Sunday, June 29, 2014

Black Woodpecker

Several times in my prior Hungary blog entries, I've mentioned Gerard Gorman's name as my field guide for the trip.  Gerard was excellent - no two ways about it, and if you're planning a birding trip to Hungary, he's your man - or should be at least.  But, there is also much more to say.  A lot of narrative follows, but I think it's worth reading. 

Because I signed up for my trip with the assistance of Yoav Chudnoff, Director of Friends of the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (FoBSPB), Yoav sent me Gerard's book titled The Black Woodpecker: A monograph on Dryocopus martius, Lynx, 2011.  On my 2011 birding trip to Bulgaria, we did not see the black woodpecker, so I knew this Hungary trip was going to be my best chance to see this bird.

The next leg of our trip was the Bukk Hills, well northeast of Budapest, to the attractive little village of Noszvaj and to our stop for the next two nights, the Nomad Hotel, a charming hotel and campground known for its abundant and excellent food.  This is also the wine-making region of Hungary. More on this in a later blog entry.

Still about a half hour drive from Noszvaj, we arrived at a trendy, updated spa hotel that Gerard described as once having been a run down place with easily accessible grounds for good birding.  Now, post renovation, the grounds were not so easily accessed, but being a weekday it was not busy so we entered the grounds.  We parked at a muddy turn-in across the street and Gerard played the black woodpecker vocalization and drumming sounds.  

Immediately, we had a response.  One more play of the drumming and this juvenile black woodpecker flew across the road from the woods on the side where we had parked to the hotel grounds and perched against a tree.  There were two or three black woodpecker nesting cavities - oval shaped as are our pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) cavities - in other nearby trees.

Gerard thought that an adult bird might also be nearby but, the time of day being mid-afternoon, none appeared.  He pointed out that birds often take siestas in nest cavities, and on this hot, sunny day he suggested that this might be exactly what was happening.

I managed three poor quality photos and the juvenile flew off deeper into the woods behind the spa hotel.  Having counted the Eurasian curlew as #3, this was life bird #4 on this trip.

We lingered a bit longer hoping for another black woodpecker appearance and Gerard pointed out the large ant hill in the photo above.  In the top photo that's a Hungarian coin I placed on the hill to demonstrate its size.  As soon as I placed the coin, it was attacked by ants.    

In this second photo, you may be able to see the ants; small, red and numerous swarming all over the hill.  At the time, and other than pointing it out to me, Gerard said no more about the ant hill.

Later when reviewing Gerard's new book, Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide published by Lynx, 2011, on page 18 I found the photograph above, taken by Un-Hoi Jung, of an "anting" black woodpecker.

Secondary to the demands of work in the months leading up to my trip, I did not get to do much more than remove Gerard's book from the mailing envelope and flip through the pages.  I packed it to bring on the trip so that I could have Gerard sign it for me.  The novel that I had brought along for reading was out-of-sync on a birding trip in Hungary and did not hold my interest.  So I began reading The Black Woodpecker: A monograph ...  Well-written, excellent book!  As I read, it seemed that no topic related to this bird and its environment had been omitted.  It occurred to me that this book should be required reading for all foresters and the forestry and conservation organizations that employ them.  

In chapter eight titled Behaviour, on page 77, the practice of "anting" is described.  Many birds participate in anting, but specifically related to woodpeckers, Gerard writes, "Although seldom observed, anting is probably not an uncommon behavior in woodpeckers.  It is not entirely clear what purpose anting serves and no definitive explanation has ever been agreed upon.  The common view is that it is a form of comfort behavior whereby the formic acid and other liquids that ants eject when disturbed act as an insecticide or fungicide that help counter plumage parasites and generally aid feather care.  Certainly, after anting many birds immediately start to preen."  He goes on to write more about anting but for the purposes of this blog entry and my photos above, this is enough for now.

As we prepared to leave, I dared to ask Gerard if he thought it might be possible to see an adult black woodpecker.  He did and, true to form, on our last full day of birding we saw one flying across a large open field, its deep wing beats and strong, non-undulating flight style reminded me of our pileated woodpecker without the white wing patches. 

Later as we were about to call it a day, in the woods that bordered our hotel along the Tiszla river, we wondered in to try for one last black woodpecker sighting.  Gerard played the black woodpecker drumming and on cue an adult female bird flew in.  

Gerard, by now well-acquainted with my habitat of shooting before seeing, reminded me to look at the bird first.  I did and was glad to do so.  Then I got six horrible photos, of which these two are probably the best.

This bird stayed with us for perhaps ten minutes, flying between trees and perching to have a look around, usually on the side of the tree opposite us.  Then, as with the juvenile before, found nothing of interest and returned to the forest.

We headed back to the picnic tables outside of our hotel restaurant.  It had been a long day of great birding and Gerard deserved a tall, cold beer. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hungary: Things I saw enroute to ...

... seeing Black Woodpecker.  

Moving on in Hungary and leaving the region of the Kunsagi Nemzeti Park, we again travelled and stopped along our route.

In English, the sign reads "Duck Nature Trail," it guides you through the rich wildlife of wetlands and of the surrounding grasslands, the so called puszta.

The marsh was subtly beautiful.  We climbed a not very tall observation platform which nevertheless gave us a panoramic view.

Gerard noticed first the pellet of an owl of some sort; but he found more interesting the small pile of sawdust coming from a carpenter bee hole in the observation tower support post.  He is currently writing a book on "signs and tracks" and he took several photos to submit to his publisher.  

There were many [Northern] Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) in this marsh.  Typically they remain hidden in the tall grass until something presents itself that make them become visible and vocal.  Gerard commented that lapwings will go after everything and anything.

As if on cue, a red fox began to run across the marsh being chased and berated by lapwings as can be seen in the photos above and below.

Still running and still hotly pursued by lapwings.

The lapwings have done their job and the fox moves on free of their harassment.  I've always liked foxes and on this trip I came to like them all the more.

In this park, water buffalo have been introduced for marsh grass maintenance because they will eat anything.   Research is abundant on grazing animals in grasslands related to the quality and the intensity of the grazing and which is and is not beneficial for grassland health. 

Moving on to another roadside marsh, we found Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) and Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata), below. Our Whimbrel, Bristle-thighed and Long-billed curlews are also in the Numenius family.  

For some reason, I did not expect to see [Northern] Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) in Hungary.  But in summer they are widespread throughout the continent.

The Cardinal Fritillary (Argynnis pandora) is as spectacular in flight as it is perched.  In flight it is easily recognized as a fritillary but is different from our Speyeria and Boloria fritillary families.  This is evident by the Argynnis species different wing shape and different, darker color.  The Cardinal fritillary is widespread throughout Europe and, in Hungary, I saw it often.  I love the green underwing of this butterfly.  The upper wing is equally dramatic.  There are 48 species of fritillary in Europe, and another, found in my final days, I just cannot identify.

I have been through every fritillary in the Collins Butterfly Guide several times and without it's upper wing fully open, I cannot settle on this butterfly's identification.  Unfortunately, they just don't land that way and it's a lopsided photo anyway.

Butterflying (is this a word?) is as popular in Europe, especially among the Brits, as it is here.  Later we also saw a Southern Festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) which is highly sought after by British butterfliers.

Southern Festoon

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cats Belong Indoors

Today a neighbor sent me an email titled "Pets" with several dog and cat links.  Each link highlighted the antics of dogs and cats and how these are very different.  Cute.  You know, one of those emails that you may, or may not open, view and then quickly delete.

However, one of the links in particular stuck in my craw - (I like this idiom for this because "craw" is the throat of a bird.  When the something cannot be dislodged it is truly annoying.)

Cats relationship with birds

And, here is my email reply: "The only one I didn't like was the cat catching the bird.  Cats are one of the greatest threats to our wild bird population.  What was happening in that video was that the cat was watching that bird's nest with young and the adult/parent bird was trying to distract it.  Cats kill millions of wild birds annually.  One day when we wake up without bird song (hopefully not in your lifetime or mine) outdoor cats will have played a significant role.  This, in a nutshell, is why my cats are indoor cats. 

He looks like he could take out a few birds ...

... but, of the two, she's the skillful hunter!

Otherwise, it was cute.  Thanks for sending."  

For comparison, here is the video Dogs relationship with birds.   Incidentally, I think the bird in the cat video was a mockingbird - one of our great songsters.

I'm deleting the email now.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Harold Eyster: Painting birds in Ecuador and more

Again, taking a brief but important diversion from my trip to Hungary, this morning I received a much needed gift in the form of an email from Harold Eyster.

Harold is currently traveling in Ecuador and while I am sure he will do many things during this trip, one of the things I know he is doing for sure is painting birds.  Harold's email gift included his Flickr Photostream with the first eighteen images being of birds he has painted thus far.  For a real treat and opportunity to appreciate true talent, please check out Harold's link.  You won't be disappointed.  

Many of his other drawings, paintings and travel photos are also included in this link.  For example, I see from the 7th image that Harold was able to see a Fork-tailed Flycatcher last month in the famous for birding Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As have many, I first met Harold and his sister, Artemis, when they were 7 and 5 years old respectively.  I don't know how I ever got so lucky to have my path cross theirs, but the benefit and pleasure has been all mine.

El Oro Parakeet (Pyrrhura orcesi) by Harold Eyser, June 2014


Friday, June 20, 2014

Eastern Pond Turtle

Still in Hungary but diverting from birds for this post.

As I mentioned in my Red-footed Falcon entry, one of the perks of taking a one-to-one birding trip were stops like this.

Those who know me know that as a young child turtles were my first pets.  Back when they were plentiful, we caught them and brought them home from the lake to swim in circles in a large oval, enamel tub. When they tired of their endless swimming, they could climb up and rest on a rock placed in the center of the tub.  We, my brothers and sisters and I, fed our turtles raw hamburger which my mother would pluck from the pound she had purchased for our dinner to form little round balls wrapped with wax paper and store in the freezer. Our turtles went after the raw hamburger voraciously.  At the end of the summer my parents would talk us into returning the turtles to the lake, which we did, sadly.  The turtles would rapidly swim away with no looks back.  This taught me an important lesson - wild things are wild.

So, I would say that I have a keen eye for spotting turtles crossing the road.  This is what happened with this guy ... "Gerard, it's a turtle, let's stop and get it across."  Fortunately, he agreed.

We got this guy safely across the road and, after several photos, let him make his own way forward.  I was having trouble seeing where he would go ... but, wherever this was, it was certainly better than swimming in circles around an oval tub being fed raw hamburger.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sandhill Crane Reunion

Taking a break from Hungary for a moment ...

I went to the Washtenaw Audubon Society meeting last evening for a terrific presentation of The Flora and Fauna of Florida by Don Chalfant.  Each WAS meeting begins with the question:  "What has everyone been seeing ...?"

This really nice story of Sandhill Crane Reunion came up during that discussion and I have linked the video documenting the journey. Sherry Smith and Lathe Claflin played a pivotal role in this reunion and both were present at the meeting last night and spoke about how this happened.  Lathe commented that this whole process took 1-1/2 hours to arrange via email and how amazing that was.  I agree.

The Washtenaw Audubon Society is a truly well-connected group of can-do birders who make things like this happen.

I highly recommend watching this 6 minute video.  It does the heart good.  Have your volume turned up.   

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Red-footed Falcon

On August 8, 2004 the first Red-footed Falcon (Falco verpertinus) to stray into the western hemisphere was identified at Katama Airpark on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.  In addition to the bird creating a media frenzy - a news helicopter nearly took out the falcon while landing - birders from all 50 states and all 11 provinces came to see the bird.  The falcon was very cooperative and stayed until at least August 16th.  A group of friends from Baltimore arranged a bus and ferry trip to the Vineyard to see the bird but I was not with them.  Unfortunately, I had moved to Michigan a month earlier.  

Then the Red-footed Falcon was gone.  I always wonder, when such a special bird is found so out-of-place, where does it go to never be seen again?  From Martha's Vineyard the best answer to this might be back out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite hoping for it, we did not see Red-footed Falcon in Bulgaria.  So it was another target bird to see in Hungary - especially after I missed the Martha's Vineyard visitor.  Leaving the Saker Falcon we moved on to find the Red-footed Falcon.  Keeping my days straight, this is Sunday, May 25th.

Before we could find the guys below, we went through a small town which had an ornately steepled church.  Hungary is a country of churches; most Hungarians are Catholic, but Orthodox and Muslim religion is also common.  The denomination of the church can be identified by the symbol at the top of the steeple.  I think this church was an Orthodox church.  

We drove out of town and were in farming habitat with barns on one side of the road and open fields on the other side. 

Along a somewhat busy two-laned road Gerard stopped the car to check out a dead bird at the edge.  As with the Saker Falcon boxes, nest boxes are also placed in trees for nesting kestrels. Often these boxes are in trees right at the edge of the road, as was this one, and not all that high up either. That might be an adult female in the nest box above, but it could also be an almost ready-to-fledge juvenile.  Just below the nest at the edge of the road was this road-killed kestrel.  Gerard took several photos.  He uses this evidence to warn against road-side placement of nest boxes. Another adult Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) was nearby hunting over the road and adjacent fields.  If the bird in the box was a juvenile, perhaps there was another parent caring for it.   

This was the first of several stops we would make like this and, in addition to being an excellent learning experience, I would come to recognize it as one of the perks of being on a one-person trip.   

The Little Owl was perched on some large hay bales deep into the fields.  Finally, a single Red-footed Falcon was flying and hovering. Red-footed Falcons are colonial birds and where there is one there are more.

While photographing this bird close to the edge of the road, Red-footed Falcons began to appear at intervals hunting over the field for about the next 100 meters. 

Something about the way this bird its hovering...

... the position of its body is more vertical.  This is different from kestrels which have a more horizontal body position when hovering. Third life bird of the trip.

Red-footed Falcon and Kestrel hunting grounds.

A soaring Kestrel.

On future days we would occasionally see Red-footed Falcons over farmland along the road.  On the last full day of birding I was able to get quite closed to this perched bird.  Unfortunately, the light was dreadful and all of my photos are severely backlit. 

I tried to improve both photos with the rudimentary iPhoto editing tool without much luck.  In general, I struggled with the light for photographing throughout the trip.  I thought back to the crystal clear light in Costa Rica and then considered the hot, humid and hazy light in eastern Hungary.  This did not impact the excellence of the birding experience, but did impact the photos I have to share.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Saker Falcon

We stayed at the hotel below, Kunsagi Major, actually a beautiful horse ranch, on our first night in Hungary  As it turned out this would be my favorite place to stay.  The location was quiet, calm and beautiful and suited me well after a harrowing past four months at work.    The nights were cool to  chilly and I opened the window in my room.  Glorious for sleeping.  We stayed here for two nights and I was actually able to leave work and remember that I was on vacation in a spectacular country. The first night I heard the Little Owl and Chaffinch song woke me early.  

The little stallion pony below was doing his best imitation of California Chrome.  There were a lot of beautiful riding horses grazing in the fields and on our first night there was a riding group from Scandinavia also staying.

Both mornings we walked around the expansive, birdy grounds to see many birds.  My favorite here was a Hoopoe (Upupa epos) that briefly raised its crest while perched on a fence post; alas, too quick and too distant for a photo.

On my first full day in Hungary, Gerard knew where there was a Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) nest box on a huge utility tower along a road near the village of Tass, approximately 65 kms directly south of Budapest.  This location was not that far from where we saw the Great Bustards the day before. 

My photos, horrible for sure, are for me to remember the experience and location of seeing this bird.  As always, terrific images can be found on-line.

The nest box was on the utility tower just visible in the lower right of the photo above and held two chicks.  Saker Falcon is a threatened species and it is helped with monitored nesting sites in suitable habitat. Again, we looked at these birds through the spotting scope and watched the chicks, one of which appeared ready to fledge, hopping around in their nest box and the parents perched and flying nearby. 

Gerard pointed out that Saker Falcon is reminiscent of Prairie Falcon a bird I've only seen twice out west.  True, but larger.  It is also a bird that is bred in captivity for falconry, as well as having wild nests raided for chicks.  Please do read the first paragraph of this birdlife saker falcon link.  Additionally, the first three pages of a Google search all referenced links about purchasing a bird.

Two or three days later we stopped at another location to see Saker Falcon again.  At the second location the bird was much closer.  I should have tried for a photo of the second bird but, as I will explain in a future blog post, I didn't think to do this at the time.  

About a month prior to the trip I ran into Karl Overman at Belle Isle and I mentioned my upcoming trip to Hungary.  His reply, "oh, I like that."  He asked which were my target birds.  I said Great Bustard and Black Woodpecker.  "Those are both good birds, but you also need to add Saker Falcon.  Saker is difficult to find anywhere else, but in Hungary it's a gimme bird." 

Svensson's Birds of Europe, p. 122, 2nd edition, lists Saker Falcon as having V*** (three-star rarity) status.  In Hungary, Karl's description may be more accurate.  Ornithologists have set up nest boxes in suitable habitat and, as noted, these nest boxes are successfully used. At our second Saker sighting, a man was climbing the tower to the nest box to ring the chicks.  The thing is, you need to be in Hungary at the right time of year and have a guide who knows where there is an active nest box.     

Saker Falcon is the image on the Hungarian 50 forint coin.  I brought a few of these home with me, one to give to Karl, especially.  Second life bird of the trip.