Tag Archives: Europe

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.




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……………….



Vulture is the name given to two groups of scavenging birds: New World Vultures and the Old World Vultures. New World Vultures are found in North and South America; Old World Vultures are found in Europe, Africa and Asia, meaning that between the two groups, vultures are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

A particular characteristic of many vultures is a bald head, devoid of normal feathers. This helps to keep the head clean when feeding, yuck.

Whilst in the Pyrénées recently I encountered four species of vulture, but only managed to photography the Lammergeier (see last post) and the Griffon Vulture (see below).

Griffon Vulture

Like other vultures, the Griffon vulture it is a scavenger, feeding mostly from carcasses of dead animals which it finds by soaring over open areas, often moving in flocks. It establishes nesting colonies in cliffs that are undisturbed by humans while coverage of open areas and availability of dead animals within dozens of kilometers of these cliffs is high. It grunts and hisses at roosts or when feeding on carrion, something I encountered when visiting a private farm in the mountains, the hissing and grunting was unbelieveable, where there were some 100+ Griffon vultures fighting over a free meal.

In Spain, there are tens of thousands of birds, from a low of a few thousand around 1980. The Pyrenees population has apparently been affected by an EC ruling that due to danger of BSE transmission, no carcasses must be left on the fields for the time being. This has critically lowered food availability, and consequently, carrying capacity. Although the Griffon Vulture does not normally attack larger living prey, there are reports of Spanish Griffon Vultures killing weak, young or unhealthy living animals as they do not find enough carrion to eat. Last month (May 2013), a 52-year old woman who was hiking in the Pyrenees and had fallen off a cliff to her death was eaten by Griffon Vultures before rescue workers were able to recover her body, leaving only her clothes and a few of her bones. Due to her being the first human to be documented being eaten by Griffon Vultures, the story has brought worldwide attention to the Griffon Vulture.

Griffon Vulture

So the next time you hear of somebody climbing a mountain, or if you are lucky enough to go to the great plains of Africa and you see a “kettle” of vultures in the sky, then ask yourself who or what is the next victim of the dinner table!

Little Bustard

What lengths will some guys go to?

In the bird world there are many “show offs”, birds of paradise come to mind, closer to home male black grouse and other game birds have their annual ritual to snare the hottest “chick”, no pun intended. So it is not surprising to also see in the latin world (Spain in this case), there is also a little macho action out there in the field.

Little Bustard_13

The Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) is a large member of the bustard family, breeding in southern Europe and in western and central Asia. Southernmost European birds are mainly resident, but other populations migrate further south in winter. The central European population once breeding in the grassland of Hungary went extinct several decades ago, unfortunately this has been the case for several other parts of Europe.

Like other bustards, the male Little Bustard has a flamboyant display with foot stamping and leaping in the air.


Lammergeier – Bearded Vulture

The Lammergeier, also known as the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), is classified as an Old World Vulture, however looking at the Lammergeier there is little resemblence to “real” Old World Vultures, e.g. like the Griffon Vulture (see in the next post). This is most evident with the lozenge-shaped head, and of course the beard. The only other vulture similar is the Egyptian Vulture.

They range from the high mountains in southern Europe, the Caucasus, parts of Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Tibet. They feed predominantly on carrion, with a liking for bones and the marrow inside of bones. Living in the mountains the Lammergeier also needs to be tough, especially as they usually lay one or two eggs in mid-winter! Blimey!

During a day photographing vultures near the Spanish boarder with Andorra for ten hours I saw half-a-dozen of these majesties of the mountain skies.


The Lammergeier is almost entirely associated with mountains and inselbergs with plentiful cliffs, crags, precipices, canyons and gorges. They are often found near alpine pastures and meadows, montane grassland and heath, steep-sided, rocky wadis, high steppe and are occasional around forests. So, places like the Pyrenees in Europe, Himalayas in Asia, Atlas Mountains in North Africa highlands of Sudan, and even as far south as the Drakensburg.

Not surprisingly, the Lammergeier seems to prefer lightly-populated areas where predators, who provide many bones, such as wolves and Golden Eagles, have healthy populations. Although they occasionally descend to lower elevations, circa 300-600 m, the Lammergeiers are rare below an elevation of 1,000 m and normally reside above 2,000 m in some parts of their range.

The Lammergeier is locally threatened. It naturally occurs at low densities, with anywhere from a dozen to 500 pairs now being found in each mountain range in Eurasia where the species breeds. The species is most common in Ethiopia, where an estimated 1,400 to 2,200 are believed to breed. Relatively large, healthy numbers seem to occur in some parts of the Himalayas as well.

The Lammergeier was largely wiped out in Europe by the beginning of the 20th century, but has been locally reintroduced and is beginning to re-establish itself in protected areas, e.g there have been successfull reintroductions in the Pyrenees of Spain and the Swiss and Italian Alps, both populations have spread themselves over into France. With these types of legendary birds, there is always myths, and the Lammergeier has it’s own myth. It was formerly persecuted in significant numbers because people feared (without justification) that it regularly carried off children and domestic animals. However, never proved (domestic animals of course).

Maybe two weeks in the Pyrenees for next summers vacation? After all the majestic Lammergeier allegedly likes naughty children.

The Beasts of Copenhagen

The family and I ventured to Dyrehaven, ‘The Deer Park’ to English readers, Sunday morning for a stroll (and a little photography for me), the weather was glorious with a warm wind resulting in a balmy 18c. This is important as the psychological October deadline is upon us.

Dyrehaven, or Jægersborg Dyrehave, to be official, is an 11 square kilometer forest park North of Copenhagen, where there are large populations of red and fallow deer, and a few sika. There are approximately 2,000 peer in the park, with the red making up around 15%, fallow around 80% and sika 5%.

King Frederik III (had to one or the other…) in 1669 decided to fence in an area North of Copenhagen with rolling hills and woods, to have a lot of deer driven into the area and make it a royal hunting ground for the next almost 100 years until Dyrehaven was opened to the general public in 1756.

Red deer stags (see below) are the biggest of all the stags. An adult stag can weigh over 200 kilos. The coat is a reddish-brown in the summer and a greyish-brown in the winter

The hinds (see below) and their fawns stay mostly in the southern part of Dyrehaven, whereas the stags remain more to the north. There are also white Red deer in the Park which were introduced from Würtemberg, Germany in 1737.

Photographers come from all over Europe, and even farther afield, to photograph the deer in the park. I was talking with a German guy in very broken, English-German-Danish! We got there in the end though.

The deer are not exactly tame (although some locally think they can “pet” the deer), but they do tolerate people getting within about 75m or slightly less, because they are so used to being people around. The red deer seemed to be more tolerable of us predators this morning, than the fallow deer. Furthermore the deer are scattered throughout Dyrehaven and feed off the grass and undergrowth in most parts of the park, so finding then is not a problem, getting good photographs on the other hand, needs a little more time and patience, and good light of course.

In September and October Dyrehaven is the scene of fights between stags to decide dominance and who gets to breed with the hinds,, I did not see any “ruts” today, but will be back during October to see if I can get some action shots. This is a time when it’s especially important to keep distance to the stags.  After the rutting season is over, the dominate males mate and then winter takes hold.

Coming into late winter and early spring (usually March or April) the deer lose their antlers and begin scraping the skin off of their new antlers in August, so you won’t see the impressive antlers during the summer months, which is probably when most of the 7.5 million visitors come to the park. From my eyes, this is not a bad thing, as the less people in the park when the deer are more photogenic, the better the chances are of improving my portfolio.