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.

European Exotic #2 European Bee-eater

The second article in my three-part series on European Exotics, is the  European Bee-eater, an absolutely stunningly multi-coloured bee-eater. Due to it’s amazing color the European Bee-eater is on an equal footing in the “looking stakes” as the “European Exotic #1 – Eurasian Hoopoe” .

It breeds in southern Europe and in parts of north Africa and western Asia. It is strongly migratory, wintering in tropical Africa, India and Sri Lanka. This species occurs as a spring overshoot north of its range, with occasional breeding in northwest Europe, including the UK. This year we have had a good number of sighting already in Scandinavia, however, when in the “Suha Reka Valley” region of Bulgaria recently, these stunners were everywhere, aided of course by the abundance of food, even though the summer had not hit the high temperatures.

Bee-eater 6 (Bulgaria)

 Like most other bee-eater species, the European bee-eater is a richly coloured, slender, streamlined bird. As can be seen from the above portrait, the European bee-eater has browny/red/rusty and yellow upper parts, whilst the wings are green/blue/aqua and the beak is black and curved. From “tip-to-tail”the European Bee-eater can reach a length of 27–29 cm , slightly bigger than a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Similar to the other “European Exotics” the European Bee-eater is a bird which breeds in open country in warmer climates.

Bee-eater 4 (Bulgaria)

One of the great joy’s of photographing European Bee-eaters in the breeding period is the interaction between male and female birds. The male constantly brings food to the mating perch to woo the female. This happens every two to three minutes if the weather is clear and warm and there is an abundance of food.

Just as the name suggests, bee-eaters predominantly eat insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets which are caught in the air by sorties from an open perch.

Before eating its meal, a European Bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface. It eats some 250 bees daily. From time-to-time, small lizards and frogs are also taken. The most important prey item in their diet are Hymenoptera, mostly Apis mellifera; a study in Spain found that these comprise 69.4% to 82% of the European bee-eaters’ diet.Their impact on bee populations however is small; they eat less than 1% of the worker bees in the area in which they live.

They like to perch on the nearest branches to the breeding colony, this often leads to squabbles, similar to the one in the image below. These two birds had a stand-off for a good ten minutes, before European starling intervened.

Bee-eater 3 (Bulgaria)

In Europe, the breeding population is estimated to number 480,000-1,000,000 breeding pairs, equating to 1440,000-3,000,000 individuals (BirdLife International 2004). Europe forms between 25-49% of the global range. This species is suspected to be in decline owing to loss of suitable prey due to widespread application if pesticides, loss of nesting sites through canalisation of rivers, increasing agricultural efficiency and establishment of monocultures, development of wilderness areas and shooting for sport, for food and because it is considered a crop pest.

 

 

 

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

 

European Exotic #1 – Eurasian Hoopoe

Just back from a few days in North Eastern Bulgaria with Sergey from http://www.NatureTravel.eu. During the trip I photographed many wonderful species, especially the “exotics” of Europe.

One of these being the Eurasian Hoopoe. A long time ago, when I was 10 years old to be precise, I saw a Hoopoe in our garden in South Africa, since this day the Hoopoe has always been a bird at the top of my list.

Eurasian Hoopoe 2The Hoopoe is a stunningly colourful bird, as can be seen from the above image, that is found across Afro-Eurasia region. Interestingly, the English name is an onomatopoetic form which imitates the cry of the bird.

As can be seen from the images, the Hoopoe is highly distinctive, with it’s long thin tapering bill, broad and rounded wings, stunning crest and wonderful plumage. Not to mention the trisyllab call; oop-oop-oop, which gives rise to its English and scientific names, although two and four syllables are also common. The Hoopoe was a wonderful companion each morning at 5am when Sergey and I were up ready for our early morning photography sessions, calling from a distant tree and vying for our attention along with Common Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove and Ortolan Bunting.

Eurasian Hoopoe 1The Hoopoe is widespread in Europe, Asia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Most European and North Asian birds migrate to the tropics in winter, in contrast the African populations are sedentary. Remarkably, the Hoopoe has been a vagrant in Alaska!! Although this was in 1975.

The Hoopoe has two basic requirements in its habitat; bare or lightly vegetated ground, which is plentyful in the Suha Reka region of Bulgaria, on which to forage and vertical surfaces with cavities, such as trees, cliffs or even walls, nestboxes, haystacks, and abandoned burrows, which to nest. Burrows being the prefered choice in Suha Reka.

Having seen and photographed the Hoppoe last week, the memories of living in South Africa as a child have been stirred and more birds are coming to the forefront of my mind, maybe an African safari is on the horizon……………….

 

Souss-Massa

The Souss-Massa National Park (Parc National de Souss-Massa) is a national park on the Atlantic coast of Morocco which was created in 1991. Agadir lies to the north and Sidi Ifni to the south.

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The estuary of the Oued Souss is the northern limit of the park, and that of the Oued Massa is near the southern end. The park is famous for its wildlife, especially the Northern Bald Ibis. The habitat, as can be seen in the below images, is varied, and it came as a surprise to me the many different habitat ; grazed steppe, sand dunes,  beaches, wetlands and a type of heathland.

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Northern Bald Ibis  – Souss Massa National Park

Three of the four Moroccan colonies of the Northern Bald Ibis reside in the par, the fourth colony being found just up the coast at Tamri (3 hours north of Adadir).  95% of the world’s truly wild breeding birds of this endangered species are found in these four colonies!

The Oued Massa holds water throughout the year and has excellent birding, including breeding Marbled Ducks, another globally threatened species. It is the only known Moroccan breeding site for the Glossy Ibis.

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The two estuaries are important for migrants, especially waders and gulls. Flamingo, European Spoonbill and Audouin’s Gull winter in the park. Other notable breeding bird species include; Red-necked Nightjar, Thick-billed Lark, Tristram’s Warbler and Moussier’s Redstart, the jewel of Morrocan birding.

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Little Owl – Souss Massa National Park

Additionally, there is an ongoing reintroduction program for the Ostrich, which has been extinct north of the Sahara for many years.

Utter Chaos – Jemaa el-Fnaa

Whilst in Morocco recently, we stayed in the heart of the Medina in Marrakesh, for those of you that have visited Marrakesh, you will know Jemaa el-Fnaa is the chaotic centre of the Medina. For those that haven’t visited Marrakesh, the Jemaa el-Fnaa is one of the best-known market squares in Africa and is the centre of city activity and trade in Marrakesh. It has been described as a “world-famous square”, “a bridge between the past and the present”, but for me it is a place to explore and experience. It’s fascinating, definitely chaotic, loud (as my son described it), but also there are little havens in the forms of riad’s just off the main square.002_6012

I believe the name, Jemaa el-Fnaa loosely translates to “the assembly of trespassers”. Historically this square was used for public decapitations by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public. The square also attracted dwellers from the surrounding desert and mountains to trade here, and stalls were raised in the square from early in its history, I believe sometime in the 11th century.

The Jemaa el-Fnaa square, Kasbah and surrounding buildings, including the many impressive riad’s is fortified within a 19km 3 metre plus high wall which was built around 1170 AD.

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Historically, the square attracted all different kinds of tradesmen, snake charmers, dancing boys of the Atlas tribes, and musicians playing drums, tambourines and pipes. Today, the tradesmen and snake charmers are still around, along with a diversity of social and ethnic backgrounds and tourists from all around the world. These are joined by acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers and entertainers, and last but not least, pickpockets, although we did not encounter any.

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Northern Bald Ibis

One of the benefits of staying at the Atlantic coast of Morocco recently was that the place we stayed just happened to be in the middle of a few colonies of one of the rarest birds in the world, the Northern Bald Ibis.

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The Northern Bald Ibis was once widespread across the Middle East, northern Africa, southern and central Europe, however records suggest it disappeared from Europe some 300 years ago. There are believed to be about 500 wild birds remaining in southern Morocco (up from a low of around 30-50 birds), and a few at a colony in Syria . To combat this ebb in numbers, recent reintroductions have been initiated in Turkey, as well as sites in Austria, Spain, and northern Morocco.

The reasons for the species’ long-term decline are unclear, but it is no surprise that hunting, loss of foraging habitat, and pesticide poisoning have been implicated in the rapid loss of colonies in recent decades.

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Unlike other ibises, which nest in trees and feed in wetlands, the Northern Bald Ibis breeds on undisturbed cliff ledges, and forages for food in irregularly cultivated, grazed dry areas such as semi-arid steppes and fallow fields. The close proximity of adequate steppe feeding areas to breeding cliffs is an important habitat requirement.[

The wild Moroccan population can be found in the the Souss-Massa National Park , South of Agadir, where there are three known colonies, as well as near the mouth of the Tamri estuary (Oued Tamri) North of Agadir, where there is a single colony containing almost half the Moroccan breeding population.

The Moroccan breeding birds are resident, dispersing along the coast after the nesting season. It has been suggested that coastal fog provides extra moisture for this population, and enables the ibises to remain year-round. In the rest of its former range, away from the Moroccan coastal locations, the Northern Bald Ibis migrated south for the winter, and formerly occurred as a vagrant to Spain, Iraq, Egypt, the Azores and Cape Verde

Northern Bald Ibis 1

Satellite tagging of 13 Syrian birds in 2006 showed that the three adults in the group, plus a fourth untagged adult, wintered together from February to July in the highlands of Ethiopia, where the species had not been recorded for nearly 30 years. They travelled south on the eastern side of the Red Sea via Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and returned north through Sudan and Eritrea.

Conservation Status

Although the Northern Bald Ibis was long extinct in Europe, many colonies in Morocco and Algeria survived until the early twentieth century, when they began to decline more rapidly, the last colony in Algeria disappearing in the late 1980s. In Morocco there were about 38 colonies in 1940 and 15 in 1975, but the last migratory populations in the Atlas Mountains had vanished by 1989. The species is now officially critically endangered  according to the IUCN scale, with an estimated population in 2008 of around 500 in the wild and over 1,000 in captivity.