A Siberian visitor

Wednesday afternoon, I’m home after a day at the university. I turn on the computer, sat comfortably and open Facebook. First post: Black-throated thrush, 13th record in Denmark. Wait, what? Where???

After this moment of panick, I went to DOFbasen, the Danish bird sighting database, to see whether the bird had already been reported. It had, and it was near my place, some 15 minutes by bike! Alas, it was already dark, and I was forced to go to the university the day after, as we needed to finish a report.
This Thursday was a beautiful day, sunny and crisp. All day long, while working on the report, I saw the number of observations on DOFbasen grow: the bird was still there, and very easy to see. Imagine the frustration. I would have time to get there on Friday morning, but I was convinced it would be cloudy and depressing, and I was worried to see the thrush leave.

Friday morning. Sun! The report was finished, so I was supposed to sleep this morning. Meh, we’ll sleep when we are dead.
So I took my bike and rode. The sunrise over Utterslev Mose was delightful, the trees covered in frost. I got lost on the way, but managed to reach Tingskrivervej at 9.30. The first birder I met told me that the thrush had been seen 2 minutes ago, but had since then dropped to the ground, behind a wall. We waited.

Distribution of the Dark-throated thrush

Distribution of the Dark-throated thrush (source: xeno-canto)

The Dark-throated thrush (Turdus atrogularis) is a Siberian species: it nests behind the Ural mountains, and winters in the south of Asia, from Iran to Burma. It’s seen regularly in Western Europe, and the last Danish mention occurred one year ago. I missed the Hume’s leaf warbler and the Dusky warbler in the autumn, I didn’t want to miss this one.

I noticed a thrush drinking from the raingutter, high up. I saw it from behind, so I wasn’t sure it was the one we were looking for, but when it turned, no doubt was possible: a dark throat and a white belly, that was our visitor! As I tried to show it to the others, it flew down and landed in a tree nearby, where it started to clean its plumage for a few minutes.

Dark-throated thrush (Turdus atrogularis)

Dark-throated thrush (Turdus atrogularis)

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Staunings Ø

I was traveling last week, birdwatching on the windy shores of the North Sea. Before that, I went to Staunings Ø (map) with a group of birders, for a stunning morning.

I arrived early on site, and was greeted by the rising sun. Playing with the clouds, it displayed all possible shades of orange. Needless to say that I was delighted; the early wake up was worth it.

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Gulls of Helsinki

This spring, while I was introducing friends of mine to birdwatching in Helsinki, I taught them the differences between the most common gull species we could observe there. Later on, I opened this blog and thought that it could be a good topic for an article, especially since gulls are generally not shy animals: they are easy to spot, and easy to shoot.

French-speaking readers: I have included French names; please make sure you don’t miss the footnote.

Common gull (Larus canus)

fr – Goéland cendré

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Vestamager

Until the end of the year, I will have no class on Friday. Can there be a better occupation than birdwatching to start the week-end? (Homework? Nah, too mainstream…)

So yesterday I woke up at 11, and it was sunny. After Utterslev Mose, I decided to visit another birding place. Supported by the amazing website of DOF, the local bird conservation association, I settled on Vestamager. It’s a large green area located south of Copenhagen, next to the airport. Birds and planes to spot, the day promised to be good.

After an hour of biking through the city center, I reached a wide plains covered in grazing fields. In the distance, I could see a small wood, and behind it the dyke marking the end of the area.

I walked through the meadows. To my right, I observed a herd of cows followed by flocks of Common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and Western yellow wagtails (Motacilla flava).

Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Western yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava)

Western yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava)

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Pigeon

That’s it, I’m an inhabitant of Copenhagen, for at least one year. For the occasion, please enjoy this view of a Common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) resting on a streelight, in the golden sunset light of Denmark.

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FOCUS: Arctic tern

The Focus series

Finnish word of the day: tiira = tern

Terns are sea birds distributed worldwide, somehow looking like gulls but with more pointy wings and indented tails. As a consequence, they have a nickname in French that could be translated as “sea swallows”.

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The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) is maybe the most formidable species of tern. Indeed, it is the animal with the longest known migration path: it breeds in the north all around the world, and takes the air as soon as it’s done to fly to Antarctica. While seeing two summers in a year, birds from the Netherlands have been shown to travel approximately 90,000 km in the course of their non-breeding period. Even more impressive, this dangerous trip doesn’t prevent some Arctic terns from reaching 30 years of age.

One close relative to the species which is very common in Europe is the Common tern (Sterna hirundo). It can be tricky to distinguish one from the other, especially from the distance. Remember, the Arctic tern has short legs and bill, and they are both completely dark red, whereas the Common tern has a black tip at the point of the bill. In Helsinki, both species are present, but it seemed to me that the Arctic tern was more common.

Arctic tern - notice the short legs and red bill

Arctic tern – notice the short legs and red bill

Common tern - notice the black tip on the bill

Common tern – notice the black tip on the bill

Bonus: in Suomenlinna (now, you should know where this is), I met this kind and quiet guy perched on a pier railing. With my friend, we decided to improvise a photoshoot. We ended up with a few pics with flash.

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The guy even faced the flash… it was an accommodating model 😉

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FOCUS: Common house martin

The Focus series

French word of the day: hirondelle = swallow

The Common house martin (Delichon urbicum) is one of the two most common swallow species in Europe, with the Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). Originally, it nested in cliffs and caves, but it now largely occupies human structures, including house eaves in city centers. I visited a colony in Domène, near Grenoble. Occasionally, nesting platforms can be built so that swallows settle in some place, but this colony was 100% natural 🙂

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The typical size for such a colony is around 10 nests, but this one was larger, maybe 60 nests. The cup-shaped nest is made of mud taken from lakes and rivers, and built at the junction of the wall and the roof, so that it’s attached to both planes. House martins only nest outside buildings, unlike the Barn swallow.

I have read that House sparrows (Passer domesticus) try to steal nests while they are still under construction. I saw some sparrows roaming near the colony in Domène, but the nests were already occupied so I don’t know if they really expected something. Once the construction is complete, the entrance to the nest is too small for the sparrows to enter.

I observed adults flying high overhead, catching flying insects likes flies and aphids. They came to the nests, hanging to it while feedings the chicks appearing through the entrance. Sometimes they go inside, and we can see their head from the outside.

Chick, left and adult, right

Chick, left and adult, right

There was also this youngling that had already left the nest, but was still fed by the adult, except it was hanging on the outside of the cup, in full sight. Sometimes I noticed feeders with white at the back of the head; I suspect it was younglings from the first-brood helping to feed the second-brood, as House martins usually breed two broods a year.

Chick, right and adult, left

Chick, right and adult, left

The colony was vibrant with life: younglings and adult were squeaking, feeders were bumping into each other when going to the nests, while swifts were hunting insects nearby, gliding between houses at high speed.

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More pictures in my Wildlife gallery. Many pieces of information come from Wikipedia.

A walk in the mountains – Lake Luitel

The A Walk in the mountains series

The Lake Luitel nature reserve, situated at 1600 meters of altitude, consists of two mires, one completely closed while the other is still a small lake (the so-called Lake Luitel, which looks more like a pond in my opinion). Some ten thousand years ago, a glacier was covering the area, digging depressions in the rock. When the climate warmed up, these depression were filled with water, and conquered by vegetation. Peat mosses accumulated there, forming evergrowing rafts which tended to cover the whole water area.

The two mires appeared at the same time, but they evolved at different speeds because of their difference in depth. The “pass mire” is a bog, which means that it receives water only from precipitation. It is higher than the surrounding landscape (although it’s not obvious when you are on site) and hosts mountain pines. Lake Luitel is a fen, as it resides in a depression and also receives groundwater.

Lake Luitel

Lake Luitel

This kind of mire is quite rare so far to the south. Because it is situated next to a road leading to a major ski resort (Chamrousse), the area is threatened by the huge amount of salt used during winter.

Willow tit (Poecile montanus)

Willow tit (Poecile montanus)

I was there at around 9.30 in the morning. Fortunately, it was not so hot, thanks to the altitude. I was greeted by a flock of Coal tits (Periparus ater) and a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). As I walked on duckboards in the bog, I was suddenly surrounded by Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) feeding in the pines. There were a few fluffy younglings, and also a Willow tit (Poecile montanus). Later, as I was going around the lake, I observed several young Coal tits in the woods and reeds. They were not really afraid of me, so I managed a few nice shots. Overall, it was quite difficult to take pictures of the birds: the autofocus was a bit lost because of the numerous branches and leaves, and the birds were often too far to use manual autofocus, for I could not tell with the eye whether the pic was going to be blurred or sharp. I also spotted a Crested tit (Lophophanes cristatus), high in the pines.

Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Coal tit (Periparus ater)

Coal tit (Periparus ater)

I went back to the bog, and noticed a colorful bird on top of a pine. It was a male Common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). I observed it hunting insects in the loose wood of pines, then it entered a cavity in a dead tree. I waited to see if it was to come back, and after a long time, it did! I think the bird had a nest there.

Common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) in front of its nest

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This happened two days ago. Today I went to “Bois de la Bâtie”, a wooded area surrounding an oxbow lake, an old meander that got cut off the river. The reserve is near Grenoble, in the valley. Even though I was there at 7.30 in the morning, the sun was already ardent, and the heat was barely bearable out of the shade. Next time, I’m going to the mountain again!

Hunting owls and nightjars

This Wednesday, I met an old friend of mine in Varces, south of Grenoble. We went in the plain called “Plaine de Reymure” to check a few nesting boxes aimed at Little owls (Athene noctua). This species, partly diurnal, nests in holes in rocks, trees or buildings, but these have become rare, hence the need for nesting boxes. The monitoring program for this species in Isère has shown great results, with 28 nesting boxes occupied this year.

"Plaine de Reymure", with the "Chartreuse" mountain range in the background

“Plaine de Reymure”, with the “Chartreuse” mountain range in the background

The first box was set on a walnut tree. Nothing moved when we arrived, but we noticed a fence stake covered in droppings, indicating a perch favored by the bird. Soon, an adult landed on the fence, waited for a few minutes and then dropped to the field, catching a prey, probably an insect. It then flew to the tree, when we spotted a yougling, and then a second one. Later, the adult caught another prey and went to the box, so we supposed that some owlets (that’s the name of a baby owl, although it can also refer to some species of owls) had not left the nest yet.

Can you spot the owl and the owlet on the following picture ?

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You see them ?

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Now you do!

The second nesting box was situated right outside a small concrete cabin, under the eaves. It was initially situated inside the cabin for ten years, but was never occupied. Once outside, an owl arrived two months later. There, we had to wait for the farmor to finish the harvest of his field, but then we spotted two adults. They were not very active, which led us to think that the previous nights of hunting were quite successful. Indeed, when one night is rainy, one can later see the owls active early in the evening or late in the morning. If the night was good, they aren’t so much in a hurry.

Can you spot the owl there ?

Can you spot the owl there ?

We tried an approach to take pictures, but they flew away too quickly.

At 9 pm, we moved to the nature reserve of “Isles du Drac” (Drac being the river flowing nearby; it reaches the river Isère in Grenoble). It’s a dry, almost mediterranean area, and a renowned spot for the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). It was dark, so no picture for you, but the show of this kind of big swallow, whose flight is really slow, so slow you wonder how it manages not to fall, was truly amazing. Perched on a tree, the male we saw delivered its distinctive trill, and then performed its in-flight wing-clapping to mark its territory.

In the distance, Common nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) and Scops owl (Otus scops) were singing.

FOCUS: Horned grebe

The Focus series

Definitely counting among my favorite sights in Finland, the Horned grebe (Podiceps auritus) is a small nordic water bird from the grebe family. I find it particularly beautiful, with its rufous body, black head and golden “earlike tufts” on the sides of the face (description freely adapted from the one on Wikipedia).

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Fun fact: before diving in quest for fish, the horned grebe folds up its tufts, like in the following picture.

Before diving

Before diving

I spotted the bird in Suomenoja, where there is an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) sheltering many nesting Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), 3400 pairs in 2008 according to Birdlife Finland. Given the noise, you can’t really miss them when you arrive there. The site also held 17 pairs of Horned grebe in 2007, making it an important area for this species in Finland.

I was there too early for that, but I saw pictures of grebes carrying babies on their back. Would have been a sweet sight. Next time, maybe 😉

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To see more Horned grebes (and several other birds, actually), please visit my Wildlife gallery.

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