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, October 28, 2014

286,000 Raptors. A new Western Paleartic Record. Batumi, 2nd October 2014


The morning of 2nd October dawned as any other and the counters assembled at breakfast as usual. This was to be my last full day on station, having been given the choice as to where I would be located, I had chosen Shuamta. My reasoning was that Station 2 had generally seen larger numbers of birds, with a greater numbers of eagles. My mood was slightly melancholy as I climbed the mountain that morning, I had enjoyed my time hugely and was not particularly looking forward to leaving.
Naturally, we all hoped for a day of good passage, though we could not of expected the events that would unfold on this day. Having had so many wet days when passage had been halted we had wondered whether the birds had passed further to the east, within the mountains, perhaps having avoided the bad weather and moved around the worst of it to the east. It seemed the average peak date of Steppe Buzzard had perhaps passed and we were now into October. Still, the weather was good on the day and we hoped for some nice eagle passage, so the mood was good as we arrived at the station and set up the shelter and laid out the seats...
As soon as we began to scan the skies for birds we picked up raptors. There was a very strong passage of harriers right from the off and we had several small groups of Marsh Harriers, whilst there were also Pallid Harrier and more distant ringtails, some of them at great height. I was stationed looking to the east and as the sun rose it became apparent we would have a good passage of birds. Several kettles of Black Kite and Steppe Buzzard appeared before long in the skies and the sound of clickers began as the first streams were counted. There was a strong early push of Steppe Buzzard, though nothing we hadn't seen before. A few thousand passed in the first few hours, a good result. It wasn't long before the first Short Toed Eagles appeared and we had good views of these wonderful birds as they drifted past, some directly overhead. A few Turtle Doves and Woodpigeon passed, as well as a few Levant Sparrowhawk. The occasional Honey Buzzard appeared among the Black Kite and Steppe Buzzard. To the east, almost imperceptibly at first, the Steppe Buzzard passage began to gain momentum. It was still rather comfortable to count, there were no great issues and the atmosphere was relaxed. I picked up a high group of birds and was greeted by a familiar sight as a group of 13 Common Crane went though my scope and I let the others know. They made for a fine sight as they passed and lifted the mood a little. I scanned Little Ginger just after they passed and in the distance there was a huge kettle of birds over Valley Mountain. Through the scope there were several hundred birds circling, whilst more were streaming in. I remarked we might be rather busy in the near future, little did I know what was about to happen...


Common Crane, flying south in formation, always a welcome sight. The passing of these birds around midday marked the start of the most incredible raptor passage ever seen in the Western Palearctic.



Black Stork



Black Stork


Black Kites kettling high over Station 2 at Shuamta....


Soon the birds had reached the transect line over Little Ginger and started to kettle over the mountain. As hundred of birds streamed in, the kettle was quickly swollen as the birds gained height, it made for a magnificent sight. As I waited for the birds to begin streaming out of this large kettle I quickly scanned to the north. There was a huge stream feeding into the kettle in front of me, I could easily follow this back to the north into the mountains and there, further back in the distance, were another couple of large kettles. Getting back to the birds in front of me I began to count as the birds streamed out, several hundred birds were quickly entered into the palmtop. The kettle over Little Ginger was still being fed by a very strong stream, a dark ribbon of birds stretched away into the distance, punctuated by other, more distant kettles. It was an ominous sight, I took it all in quickly and returned to counting Steppe Buzzards. This was the beginning of what can only be described as an insane passage of raptors, the stage was now set and we were oblivious to the scene that was about to unfold. The rate of passage didn't slowly increase, or gradually build up. It was simply a sudden explosion. I counted a couple of thousand birds over 15 minutes and then it just seemed that there was an immense increase in numbers. The kettle over Little Ginger suddenly became a super kettle, a huge mass of birds entwined in the sky, a thousand or more individuals forming a truly breathtaking sight. This kettle would remain present for the rest of the afternoon, constantly fed by a massive stream of birds, endlessly belching out hundreds of birds to the south. Before long I was swamped and John Wright had to help me monitor the stream for species. As the rate of passage went from heavy, to massive , onwards towards biblical, we became more and more awestruck as we soaked up the birds. The skies were now full of birds, the vast majority of which were Steppe Buzzard. Amongst them came the first Aquilla eagles, though it was almost impossible to spare the time required to identify them, as the cost of that was to miss others. It soon bemae glaringly obvious that the count was the priority and we quickly zoned in and concentrated. The stream of birds soon became very broad and it took two of us to count it. Birds were now appearing overhead, where another massive kettles formed. The scene to the west became just as astounding, as bird began to blacken the skies there too. Radio contact with Station 1 told us they were now experiencing a similar huge push of birds...

And so it began, Steppe Buzzards, all of them..



More Steppe Buzzard...



A Steppe Eagle appears in the midst of a huge Steppe Buzzard stream as Russia begn to empty her skies into Georgia...


It is very difficult to describe what happened around 1pm. All of a sudden, masses of birds appeared in the sky. A large proportion of the birds were in the east, with a series of huge kettles connected by a truly massive stream of birds. The stream originated from northeast, into the mountains, somewhere beyond Valley Mountain. The kettle over Little Ginger became a seething mass of birds, with raptors streaming out constantly, thousands of birds gliding out under Big Momma, with others gliding out towards our position. feeding another series of kettles. The skies were dark with raptors. It is very easy to run out of superlatives for the sheer volume of passage that began to take place. We were in danger of being overwhelmed as the situation in the east was incredulous. At this point several large flocks of Black Stork went through and really added to the mayhem. Among the Steppe Buzzards were random Aquilla Eagles and a few Steppe Eagles were among them, though there was no time to look at these birds. It was the best we could do to detect the occasional harriers, Black Kite and other species among the Steppe Buzzard, whilst the majority of the counters were simply attempting to keep up with hundreds of Steppe Buzzards per minute...
 The Steppe Buzzard migration was at this point insane, it would remain like this for the next few hours. I don't expect I will ever see anything like it ever again and we were very aware we were witnessing a very special event. It seemed the rain had indeed stalled the migration of these birds, they had not travelled inland and avoided the weather, they had waited. We later discussed that these birds must gather in huge numbers at certain points and perhaps the Greater Caucasus is one such area, a huge remote wilderness which can support tens of thousands of birds roosting on the mountainside and awaiting favourable conditions in which to migrate. It seemed as though Russia was emptying right before our eyes as the streams of migrating birds became a massive torrent. The main stream in the east was massive, incredible broad and deep and this was now complicated by several huge kettles. All we could do was pick an area of sky where birds were streaming and there was no kettle and count at that point. Two of us were now counting this flow of birds, whilst a third looked for species. There were other huge steams in East 1, directly over head and in the near west. The view over towards the coast was mind-blowing, raptors were like confetti. The skies above Batumi were filled with birds as natural event of wondrous proportions took shape. We counted solidly for hours. Our entries into the palmtop had been in the hundreds, but they were now in thousands. I remember entering 5,000 plus bird several times at regular intervals, with one entry of 12,000 birds! Conditions were far from ideal, there was low cloud and birds were being missed, several times I saw birds appearing out of low cloud in the distance behind the stream being counted and realised they had not been counted. We had to let it go and concentrate on the birds we had in front of us, thousands upon thousands of them. After a couple of hours counting huge numbers of bird my head began to spin out and I passed counting on to Daniel Hinckley, whilst John Wright soldiered on. I took a brief time out to eat a sandwich and take in a little water. I sat back and took in the full panorama of birds to the east and it was something I will never forget. I made a point of grabbing some images with the camera and a little video whilst I could, though the narrow field of view meant it was impossible to record the wider picture. Here I include some photos and video shot that day as a record, in order to help give some idea of what it was actually like to be on the mountain that day...

A record video here shot that afternoon from the mountain through my scope...



Steppe Buzzards




Steppe Buzzards




Steppe Buzzards



Steppe Buzzards



Steppe Buzzards



Steppe Buzzards




John Wrights incredible video shot at a lower magnification helps give a wider appreciation of the sheer numbers involved, shot late afternoon, when the passage started to ease a little!


The early afternoon period was something of a blur, we were bogged down with birds and concentrating so hard that the time went quickly. We realised that the passage would continue right until the end of the day, the numbers being so vast that we should not stop counting until dusk and arranged for a later pick up by minibus than usual. Somewhere around 16.00hrs the passage of Steppe Buzzards began to ease off, though there were still thousands of birds going over. It was only now that we had an opportunity to look at the figures and realised we were already way over the day record for Batumi, at 122,000 Steppe Buzzard alone, without liking at other species, or even considering the station at Saghalvasho! We continued to count as the weather improved and more blue skies appeared above us, allowing easier counting of birds. There was still a huge stream in the east, with a couple of other stream closer to the station, whilst there was another in the west. Suddenly the steppe Buzzards were streaming in a more organised fashion and became easier to count, freeing up some of us to look at the other species, there were now lots of Eagles passing. An incredible period began, marked by a phenomenal passage of Short toed Eagles, with small flocks of these at times. Also, there were Aquilla Eagles and now we had time to sort through them and identify the birds. It became a very special evening very quickly and soon there were Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagles appearing amongst the Lesser Spotted Eagles. The light was suddenly excellent and the birds were kettling quite close to our position. All of this took place to a backdrop of masses of Steppe Buzzard streaming through, as a few Black Kite now began to appear also...


Short toed Eagles over Shuamta on a glorious evening...





Yours truly on station, photo taken by Billy Heerman...



Black Kite circling close to the mountainside at Shuamta...



Still there were masses of Steppe Buzzard to contend with on a simply unforgettable day...


Aquilla Eagles were amongst the Steppe Buzzards, though it was only in the late afternoon that we really got to grips with them. A Lesser Spotted Eagle here with a couple of Steppe Buzzard..




Lesser Spotted Eagle and Steppe Buzzards...




Passage easing off slightly at this point...!




Low cloud led to birds disappearing in the higher skies, look at the steppe Buzzard here behind the Lesser Spotted Eagle...


Most of the eagles were picked up as they moved into the large kettle ov Little Ginger, which was still presents and contained a large number of Steppe Buzzards. From here, some went south under Big Momma, but most came towards us on the mountain and kettles closet to the station in improving light. The views were stunning and we enjoyed many terrific Greater Spotted Eagles and Steppe Eagles before a real gem was picked up, Eastern Imperial Eagle. As the bird flew towards us we cocked to large size and long wings, as it turned into the kettle there was no mistaking the birds identity and we had superb views of this magnificent bird, sadly, a highly threatened species. It soon moved one, though not before I could manage a few photos...


Eastern Imperial Eagle, the first of the day, a juvenile bird. Note the huge head, long wings and diagnostic pale forewings and body.



Eastern Imperial Eagle and Aquilla Sp.



Eastern Imperial Eagle and Aquilla Sp.




Eastern Imperial Eagle


Other Eagles were more complex and we had several rather confusing birds. sometimes it was down to range, which we quickly left at Aquilla sp., as there were so many birds to look at. The closer birds were earlier, though amongst them came a few birds that tested even the most experienced of us. One or two went undecided, a it was perhaps a few adult Steppe Eagles that really caused the most confusion. Many Greater spotted eagles showed well, I ended up with so many photos of the birds in the evening. Looking at these images now, a few of the birds are far from clear to me as regards identification, comments on any of the birds photographed are welcome. Even after three weeks at Batumi these Aquillas are a serious challenge in the field...


Here is a Steppe Eagle at slightly longer range, this one a juvenile type...



Steppe Eagle, juvenile.




Immature Aquilla Eagle, which I have down as a Lesser Spotted Eagle...evidence of moult is apparent along the trailing edge. Note the small head and bill, longish tail and small rounded hand...




Steppe Eagle, an immature bird, perhaps third or fourth calendar...



Steppe Eagle, an immature bird, perhaps third or fourth calendar...



Steppe Eagle, an immature bird, perhaps third or fourth calendar...



Steppe Eagle, an immature bird, perhaps third or fourth calendar...





Lesser Spotted Eagle





Eastern Imperial Eagle, the third juvenile of the day...



Eastern Imperial Eagle, the third juvenile of the day...




Eastern Imperial Eagle, the third juvenile of the day...


Eventually there were no less than 4 Eastern Imperial Eagles, which I was thrilled with. These huge eagles were magnificent and we had wonderful views of the birds as they passed the station. They often dwarfed the other eagles nearby. We had good views of several Steppe Eagles also, and a couple of really confusing birds may have belonged to this species, which can be very difficult to identify as sub adult or adult in the field.
 Away from the eagles Steppe Buzzard were still going through in thousands and we were logging many more birds, soon we were well over 150,000 birds. Having broken through the one million raptor barrier a few days previously it was now dawning on us that records were tumbling. We had little doubt that the records for a single days passage had been truly smashed, though it now seems as though a new annual total record for Batumi was more than likely. little did we know, Station 1 had a remarkable eagle passage and that the day record for Aquilla Eagles at Batumi would also fall. We just kept counting and marvelled at it all. There was a real sense of elation on the station now as we began to realise the magnitude of what we were witnessing. this would be  new Western Paleartic Record day passage of raptors, only the Pan American Flyway in Central America could surpass this level of migration. Slowly it sank in as thousands of birds continued to pass...

Greater Spotted Eagle, sub adult or adult?



Greater Spotted Eagle, sub adult or adult?




Above and below. Aquilla Eagle, another difficult bird this one, though have it down as a Lesser Spotted Eagle. Immature bird.




Above and below, another immature eagle that gave me some trouble. Eventually arrived at Lesser Spotted Egle, due to the apparent double comma, pale underwing coverts. The pattern of the barring in the retained juvenile feathers somehow makes me a little uneasy though, five or six bars, rather coarse and slowing towards the outer half of the feather. A rather large winged bird this one...








Greater Spotted Eagle? A rather dark looking bird this one. A difficult bird to call this one...


It went one and one, periodically there were large palmtop entries and the number of Steppe Buzzard rose steadily. One of my abiding memories of the evening was the kettle in front of the station to the east, often containing 8 or 9 Short Toed Eagles, with Aquilla Eagles constantly coming across from Little Ginger. Hundreds of Steppe Buzzards continued to pass, along with Black Kite and Harriers. Occasionally an Eastern Imperial Eagle would liven things up, all the time birds were being debated and deliberated on as they kettles in front of us, it was a fantastic learning experience. Greater Spotted Eagles passed steadily, among the Lesser Spotted. There were some wonderful views of these birds. It passed 17.00hrs and birds were still moving. The last hour was truly special and we were able to relax and enjoy the birds. Steppe Buzzards slowed up considerably, we were well over 170,000 birds. The mood on station was wonderful, we were all ecstatic, though it was difficult to let the full import of events sink in. For the moment the weather was glorious and as the sun sank to the horizon I was treated to an incredible last sunset on Shuamta. Personally, I couldn't believe my good fortune, this was my last full day. There was some discussion about those counters who had recently left us and we wished they could have been there to enjoy such a huge day. Still eagles passed and we spent the last hour blissfully, the light was phenomenal and the birds were right in front of us. It simply doesn't get any better than that..


Another bird that gave me trouble, a huge winged bird with a rather short tail, which I have down as a Greater Spotted Eagle. Seemingly shows just a single comma.





Below, five images of the same juvenile Greater Spotted Eagle, digiscoped at range. this was a stunning bird that showed a white mark on the shoulder, which I did not pick up in the photos. A very dark bird in the field, massive size and heavy build were very apparent. The upper wing was glorious, a textbook juvenile Greater Spotted Eagle...











Eventually it was time to go and we broke camp. Here was a great deal of smiling, excited talk and a general sense of awe with regard to the events that had just occurred. We left the hill happy, though there was a tinge of sadness for me as I looked out over the mountains one last time, it truly is a stunning view. We made our way down to the bus, stopping of to buy some beer on our way home. There would be a celebration tonight, we speculated that as Russia had just emptied itself of raptors in a single day it might be quiet the following morning! When the bus arrived back we were greeted by the other counters warmly, there was  a lot of hugging, back slapping and general excitement. We were stunned when they told us that they had topped 100,000 birds! It ws only later in the evening that the final overall totals were realised, over 286,000 Raptors had been counted and the Western Paleartic day record was obliterated. There had been a record day passage of Aquilla eagles, with over 6,000 birds, as well as a new day record for Marsh Harrier, with 1,036 birds. Not only that, the annual record for Batumi had fallen too, with another couple of weeks counting still to come. A monster day of passage...



End of day, after a record day. This is when we started to take in what had just occurred and a quiet sense of satisfaction and elation set in. It was a wonderful sunset...





Jasper and John grilling Aquillas as Carles enters the results of their deliberations into the palmtop..


Sitting here, weeks later, trying to summarise the day for a blog entry, I still feel privileged to have been there on the day. It is something I will never forget. Without a doubt, this was the most incredible experience of my birding life and it is doubtful I will ever top that. Those that were there on the mountain that day felt the same way, Batumi provided a natural spectacle that day, which, even in an international context, must be held up as one of natures great wonders. The Batumi flyway is a modern avian marvel and I would encourage anyone to visit and take stock of the stunning migration. There may be problems with hunting, though here is hoping that the efforts of the BRC and the team of counters that assemble every year to count the migration will eventually make the difference.
 My journey for this year was almost over, though there was still the following morning and afternoon to enjoy, as well as a wonderful evening at the table with the volunteers, we ate well and drank a few beers and talked into darkness about our big day. What a day it was...


 Above and below, Greater Spotted Eagle, a juvenile from below. Huge, splayed had, single comma and dark underwing coverts contrasting with lighter remiges. Note the broad winds, heavy build and short tail...




The full details of the record raptor count from bothe Stations are provided below...

Batumi - Shuamta

Thursday 2 October 2014   

Counting period: 8:22 - 18:19
Count type: Storks and raptors
Weather:
Observers: Blanca Pérez, Jasper Wehrmann, John Wright, Demetrios Bertzeletos, Carles Durà, Alan Dalton, Mélanie Browne, Daniel Hinckley
Black Stork189Levant Sparrowhawk25Booted Eagle11
Honey Buzzard50Steppe Buzzard178116Peregrine1
Black Kite1416Lesser Spotted Eagle183raptor sp.1
Short-toed Eagle132Greater Spotted Eagle29Crane13
Marsh Harrier246Steppe Eagle6Stock Dove17
Pallid Harrier13Imperial Eagle3Woodpigeon14
Hen/Montagu's/Pallid Harrier31Aquila sp.590Turtle Dove5

Totals: 181091 individuals, 21 species, 9:57 hours

Bold = Remarkable observation (scarce or rare species or large number)
Comments: BOOOOM! Sky overloaded of birds everywhere, happy ending with hundreds of eagles overhead with the best light! Best day ever.

Batumi - Saghalvasho
Thursday 2 October 2014   

Counting period: 7:05 - 18:29
Count type: Storks and raptors
Weather:
Observers: Rafa Benjumea, Johannes Jansen, Ana de Osma, Johannes Silvonen, Dennis de los Ríos, Gerrit Jan var Dijk, Robrecht Debbaut, Ilia Amor, Anton Christiaens, Gerd Wichers,
Black Stork53Hen/Montagu's/Pallid Harrier56Osprey1
Honey Buzzard25Steppe Buzzard93467raptor sp.448
Black Kite4791Lesser Spotted Eagle534Crane26
Griffon Vulture1Greater Spotted Eagle18Stock Dove9
Short-toed Eagle378Steppe Eagle52Turtle Dove13
Marsh Harrier790Imperial Eagle5European Roller3
Pallid Harrier48Aquila sp.4823
Montagu's Harrier3Booted Eagle73

Totals: 105617 individuals, 22 species, 11:24 hours

Bold = Remarkable observation (scarce or rare species or large number)
Comments: BOOOOOM! Epic day for BRC, breaking all the records!

No comments: