Expect the unexpected

January the sixth, first outing out the year. The weather forecast announces a schizophrenic weekend: Saturday will be cloudy and possibly rainy, with temperatures above zero, while Sunday promises to be sunny and coldish, with temperatures dipping below freezing, a little. My plan is the following: Viikki with clouds, Suomenlinna for sunrise.

A week ago, a Black redstart (Phenicurus ochruros) was reported in Viikki, in the reedbed, and has been so since then, every day. This redstart is not very common in Finland, especially in winter, but the Viikki bird is even more special: it belongs to subspecies phoenicuroides, which means it comes from central Asia, somewhere between Mongolia and Iran. That’s a long trip, and not in the right direction for a migrating species.
I want to see that pretty fellow, and then go to Suomenlinna on the day after to enjoy the sun.

On Saturday, I have no reason to hurry, since the weather is so bad. Not much rain on the radar though, fortunately. I leave at 10, and enter the area with no precise direction to the bird. I see some people around, but no gathering. While I’m at the Pornaistenniemi hide, a woman enters, and we start chatting. My Finnish hasn’t improved during my holidays, but I understand that she has seen the redstart that day, and that if I walk to the north, about 400 meters, I will find it. First, I will found people watching it, of course.

Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

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The advent of spring

When I came back from Hungary, I found Finland somewhat warmer (warmer than before, not warmer than Budapest). It was the month of May, which means the owl chicks had left the eggs. Therefore, the adults would be outside the nest, but close, guarding the area against unwanted guests. My friend Karri, who was my guide around Hämeenlinna the summer before, has a nesting box in his garden; he invited me to check it.

He picked me up at the bus station, but first took me to Ahvenisto. There’s a beach and a swimming pool there, and both were cramped in this warm afternoon (can I use the word “torrid”? There were more than twenty degrees!); there’s also a motor race circuit, but that’s not what we were interested in.
Ahvenisto has woods as well, and a small protected area, crossed by nature trails. We were looking for Greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) and Red-throated flycatcher (Ficedula parva), but we dipped badly, without even hearing one. Karri told me that, after this long winter, forests were unusually silent.

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Flyvestation Værløse

Flyvestation Værløse… I have already taken you to this place.
You don’t remember? OK, I can’t blame you. In the first place, the header doesn’t show a picture of the area (I was so focused on the birds, I don’t have anything else…). Then, last time I was there, the ground was covered by snow. Remember now?

This time, the weather was much better, so I went by bike. I got a bit lost, but shhhh…

On the way, I spotted a bird of prey perched on a tree, next to the road. I stopped to take a look, but I expected it to take-off quickly. It didn’t, so I grabbed my binoculars from my bag. Even with them, I wasn’t sure whether this was a Common buzzard (Buteo buteo) or its nordic counterpart and winter visitor, the Rough-legged buzzard (Buteo lagopus). I had the feeling that it was the latter, but given how close these birds are and how little experience I have, I reserved judgment.

Rough-legged buzzard (Buteo lagopus)

Rough-legged buzzard (Buteo lagopus)

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The Great Dipper Show

Have you ever seen a dipper? That’s a stunning bird, unique among the passerines for its underwater feeding habits. You wouldn’t expect such a small creature, which doesn’t even have webbed feet, to be able to swim with such ease. Its favourite hunting ground would be a fast-flowing stream, with rocks and branches on which it could stand, and many fishes and insect larvae dwelling in the shadows.

White-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus)

White-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus)

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Ghosts in sunlight

Previously, at Eiwawar

Note: I have included cards from the bird inventory I’m building, with a picture and names in different languages for each bird species. See the end of the article, and tell me what you think of that :p

Witnessing the sun rise over the horizon, Greenfinches and Twites feed in bushes, Horned larks walk along the beach and a White-tailed eagle scare scores of geese was not enough for me this morning, especially since I was not able to reach the southernmost tip of Staunings Ø. I had planned to go home around noon, to study a bit, but well… I took the sight of two Bearded tits (Panurus biarmicus) flying overhead as a good omen, and decided to go south. I knew the next sandbar, Ølsemagle Revle, was also good for birds, but I had no idea of the distance I would have to walk.

Nevermind, let’s go! I departed along the inner shoreline, increasing my count of perch birds with Blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and a flock of Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) noisily enjoying free food from a man-made feeding station. Unfortunately, the path ended, and I had no other option than to walk along the road. Tricky thing, with the snow and the ice, but I eventually reached my target after what seemed hours of clumsy peregrinations on a deserted bike lane.

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Owls Predict, Oracles Stand Guard

A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook pictures of a Long-eared owl (Asio otus) taken in Vestre Kirkegård, a large cemetery in Copenhagen. It’s not far from where I live, so I decided I would take a look one day, when I have time and the weather is sunny. By asking the people who had posted online, I gathered information on how to find the bird without troubling it too much. Long-eared owls are nocturnal birds (not all owls are!), therefore they can be sensitive to day disturbance (there was a debate about that in the Danish birding Facebook group). I was kindly provided the precise location of a sighting (I was asked not to share it, so I won’t), so I was ready to grasp any opportunity to visit this cemetery.

These last days had been quite gloomy, but when I woke up this morning, the sun was shining. Incredulous, I checked the weather forecast, where I discovered it was going to be sunny all day long. OK, let’s do it!
So first, a warning: when dmi.dk shows the picture of a sun without any cloud, that actually means “sun with many clouds in the sky”. Not that it was unpleasant compared to the beginning of the week, but it was not really what I expected…


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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 ?


You see them ?


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.