Category Archives: Travel

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.

Burrowing Owl 2

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.

Burrowing Owl 1

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.

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.

European Exotic #3 – European Roller

The final article in the series of European Exotics, is the European Roller, equally as stunning as both the European Hoopoe and the European Bee-eater. The European Roller is the only member of the roller family of birds to breed in Europe. Its overall range extends into the east from Central Asia, though the Middle East and down to Morocco.

Roller 1 (Bulgaria) The European Roller is a long-distance migrant, and if we are lucky we will get one or two disoriented migrants coming to Denmark or southern Sweden each year, as long as it is warm enough. The European Roller winters in southern Africa in two distinct regions, from Senegal east to Cameroon and from Ethiopia west to Congo and south to South Africa.

Typical or the species, the European Roller’s I saw in the Suha Reka region of Bulgaris, were seen in  warm, dry, open country with scattered trees. They prefer lowland open countryside with patches of oak  forest, mature pine woodland with clearings, orchards, mixed farmland, river valleys, and plains with scattered thorny or leafy trees. In and around the valleys of Suha Reka we photographed the European Roller, we saw approximately ten pairs, this was up from three pairs in 2013. I am sure this in part is due to the efforts of Sergey from http://www.NatureTravel.eu , check out this conservation article here, 30 nest boxes were built and installed in 2013, and Sergey has plans for at least the same level in 2014.

Roller 2 (Bulgaria)

Now for the stats: The European Roller is a stocky bird, similar in size to a Jackdaw; as can be seen from the images on this blog it is mainly blue and aqua with an orange-brown back, with hints of purple and black. European Rollers often perch prominently on trees, posts or overhead wires, whilst watching for the large insects, small reptiles and rodents as well as frogs, thus making them a target for many photographers.

It nests in an unlined tree or cliff hole, and lays up to six eggs.

Roller 3 (Bulgaria)Not surprisingly, the European breeding range was formerly more extensive than today, with b long-term declines in the north and west, including extinction as a nesting bird in Sweden and Germany a long time ago. Maybe with global warming will there be a return to these northern breeding quarters?

The  European breeding population range estimated at 159,000 to 330,000 birds. When Asian breeders are added, this gives a global total population range of 277,000 to 660,000 individuals. There have been fairly rapid population declines across much of its range, so it is classed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. European population decline by 25 percent between 1990 and 2000.

Threats include hunting while on migration in around the Mediterranean, and allegedly large numbers killed for food in Oman! Agricultural practices in some countries have led to the loss of trees and hedges which provide potential nest sites and perches for hunting, and pesticides have reduced the availability of insect food. However, let’s hope initiative like the ones Sergey is undertaking in Suha Reka will be replicated by others and the Eurasian Roller can increase number in the future.

Suha Reka Valley

During the recent trip to Bulgaria, I stayed in an area known as the Suha Reka (dry river) valley. The valley and its adjacent dry riverbeds, cliffs and rocky crests is a mecca for wildlife, especially birds, butterflies and the Souslik, also known as the European Ground Squirrel.

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Souslik – Suha Reka

The image below was taken around 6am as the sun was lighting up the valley.

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Suha Reka is located in Dobrudzha, north of the town of Dobrich. The river almost entirely disappears in the karst terrain. Between the villages of Efreytor Bakalovo and Brestnitsa it forms a reservoir about 7-8 km long. The hills along the riverbed is overgrown with shrubs and forest. The open areas around the valley are occupied by agricultural lands and pastures, grassed the local cows and sheep, every day whilst I was around the area photography the nature.

Suha Reka supports approximately 200 bird species, 90 species of which are of European conservation concern (BirdLife International, 2004).

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The image above was taken around 8pm in the evening.

The Suha Reka dry riverbed is one of the most important areas in the country for the Ruddy Shelduck, Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle and the Eagle Owl, where these species breed in good numbers.

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Red-backed Shrike – Suha Reka

A complex of species, typical to open and transitional habitats are presented in the area with significant breeding populations as well – Ortolan Bunting, Golden Oriole, European Roller, Stone Curlew, Barred Warbler, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrike, all of which are rare and difficult to find in Northern Europe.

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Golden Oriole – Suha Reka

If you are interested in visiting this amazing and untouched European wilderness, then I would recommend contacting Sergey at www.naturetravel.eu