Hortobágy

I have just spent a few days in the Hortobágy photographing birds, and I must admit, this is one of the last wild places in Europe. A vast area that is managed and protected rigorously by the nature guides and rangers as well as the designated responsible tour operators that are granted permission to use the reserve.

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The Hortobágy is the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe, which means that it was not formed as a result of deforestation or river control. The Hortobágy became the first national park in Hungary in 1973, and today it is still the country’s largest protected area, more than 80,000 hectares.

The Hortobágy has outstanding natural features, maintaining great biological diversity in respect of species and habitats. It is a unique example of the harmonious coexistence of people and nature based on the considerate use of the land.

A major part of the area of the National Park is formed by natural habitats, alkaline grasslands, meadows and the marshes lying between them. From the point of view of nature conservation, the artificial wetlands, which cover a much smaller area, are of considerable importance: these are the fishponds, situated on 6 thousand hectares, created during the last century on the worst quality grazing-lands and marshes. Lake Tisza, a reservoir established in the 1970’s, shows what the water-world looked like before the river was controlled.

The marshes and fishponds are bird nesting habitats and migration sites of European significance. The appearance of 342 bird species has been registered in Hortobágy so far, of which 152 species nest in the National Park.

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Eurasian Spoonbill – Hortobágy

If travelling to the region, I definitely recommend you stay at the Bíbic Nature Lodge (www.bibiclodge.com), where you will be looked after greatly by Tibor.

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Bíbic Nature Lodge – Hortobágy

If birds or nature photography are your thing, then check or http://www.sakertour.com.

“Owl Capital of the World” – Kikinda, Serbia

Allegedly Serbia is rapidly becoming the most talked about birding destination in Eastern Europe, however there is stiff competition, especially from the more established countries of Hungary and Bulgaria. However, Serbia has a special attraction, especially in Winter. It is un-officially the best place in the world to see Long-eared Owls, with in excess of 20,000+ owls spread across some 400 roost sites in the northern Vojvodina area.

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In one town close to the Romania border, namely Kikinda, the town’s main square holds upwards of 750-800 Long-eared owls each winter. The reason for such a big winter influx is the traditional farming methods still used in this part of Europe, meaning the owls favourite food, field voles, are abundant. From what I believe is a world first, the town square has been designated a protected nature reserve, remarkable!

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Above, one of the trees in Kikinda main square, holding a large number of Long-eared owls. Can you guess how many?

There are many other birds to see in the same area, including Short-eared, Barn and Little owls, several species of eagles, buzzards and falcons, especially the enigmatic Red-footed falcon.

Ceria

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) I thought I would write a short post on Ceria, an abandoned and orphaned Orang Utan we adopted a few years ago.

Ceria was brought into Sepilok in 2007 aged 11 months, dehydrated and malnourished, weighing only 2kg. Shortly after arriving at SORC, Ceria was rushed into intensive care, and after a good two years of constant care, he started to show good signs of recovering. From 2009 onwards, Ceria started to develop the skills needed to be released back into the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve, which surrounds the rehabilitation centre. After a further two years of hard work and patience, Ceria was finally released back into the wild into the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve, by this time Ceria was weighing a healthy 20kg.

Ceria

During our last visit to SORC in 2012 we where lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Ceria, and it is fair to say he is looking healthy. I believe from time to time he still comes into the semi-wild area of SORC, but now he also has the choice to roam the wilds of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve as he was first meant to.

Our small annual donation of approximately 300 Danish krone (£30, €40, US$45) was a small investment compared to the wonderful and loyal local staff as well as the volunteers. Hopefully SORC can continue to thrive and protect the Orang Utan for future generations to see.

 

Burrowing Owl #2

Following on from my first blog, Burrowing Owl #1, the excitment continued as I photographed these comical little characters for a day-and-a-half while I waited for Maria and the kids to fly in from Copenhagen.

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Like a lot of owl species, the Burrowing owl is a fierce looking little guy and a firm defender of territory. They are so fearless it is possible to get within a few metres, so with a little patience (and the right light conditions) I felt confident I could get some good images.

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Now for the facts:

As can be seen from the images, the Burrowing owl is a small, long-legged owl found in grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation. They nest and roost in burrows, such as those excavated by prairie dogs or ground squirrels. As stated above, the Burrowing Owls are often active during the day, although they tend to avoid the midday heat. But like many other kinds of owls, burrowing owls do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn. Living in open grasslands, the Burrowing owl has developed longer legs, which enables it to sprint as well as fly when hunting.

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Adults have brown heads and wings with white spotting. The chest and abdomen are white with variable brown spotting or barring, also depending on the subspecies. Juvenile owls are similar in appearance, but they lack most of the whit spotting above and brown barring below. Although I could hear the juveniles calling from the burrows they never appeared above ground, so I may have been a week or two early before they fledged.

Males and females are similar in size and appearance, and display little sexual dimorphism. Adult males appear lighter in color than females because they spend more time outside the burrow during daylight, and their feathers become “sun-bleached”, this was the case for the owls I photographed, where I mainly saw two males, with occasional sightings from one female.

The burrowing owl measures 19–28 cm (7.5–11.0 in) long, spans 51–61 cm (20–24 in) across the wings. As a size comparison, an average adult is slightly larger than an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) or the Common Blackbird (Turdus turdus) of Europe.

Before European colonisation, burrowing owls probably inhabited every suitable area of the New World, but in North America they have experienced some restrictions in distribution since. In parts of South America they are expanding their range, one bonus from deforestation.

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In North America the Burrowing Owl range from the southern portions of the western Canadian provinces through southern Mexico and western Central America. They are also found in Florida and many Caribbean islands. In South America, they are patchy in the northwest and through the Andes, but widely distributed from southern Brazil to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

The burrowing owl is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the western USA. However, the Burrowing Owl is fairly common and widespread in open regions of the Neo-tropics and area’s bordering the Amazon Rainforest. Due to this the Burrowing Owl is of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

San Juan Islands

During our West coast road trip in the USA, we spent quite a number of days in and around the San Juan Islands, and for the first time for me and the family, we spent 4th July in the San Juan Islands with extended family and friends, and as can be seen from the below, the view is not too bad.

For those that have not travelled to the North West Coat of the USA, the San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the far northwest corner of Washington state. In the archipelago, four islands are accessible by passenger ferry and these four islands are inhabited by a few thousand people..

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Sunset over the San Juan Islands

To the north of the San Juan’s lie the open waters of the Strait of Georgia and mainland Canada, namely British Columbia. Vancouver Island lies to the west, with the capital, Victoria, stretching further south than the southern most point of the San Juan Islands.

History shows, the islands were heavily logged in the nineteenth century but now have an extensive second-growth forest of Coast Douglas fir, Pacific madrone, Red alder and Bigleaf maple. In the highlands there are also Grand fir, Western hemlock and other subalpine trees.

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A number of key locations claim this fact, but I will state the fact hear, whether true of not, I am not the judge on this one, and maybe it varies from year to year. “The San Juan Islands host the greatest concentration of Bald Eagles in the continental United States.” For the record we also visited Klamath Basin on our tour and the same claim is made there as well! Many other birds are found throughout the different seasons, including Herons, the relatively rare Black Oystercatchers and numerous shorebirds are found along the shore and in winter, the islands are home to thousands of Trumpeter swans, Canada goose (the wild ones, not like the parks of the UK) and other waterfowl. Peregrine falcons, Northern (Hen) harriers and various species of owls and other birds of prey are found. In addition alcids such as Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemots and endangered Marbled Murrelet frequent the surround seas. With a large amount of luck you could see the stunning Tufted Puffin, unfortunately I didn’t.

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Orca – San Juan Islands

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Orca breaching to stun salmon – San Juan Islands

The islands are also famous for their resident pods of Orcas. There are three resident good-sized pods from memory, that mainly eat salmon. In the above image an Orca is purposely breaching to stun the salmon. The area also holds transient orcas that come to take Harbor seals during certain times of the year. Other marine mammals include the River otter, Steller sea lions, Common minke whales, Dall’s porpoise and other cetaceans, some of which we were luck to encounter.

 

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Bald Eagle – San Juan Islands

Remnants of beaver dams number in the hundreds across the archipelago. Gnawed stumps and beaver sign are now seen on Orcas and other islands, and recolonisation by this keystone species is likely to lead to increased abundance and diversity of birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects.

Maybe an excuse to come back and visit? Although, Washington State including the San Juan Islands are also a mecca for owls in Winter, so more than one reason to start thinking of future travels to the NW coast of the USA! Plus there is also the Tufted Puffin.

Burrowing Owl #1

I have had a fascination with owls for many years, and I am sure I am not the only one. They are mysterious and most species often never seen, or at least not seen clearly or mostly in the dark. One owl species of interest to me is the Burrowing owl, an owl that is often active during the day and thus can be found more reliably. However, the Burrowing owl is decreasing in numbers mainly due to habitat loss, especially in it’s western ranges in the USA, so extensive research is needed to find and track them. Before our summer vacation to the West coast of the USA, I did some research and found a reliable site just over an hour inland from San Francisco. Unfortunately this site was not accessible due to the suspicious death of a pair of owls when a drinking bottle seemed to have been purposely been pushed into the entrance of a breeding burrowing! After more extensive research during my NY business trip I found a second possible location, so this was going to be the chosen location. 

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The search began after a late and delayed flight into San Francisco from New York and an arrival at the hotel at 2 a.m. The late arrival did not deter me and I was up bright and early after a “solid” 3 1/2 hours sleep. After driving for approx half-an-hour I arrived at the “hotspot” and set about locating the owls. Wandering around down a couple of tracks for a couple of hours resulted in no sighting, but then out of the corner of my eye, there hiding in the longish grass was my first Burrowing owl.

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 To be continued………………………..

Woodpecker Tree

Woodpecker Tree, interesting name? Well, the story goes like this. I spent five mornings, from 5am, in a tower hide 9 metres above the ground. My target was to take images of Golden Oriole, especially the brightly coloured male, however that did not go to plan, more on that in the future.

During the  periods of waiting, “woodpecker tree” was active, especially from when the sun came up until around the 10am mark. The tree was a hive of activity, with numerous buntings, shrikes and other passerines frequently visiting the tree looking for grubs and fruits.

On one of the mornings, I cannot remember which, in the space of two hours we had five woodpecker species (two of which I have never seen before) visiting and foraging as well as a “flyby” green woodpecker. The tree has also attracted a seventh species of woodpecker recently, the Grey-headed woodpecker.

Four of the species were the typical climbing woodpeckers that excavate nest holes in vertical tree trunks with the fifth species being the aberrant Eurasian Wryneck; which either uses an existing cavity in a tree or a nest box.

Probably due to the limited number of inhabitants and the traditional farming methods, the Suha Reka region of Bulgaria is truly a “mecca” for bird and nature watching and photography.

MIddle Spotted Woodpecker 1 (Bulgaria)Middle Spotted Woodpecker – “Woodpecker Tree” Suha Reka

Syrian Woodpecker 1 (Bulgaria)Syrian Woodpecker – “Woodpecker Tree” Suha Reka

Great Spotted Woodpecker 1 (Bulgaria-Woodpecker Tree)Great Spotted Woodpecker – “Woodpecker Tree” Suha Reka

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 1 (Bulgaria-Woodpecker Tree)Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – “Woodpecker Tree” Suha Reka

Eurasian Wryneck 1Eurasian Wryneck – “Woodpecker Tree” Suha Reka

If you have not already done so, check out my other posts on the Bulgaria trip including; Eurasian Hoopoe; European Bee-eater and European Roller.