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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fantasy Birding in Iran

The long drive to Kiamaky was very successful; we racked up a list of 18 species, 13 of which were life birds! The land we drove through was mostly agricultural but we passed a lake at one point and a few times we went through more mountainous regions.

My list from the road:
Spanish Sparrows 17
House Sparrow 6
Rock Pigeons 6
Hooded Crow 1
Jackdaws 13 (mobbing the Buzzard)*
Common Kestrel 1*
White Wagtails 6*
Common House-Martins 40+*
Barn Swallows 20+
Bee-Eaters 2 (on a wire by the side of the road. One of my many goal birds)*
Swifts 16*
"Steppe" Common Buzzard 1* (was being mobbed by Jackdaws)
European Tree-Sparrow 1*
Whinchat 1*
Red-backed Shrike 1 (another of my goal birds)*
Wheatear Species 1 (I think it was a female Northern but I didn't a great look)*
Starling 5
Magpie 2*
Jay 1*

We arrived at Hadishahr at around 9:30pm, having left Yerevan at around 2pm. Our original plans were to stay in Marand but we realized after looking it up on the internet that it would require much too much extra driving so instead we decided to stay in Hadishahr which lies at the entrance of the park. We managed to find a motel in the city just before we collapsed in exhaustion after our long drive.

The next day I was up bright and early looking forward to our drive through the park. We have to drive because the park is very large and I am unaware of any walking trails although there almost surely are some. Before we started into the park I birded the town. I say "I" because everyone else was still wrapped in the sheets of the motels beds. Hadishahr wasn't that great for birding, although I got some nice looks at the local Barn Swallows. They were of the Middle Eastern subspecies, H.r.transivita, best identified from the nominate European subspecies by the distinct rusty underparts; the European subspecies (H.r.rustica) has white. H.r.transivita was first described by Ernst Hartet in 1910. The swallows were nesting in the eaves of many of the buildings. Their nests were fascinating structures constructed with mud collected off the road.

I was delighted to add a Golden Eagle to my life list. We all got superb looks at this majestic bird as it circled over Hadisahr.

Kiamaky Wildlife Refuge is a handsome place, filled to overflowing with beautiful vistas and bare, dry mountain slopes. There are a few small villages nestled within the parks boundary. Its habitat holds a number of species only found in this type of rocky terrain. As well as containing many species of birds, Kiamkay is also the dwelling place of such mammalian wonders as Wolf, Jackal, Red Fox, Brown Bear, Jungle Cat, Caracal Lynx, and Leopard!!! Any one of which I would be overly overjoyed to set my eyes upon.

As I had hoped, birding Kiamaky was very successful. As we started into the refuge Barn Swallows and House-Martins coasted through the air. Croaking, 6 Hooded Crows flew over. A small flock of Gray-hooded Bunting explored the top of a rocky slope. A Finsch's Wheatear flew from the dirt road calling. It was a small pure white bird which looked as if someone had taken a brush with black paint and with delight smeared the brush down the bird's sides from bill to tail.

As we went deeper into this mountainous park the swallows, martins and Spanish Sparrows faded away, to be replaced by buntings, larks and Alpine Swifts. To my utter delight I was able to pick out the distant but distinctive form of a Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, one of my goal birds for the trip. As we watched the thrush, a trumpeting came from on high, as if an angel in training (a true angel wouldn't play this badly) was descending while blowing to high heaven his brazen horn. Looking up I saw a pair of birds that to me held as much significance as any angel would, they were Ruddy Shelducks! Although these ducks are far from rare they are fascinating and beautiful birds and a species of feathered fowl which I am unlikely ever to see again.

The birding was fabulous!
Our list from the park:
Black Redstart 1* "ochruros" subspecies
Finsch's Wheatear 3* "Lugens" subspecies
Tawny Pipit 2*
Spanish Sparrows 20+
Barn Swallows 6 "Transivita" subspecies
Common House-Martin 18
Grey-hooded Bunting 5*
Bimaculated Lark 1*
Red-billed Chough 3* seen circling a distant slope
Ruddy Shelduck 2* flyovers from the east, probably headed for the river
Alpine Swift 8*
Hooded Crow 6
Rock Petronia 2* flyovers
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush 1*
In all we saw 14 species, 10 of which were lifers.

Black Redstart
Did you know that during and after World War II these small thrushes inhabited bomb craters which were a suitable alternative to rocky mountain slopes. Now Black Redstarts can be found in many a European city park, their mountain homes have been amply substituted by factory buildings, church towers and chimneys (boy would I like to live in a chimney with some twittering swifts!) though they do still breed in far more halcyon mountain settings.

House Martin
Until 2004 Delichon Urbicum (the House-Martin) held the scientific name Delichon Urbica due to a misunderstanding in Latin grammar!

Finsch's Wheatear

Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush

Friday, December 16, 2011

An Imaginary Birding Trip Across The Middle East

Recounting our epic fantasy family birding adventure across South Eastern Europe: starting in Yerevan, Armenia and ending in Rome. I dabble with endless supplies of cash in my imagination. Wars, borders, Visas, natural and not-so-natural disasters cannot stop us as we voyage in search of a mosaic of feathers. Carefully planned with overly excessive use of Ebird and Google Earth I write up an IMAGINARY birding exploit.

Part One, Birding Yerevan

We arrived at Erebuni Airport at around 10pm on the 20th of June. We found a motel on the outskirts of Yerevan to stay for the 2 nights we were to spend in the city. We filled up the first day exploring the city in a rental car. It's a fascinating place with lots of stunning architecture. We checked out the Botanical Gardens where we saw 6 lifers including a group of seven Hooded Crows which we saw flying over the Botanical Gardens and a male Common Rosefinch also in the Gardens. But by far my favorite find of the day was the communal nesting site of Lesser Kestrels on one of the buildings! Apparently Lesser Kestrels are big on communal roosting as well as communal nesting. One roost in Senagal contained 28,600 kestrels plus 16 Scissor-tailed Kites!!! DNA testing shows that the Lesser Kestrel is not closely related to the Common Kestrel which it resembles almost to the extreme.

We ended the day having seen 8 life birds, 6 of which were found in the gardens.
Here's a list of birds seen (a star next to their name means that they were lifers):
Lesser Kestrel*
Rock Pigeon
Common Wood Pigeon*
Hooded Crow*
Great Tit*
Garden Warbler*
Common Rosefinch*
Spanish Sparrow*
House Sparrow

A female Lesser Kestrel, these photos were taken with my fantastical D3000,000,000 Nikon Camera!

A male Common Rosefinch

A Hooded Crow

A male Spanish Sparrow

The next day we got up at around 2pm suffering from an awful case of jet lag. We stopped by Lake Yerevan, scanning the lake from Shengavit Road, before starting the extremely long drive to Igdir, Turkey.

(A passerby who spoke fairly fluent English told us about a heroic act that occurred here in 1976: Shavarsh Karapetyan and his brother Kamo, both professional fin-swimmers, were running alongside the reservoir when they heard the alarming sound of a crash and saw a sinking trolleybus which had gone out of control and fallen from the dam wall. The trolleybus lay at the bottom of the reservoir some 25 meters (80 ft) off the shore at a depth of 10 meters (33 ft). Karapetyan swam to it and, under conditions of almost zero visibility due to the silt rising from the bottom, broke the back window with his legs. The trolleybus was crowded, but in less than an hour he saved all 92 passengers on the bus. An amazing story, but one that sounded true in the telling.)

The lake was fairly birdless; only a few Mallards, a small flock of Eurasian Coots (which bare a shocking resemblance to America's American Coots), flyby trio of Pygmy Cormorants (which sent us all into a hopping frenzy - not that the other lifers didn't, but these birds were particularly cool and one of the goal birds for the trip) and a possible Yellow Wagtail on the far side of the lake. I needed to look at the photos I took of the wagtail before I marked it down on my life list). Ben swears he saw a Common Redstart flyby (but I tend not believe him). We got some great looks at Black-headed Gulls and a (lifer) Armenian Gull.

A Pygmy Cormorant with a Eurasian Coot in the back

The Armenian Gull was formerly considered a subspecies of Herring Gull but was recently split, some people now lump the Armenian Gull with the Yellow-legged Gull.
We saw only one of these gulls which landed on the shore to fight for a scrap of fish collected by one of the Black-headed Gulls. Needless to say the much larger Armenian Gull got the stinking treat. The Armenian Gulls largest breeding colony is Lake Sevan a much larger lake then Yerevan. It is located to the east of Yerevan.

My Totally Awesome Fictional Plan from here: From Yerevan, Armenia we will drive 6 hours South to Marand in the North Western section of Iran. Here we plan to stay the night then the next day we bird at Kiamaky Wildlife Refuge. From there we will drive 3 hours North to Igdir in Turkey which looks excellent for farmland, marsh, river and lake birding. I know it would be easier to go due East from Yerevan directly to Igdir but for some reason (probably unfriendliness between the 2 countries) there are no roads from Armenia into Turkey so South into Iran is the only way to go. Going East from Yerevan would have cut out about 11 hours of driving but fantasy birding doesn't mean there are fantasy roads.

From Igdir we will drive 6 hours to Erzican stopping at Erzurum on the way. Then another 6 hour drive Erzican to Samsun will bring us to the Black Sea where we will look for... wait for it... some birds!

Then 9 hours of my father sleeplessly imaginary driving from Samsun to Istanbul, to look for some good birds on the Sea of Marmara particularly Lapwings and Collar Pratincole. Then to Kalamaria, Greece (7 hours from Istanbul). Here we should have large numbers of gulls and hopefully shorebirds. Then from Kalamaria to Athens, 5 hours away, for no trip to Eastern Europe would be complete without a visit to the famed city. Eight hours from Athens to Igoumenitsa (also in Greece) from there we will take a ferry across the Adriatic Sea to Brindisi in Italy. Brindisi to Naples (3 hours) then 2 hours to Rome from Naples. Where we will stay for about a week before taking a plane home.

The next post will be on how our luck went as we birded Iran.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dec/3/11 Birding South Kingstown

I recently had the opportunity to go birding with another local young birder and his mother. Gabe and Cynthia (those being their names) were both great birders/twitchers. Twitchers are the highly evolved type of bird watcher that chase rarities many hours from their base camp or house. According to Sean Dooley, an Australian twitcher himself (sounds like the name of a bird doesn't it? - the "Australian Twitcher"),the word 'twitcher' derives from a pair of British birders who used to go chasing the rarities around the countryside in their open top car and by the end of these long drives they were twitching from the cold and presumably the thrill of the chase.

Anyway, I enjoyed birding with them immensely. I have noticed on numerous occasions that the majority of the young birder population online is fifteen years of age, as was Gabe. We started our walk at Trustom Pond NWR and from there we continued to Moonstone Beach. Trustom was quiet for the most part at least in the woods and in the meadows, barely a feather stirred. The only highlight in the woods was a Winter Wren which made a very brief appearance on the Osprey Point Trail. The feeders were just a bit better with many a Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee, plus a few juncos, Mourning Doves, cardinals, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers and White-throated Sparrows. I didn't even see a Blue Jay, let alone the rust colored denizen of the woods, the delightful Fox Sparrow.

In the damper, wetter sections of this ever-so-glorious refuge we were was able to rack up a fair list, although we missed such species as Cackling Goose, Redhead and Bald Eagle which had recently been reported here. Pied-billed Grebes were amazingly bountiful considering their shy and unsocial behavior (kinda like me). Did you know these little grebes (not to be confused with the Little Grebe of Europe) attack potential rivals who threaten their territories by going submarine style, sinking below the waters surface, then bobbing back up directly beneath the opposing bird. We counted nine grebes altogether.

Black sentinels perched unmoving on the distant rocks in the center of the pond. These shrouded figures transformed into primeval looking Great Cormorants with a quick squint through a scope. Next to the antediluvian cormorants floated: Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers and Ruddy Ducks. Also drifting about on Trustoms blue-gray waters, while not being next to the antiquated Great Cormorants bobbed: Canada Geese, American Coots, Greater Scaups and a lone Red-throated Loon.

We were able to pin point two solid gray forms on the bank; both turned out to be Great Blue Herons, above them wheeled a pair of female Northern Harriers, elegant wings upraised, white rumps flashing. Out over the rolling blue Atlantic waters gannets and a few loons flew.

Our return walk back to the car was uneventful, the only highlights being a Song Sparrow and a Red Bellied Woodpecker.

From Trustom we drove to Moonstone Beach. Halfway to Moonstone I spotted the distinctive silhouette of a Barred Owl in the quickly darkening woods. It was a miracle that I spotted it as it was very well camouflaged in the leafless woods. Due to the low light I was unable to get any good photos.

Moonstone had a fairly common array of birdies. There were many gannets over the water, below which loons of both species (and a few Common Eiders) bobbed over the waves. On the bank of Cards Pond was a Double-crested Cormorant who waddled into the water in a manner quite unlike that of your average cormorant.

Another local birder (Carlos Pedro) pulled up in the parking lot informing us that he had just seen a Virginia Rail run across the Moonstone Beach Road. So we ended the day's adventure by the side of the road playing the calls of the Virginia Rail on an Iphone. After a while we finally heard the distinctive call of the rail from somewhere in the marsh.

Scanning the opposite side of the road from the marsh, we came up with a few cardinals and bunch of Mourning Doves roosting the bare trees with a fairly late female late Red-winged Blackbird and best of all a female Rusty Blackbird! It was only the second Rusty Blackbird I had seen this year.

The walk ended with 42 species; 20 species larger than my usual birding list! Here is a list of all the birds seen on the entire enterprise. I've added a star next to the names of good birds, and two stars next the RI year birds and 3 for year birds:
Canada Goose 400+
Mute Swan 4
American Black-Duck 2
Greater Scaup 100+
Common Eider 4
Bufflehead 11
Common Goldeneye 15
Hooded Merganser 6
Red-breasted Merganser 50+
Ruddy Duck 50+
Red-throated Loon 4
Common Loon 5
Pied-billed Grebe 9*
Northern Gannet 22**
Double-crested Cormorant 1
Great Cormorant 12
Great Blue Heron 2
Northern Harrier 3
Virginia Rail 1***
American Coot 80+
Ring-billed Gull 12
Herring Gull 32
Great Black-backed Gull 8
Mourning Dove 16
Barred Owl 1**
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 3
Blue Jay 2
American Crow 1
Black-capped Chickadee 8
Tufted Titmouse 5
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Winter Wren 1*
Golden-crowned Kinglet 4
American Robin 2
European Starling 14
Song Sparrow 2
White-throated Sparrow 5
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Northern Cardinal 7
Red-winged Blackbird 1*
Rusty Blackbird 1**

On the 23rd at Echo Lake in Barrington I had a shocking 81 Gadwall plus a few wigeons and Mallards.

On the 27th of November we were walking our dog at a local park (Blackstone Park) when I happened upon a pair of Northern Shoveler in the smallish pond which as always was overflowing with beautiful green headed Mallards (and brown headed in the case of the females).
Shovelers are really good birds in the area and I can count on one finger how many times I have seen them in New England. It was a great birthday present - my 13th being on the 29th of November.
Northern Shoveler

On November 28th at Second Beach Campground (the place where the Green-tailed Towhee was seen earlier in the year) we had a flock of Snow Bunting. But were unable to come up with anything more interesting then some Purple Sandpipers and a few Ruddy Turnstones at nearby Sachuest Point NWR (not even a Harlequin Duck damn it).

Snow Bunting

On the 29th (my birthday) I had a very large flock of Greater Scaup and some distant White-winged Scoter and Common Goldeneye at Sabin Point in East Providence.

I have seen the local Merlin which spends the winter in East Providence on the Sacred Heart Church Steeple quite a few times this week.

Good job to anybody how ID'd the Dunlin and the Greater Yellowlegs in the last photo quiz.
Here's your next quiz! Good Luck!
This photo was taken in August in Petersham, MA. This is a zoomed in on part of the bird.