gull, though greater covert's seemed off for Yellow legged Gull? The inner primaries seemed rather pale in flight, though the head looked pale, with a darkish mask around the Eye, the uppertail and rump looked rather white...
Below; A trio of loafing juveniles awaiting handouts...




Above and Below; A cracking 'Omissus' type Herring Gull, a full adult this one. Note the limited black in the wingtip and lack of dark markings at the tip of the  newly grown P5.The new P6 is growing out and shows only a smal dark fleck on the outer web, clearly seen in the image below. note the Bright yellow tone of the legs...
 


Above and below; A couple of shots of 3rd Calender Argentatus Herring Gulls, at least 5 birds in this age class present today...note the moult below on the flying bird, with a rather diffuse dark band on P5.


Images and discussion on todays gulls at Skeppsbron, the highlight being the appearance of the Caspian/Herring Gull today, nice to see it still in the area. Gull numbers were good today, and the number of birds at the site is slowly rising. all four age Groups of Baltic Gull were represented with 6 1st calender, 1 2nd calender, 1 3rd calender and good numbers of adults present. A brief adult light mantled Lesser Black-backed Gull was nice and looked like a new bird, it didn't hang around and avoided the camera. Another hihlight was a very nice 'Omissus' Herring Gull, a fine looking adult bird.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Baltic Gull; Juvenile Plumage; Skeppsbron; 6th August 2014

A tiny individual, This bird was smaller than a Common Gull and perhaps was the runt of it's siblings. These birds have had a fantastic breeding success this year, in other less productive years it is probable the youngest chicks, perhaps such as this, would not survive.


A warmer toned bird here, compare with the colder toned birds below...
  
 
 
A pair of Baltic Gulls ar rest, these two are very simular and are probably siblings.. 
 
Above and below; the same individual which tends towards the darker end of the spectrum. These are very variable birds in plumage appearance..





In flight, showing typical tail pattern here, a rather warmly toned individual this one...


A paler type bird with brown tones through the plumage...


Direct comparison with a Herring Gull...


Images here of some of the first calender Baltic Gulls present a skeppsbron today, at least 9 birds present, this pecies has had an excellent breeding year this year....

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Caspian Gull; 3rd Calender Plumage; Skeppsbron; 6th August 2014

Note here the small head, long parallel sided bill, small dark Eye, high chested appearance. The tibia were noticably long, in direct comparison to Herring Gull, the bird looked noticably longer legged on land. Aged by second generation P7-P10, as well as second generation covert's.


The small dark eye and thin red orbital ring can be seen here, as well as the long, parallel sided bill with rather reduced gonydeal angle. Small, diffuse dark markings near the bill tip help age the bird. Note the long necked appearance here and second generation covert's...


Note here the rather long legged appearance of the bird, a striking bird on the deck.. The legs were pink.


Here the bird looked rather less attentuated at the rear, with perhaps a shorter primary projection than might be expected of Caspian Gull? The long tibia and high chested look are again apparent in this photo..

Again here, the bird looking very long necked. On the water the bird was still striking and stood out from nearby Herring Gulls, though again there is a rather less attentuated rear than might be expected. The small dark eye and profile of the head and bill was rather consistent and allowed the bird to be easily picked out.


 
The open wing here showing P5 has grown out, showing only a small dark wedge, not a complete dark sub terminal band. This is not textbook and suggests this may not be a pure Caspian Gull and may point to some Herring genes. The tail is also atypical for third calender Caspian Gull, if within variation, the dark tail marking are diffuse. Note the second generation P8-P9. It seems P6-P7 have been dropped, whilst P1-P5 are new, third generation feathers.


The bird twisting in flight, allowing a superb view of the tail. The tail band is very diffuse indeed and whilst within the variation of Caspian Gull, it would be considered more typical of Herring Gull and may also lead to doubts as to whether this bird has not got some Herring Gull genes, particularily when the small dark wedge on P5 is considered.


The underwing here show faint brown traces, again not textbook Caspian at this age. Again, the lack of a complete dark subterminal band on P5 is the key feature overall, the small dark wedge present can be seen on the far upperwing here.

My regular daily checks of the gulls at the site continued today. I had been onsite for around 40 minutes and had been feeding bread for around ten minutes when I fisrt noticed this bird after it flew in and landed on the water. The long, parallell sided bill, small dark eye and head shape immediately flagged the bird, which I soon managed to coax onto the dockside with bread. On land the bird was even more striking, displaying a remarkably long legged appearance due to the long tibia. I spent about 40 minutes observing the bird, carefully noting all the features discussed above. The bird ticked a lot of boxes with regard to identification as Caspian Gull, certainly looking the part structurally. The jizz in particular was striking, the birds small headed appearance, combined with high chest, long legs and general carriage. It was slightly smaller than the Herring Gulls present and constantly recalled Common Gull in many ways, due to the appearance of the clean white head, small dark eye and the facial appearance. The small dark wedge on P5 was noted in the field, something which did not bother me at the time as I thought it might be within variation for the species, such was the overall impression of the bird. It was only later on, when the photos were processed and posted that full consideration was given. Comments on the bird were forthcoming from Peter Adriens and Jan Jorgensen in particular, who expressed concerns as to the marking on P5 in particular. The diffuse tail markings were more of a minor concern as they fell within variation for the species. However, when taken into consideration, the absence of a full subterminal band on the fifth primary, combined with diffuse tail band, lead to doubts as to whether this is a pure Caspian Gull.
 Naturally, Stockholm is on the northwestern edge of this birds occurance and as such is close to the more western breeding colonies of Caspian Gull, where hybrids are well documented, particularily in Poland amongst other countries. It is to be expected that some birds of mixed genetic parentage can and do occur, making identification fraught at times. It seems that this bird is likely not to be a pure Caspian Gull, all features taken into account. For me. personally, this remains a stunning gull and the probability of the bird not being a pure Cachinans does not detract from the experience. I think at times, the need for observations to have to fit neatly into a species bracket can stifle birding experience and not every bird is assignable to category. That's fine. Not every bird falls into the bracket of a slam dunk identification, and whilst a textbook, easy individual is always welcome, birds like these help further knowledge. So, Caspian Gull proceeded by a full stop? No it's not. Caspian Gull proceeded by a question mark? Yes, it surely is. Does it really matter?
I would like to thank Peter Adrians and Jan Jörgensen for their invaluable help and expertise with regard to this bird.