Friday, 29 November 2013

141. White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

White-tailed Eagles have their European stronghold around the coast of Norway, and are also found across other parts of northern and central Europe although with a much sparser distribution. Some populations are resident (such as around the Norwegian coast, although these may move down the coast in response to severe winter weather) whereas other populations are migratory. In the UK, White-tailed Eagles have been reintroduced after they went extinct in the early 20th century - they are now found around the Western Isles of Scotland, brilliant! As the name implies, these eagles have a white tail, and also a pale head with a brown body. The juveniles are dark brown all over with a mostly dark bill and variable degrees of paler speckling depending on the freshness of their plumage and their age - like all the vultures and large eagles, it takes them several years to reach maturity. In flight, White-tailed Eagles' wings appear long and broad with long 'fingers' and are held flat or slightly arched. Their preferred habitat is along coasts and shores of large rivers, lakes and other wetlands, and they will nest on cliffs or in trees.

White-tailed Eagle, ©Andree Kröger, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Hmm, got the bill colour a bit lurid - it has more orangey tones in the photo, I'm sure it looked more lemony on my screen at home....maybe I can blame the display settings :oD

140. Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)

Egyptian Vultures are classified as Endangered by the IUCN due to severe declines, with multiple causes, in their populations around the world. In Europe it is found around the Mediterranean, mostly in Spain; it also occurs in parts of the Middle East and north Africa. It breeds in these areas but winters in sub-Saharan Africa.It is a medium-sized vulture with distinctive white plumage and black flight feathers, a wedge-shaped tail and narrow bill. When soaring it holds its wings fairly flat and when gliding they are more arched, as in the photo. The juvenile is dark brown with paler feather tips which wear over time making the plumage more uniformly brown.

Egyptian Vulture, ©quelea1945, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Egyptian Vulture painting.
I'm persevering with trying to depict birds in flight, this one's better than some of my efforts, I'm still having problems judging the size though as I keep going off the edges of the paper!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

139. Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotus)

Lappet-faced Vultures are classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, as only a small and declining population remains. Like several vulture species, they have fallen victim to accidental poisoning, whereby the vultures (being carrion eaters) eat the carcasses of livestock predators which have been poisoned by farmers to protect their livestock. Sometimes the vultures are targeted directly too in the mistaken belief that they predate livestock - when actually they perform a valuable service by clearing up all the carrion that would otherwise be lying around making a right mess. They are widespread but scarce in sub-Saharan Africa, and also occur rarely in parts of north Africa and the Middle East. Their preferred habitat is arid mountainous desert. In flight they look similar to Cinereous Vulture but with more 'bulging' secondaries, paler throat and legs, and striped underparts. They hold their wings quite flat, sometimes curved slightly downwards at the tips.

Lappet-faced Vulture, ©tong1217, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Lappet-faced Vulture painting.

This is a great photo showing the shape of this vulture in flight! The 'bulging' secondaries and saw-toothed (rather than rounded) feather tips are really clear. Alas I appear to have given my vulture one wing each from 2 different birds - that left one is way too small!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

138. Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

Cinereous Vultures are also known as Eurasian Black Vultures, or just Black Vultures, but to avoid confusion with the American Black Vulture, I think I will stick with Cinereous! These vultures are very rare in Europe, with most of the population in Spain, and some in Bulgaria, Portugal, Greece and Turkey with a small reintroduced population in France. They appear very dark-plumaged, especially the juvenile which also has a dark head. In flight their wings are broad, long-fingered and more evenly-proportioned than the Eurasian Griffon Vulture's, with no bulges. When soaring it holds its wings flat with the primaries slightly lowered, which helps tell it apart from the Griffon, and when it comes in to land it keeps its feet in and often holds its tail up, whereas other large vultures tend to dangle their legs down. Cinereous Vultures are found in remote, arid mountainous areas and extensive lowland forests with rocky outcrops and hills.

Cinereous Vulture, ©Joachim S. Müller, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Cinereous Vulture painting.
No paintings/drawings over the weekend as I was away at ATP, good times were had, good bands were seen and not only did I have some nice birding time on the beach, there were bonus birds to be had from the train to London - everything was knackered at New Street station (from where we'd originally planned to travel) so we went over to Moor Street instead and took the Chiltern Line. SO MANY Red Kites, brilliant!

I quite like my Cinereous Vulture, it's not exactly spot on but it has a certain haughty air.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

137. Rüppell's Griffon Vulture (Gyps rueppellii)

Rüppell's Griffon Vulture looks somewhat like the Eurasian Griffon, but is a bit smaller and is covered in dense pale speckling. It is not generally found in Europe - its usual range is sub-Saharan Africa - but sometimes juveniles do stray north to Spain. They are a more uniform dark brown with a pale line on the underwing near the front - visible in the adult in the photo (adults also develop more, narrower pale bars). On the rare occasions that they do venture into Spain, Rüppell's Griffons tend to associate with Eurasian Griffons.

Depending on what you read, Rüppell's Griffon is the world's highest flying bird - other sources say it's the Bar-headed goose. The case for Rüppell's Griffon seems more persuasive though, apparently one was sucked into a jet engine at 11 km in 1973!

Rüppell's Griffon Vulture, ©Rainbirder, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Rüppell's Griffon Vulture painting.
Hmm, a bit chunky and again I have had problems with the intricately patterned plumage on the body. I often feel like if I had more time, I could do a proper job, but normally end up bodging it! That's the trouble with a self-imposed time limit!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

136. Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Eurasian Griffon Vultures are found in mountainous areas of the Mediterranean, Turkey and the Caucasus; the majority of the European population is in Spain. They are very large and are often seen soaring and circling in loose flocks around mountains; they also nest colonially. Like all the vultures they mainly feed on carrion. In flight their wings appear very broad with long 'fingers'; the secondaries are often long and the primaries indented, so that the outline of the wing bulges nearer the body. The pale head, lighter brown coverts and body, and darker flight feathers are not always visible against strong light. The flight is very slow and heavy with deep wingbeats; when soaring the wings are slightly raised in a shallow V, however when gliding the wings are held in a more arched or flatter position. The neck is retracted in flight, like in all vultures.

Eurasian Griffon Vulture, ©Georg Sander (GS1311), via Flickr Creative Commons.
Eurasian Griffon Vulture painting.

Who says vultures are ugly, look at this handsome fellow! Admittedly my painting has somehow turned out looking a bit friendlier than the photo, it's not the most realistic representation but I quite like it. You can probably tell I spent longer on the head than the rest of the body, I ran out of time. Now I'm off to bed as I'm all bunged up with a cold at the moment, bleurgh!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sandwell Valley - November

Yesterday I was once again volunteering in the hide at RSPB Sandwell Valley. For once it was very calm down on the lake with no breeze at all, which meant unusually that we could keep all the windows open - normally we have to close the ones on the side the wind is coming from so we don't get too cold. Everything felt well and truly autumnal with the trees in varying states of senescence.

Autumn colour by Forge Mill Lake.
There was plenty of duck action, with all the winter wildfowl now present except for Goldeneye, always the last to arrive. Plenty of Pochard and Gadwall were about, and Goosanders in the morning (they all flew off elsewhere before lunch), along with smaller numbers of Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler. Wintery passerines were also prominent, with lots of Redwing, Lesser Redpoll and some Siskin flying around. Snipe have been regular around the lake and marsh for a while now.

The most exciting sightings of the day were some very lively Water Rails! They'd been wailing on and off all morning from the reeds and rushes around the lake edge, and we'd had a couple of snatched glimpses of the skulkers. Then in the afternoon, something obviously came to a head because after some more squealing, 2 Water Rails burst out of the vegetation and started chasing each other around the lake edge, both in flight and in the water. This continued intermittently for some time, with the Rails going out of sight and quieting down for a bit, only to reappear again and recommence their antics! We had some awesome views of them doing this, and at one point while we could see them both, we heard 2 other Water Rails calling from opposite ends of the lake. So there must have been at least 4 Water Rails present, brilliant!

I attempted some drawings of a pair of Goosanders that were sitting resting and preening on the boom across the lake but they are pretty shonky, except maybe the female at the top!

Goosander sketches.
Somewhat better were my Common Gull field notes, I decided to take a field notes approach to sketching this gull because although I was pretty sure it was Common and not Ring-billed (you never know!) it did have a black ring around its bill, so I thought it would be a good chance to practice taking some field notes concentrating on ID features.I found approaching my drawing this way very useful, I think it helped get me in the right frame of mind for concentrating on features and detail, so I will try and do this more in future.

Common Gull field notes.

N.B. the gull was standing on one leg - I didn't just miss one out ;o)

Sunday, 17 November 2013

135. Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)

I've reached the raptors! First up is Lammergeier, a rare vulture which in Europe is only found in regions with high mountains, such as the Alps (where it has been reintroduced), the Pyrenees and mountainous parts of Greece and Turkey. It is known for its interesting feeding technique - its diet consists mainly of bone marrow, which it obtains by dropping bones from great heights onto hard rocks to smash them open. It will also do this with tortoises! In flight it has long and unusually narrow pointed wings for a raptor this large, and a distinctive long wedge-shaped tail; it patrols mountainsides soaring and gliding with flattish wings slightly curved down. Juveniles are mostly dark brown with a paler mantle and underparts; in flight they look more compact than adults with shorter, blunter, wings and tail.

Lammergeier, ©Ian N. White, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Lammergeier painting.
Hmm not great. There'll probably be lots of birds in flight for me to tackle as I work my way through the raptors, hopefully I will improve in this area which thus far seems to have caused me some difficulty.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

134. Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

Greater Flamingos are found in isolated but large breeding colonies around parts of the Mediterranean; they can disperse more widely in winter but generally not by great distances. Their preferred habitat is shallow saline or brackish water with lots of mud, such as lagoons, estuaries, lakes and saltpans. The juvenile is slightly smaller with dull brown plumage. In flight flamingos hold their necks and legs out straight, and the red on their forewings is often conspicuous. Male Greater Flamingos are slightly larger than female, and often have stronger pink-red colouration.

Greater Flamingo, ©Agustín Povedano, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Greater Flamingo painting.
I couldn't get the pink of the bill as bright and garish as I wanted, and the shape of the body is not great - too big and clunky!

Friday, 15 November 2013

133. Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

Eurasian Spoonbills are a rare breeder in the UK, having bred several times in Norfolk in recent years. Their distribution through Europe is patchy and confined mostly to more southern parts, with some populations breeding then migrating elsewhere, either within Europe or to Africa in winter, and other populations being resident all year round. With that spatulate bill, specially adapted to their feeding habits, they are unmistakable at close range, although at a distance or in flight they could be confused with the similarly-sized Great Egret. However Spoonbills keep their necks extended in flight whereas Egrets retract them; also Spoonbills rest with their body in a horizontal posture, but Egrets keep theirs more vertical. Eurasian Spoonbills like shallow wetland habitats with either fresh or salt water, and reeds, bushes and trees.

I saw my first Spoonbills in Malta, an occasion which remains etched into my memory for less than happy reasons:
Times of Malta coverage of Spoonbills shooting, September 2010.
Read all about BirdLife Malta (who I was volunteering with when the above incident occurred) and their efforts to stop illegal hunting in Malta here. They are part of the Coalition for the Abolition of Spring Hunting, which is currently running a petition to put a stop to spring hunting, it's only open to anyone who can vote in Maltese elections though. Read this excellent article about the current situation! If however you don't like the idea of hundreds of thousands of birds being needlessly slaughtered (and why would you?) there are a couple of other petitions going at the moment, to try and stop hunting/trapping in Egypt and Cyprus - please sign them if you can!

Eurasian Spoonbill, ©Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons.
Eurasian Spoonbill painting.

Alas, things have been a bit quiet on the drawing/painting front for me this week due to factors both fun (going to see Public Service Broadcasting on Tuesday) and less fun (housework, internet connection problems). Hopefully I will be able to catch up a bit over the weekend. At least my Spoonbill painting came out quite well :o)

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Weekend in Norfolk!

I didn't post any drawings over the weekend as I was away on the annual West Midland Bird Club jaunt to Norfolk, good times! We headed off very early from Birmingham and arrived at our first stop, RSPB Snettisham, by around 10ish. The weather was looking good and before we'd even left the car park we'd had Common Gull, Redwing, Fieldfare and Skylark fly over. A Kingfisher flew over our heads and off down the fishing pond as we entered the reserve, and a couple of sleepy rabbits were enjoying the sun just to one side of the path, seemingly unperturbed by our presence!

Walking down the first lagoon, the usual ubiquitous Greylags and Mallards were everywhere, plus a pair of Little Grebes, then towards the top end we noticed something else....a female Common Scoter, super-close and giving us smashing views!

Here's a dreadful record shot!
When we reached the mudflats, they were mostly covered but the tide was receding fast to reveal the vast muddy expanse. There was plenty of wader and goose action, with Brent and Pink-footed Geese, Golden and Grey Plover, Knot, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and more. Lovely wintery vibes! Having said that, the weather was very pleasant, and we even saw a Red Admiral butterfly at one point!

Lovely mud.
In one of the hides I did some variable sketches of Wigeon:


Wigeon sketches.
I also spotted a new flower to try and ID:

It looks like Sea Campion (Silene uniflora).
Here's a couple more photos.

Grazing Greylags.
A former Greylag (I think). Check out those teeth!
The rain finally caught up with us about 10 minutes before we reached the car park, despite that I enjoyed a big flock of Long-tailed Tits in a Hawthorn bush by the path - I love how oblivious they are of people, never get tired of trying to get close to them. Although the weather had turned we decided to try our chances at a spot (whose name I've forgotten, doh) where we'd heard Barn Owl could be seen regularly, and luckily when we got there it was only drizzling very lightly, not enough to discourage the brilliant Barn Owl which we watched for some time hunting - I love owls! :o)

After that we decided to drop off quickly at Salthouse to see if we could find us some Snow Buntings. However when we arrived thoughts of Snow Buntings were quickly banished from our minds, as we bumped into some other WMBC members who were about to leave - they asked us if we were there for the Grey Phalarope. We were now! This would be a life tick for me, it was hard to contain my excitement! The light was fading fast so we sprinted (well, as much as you can sprint across thick shingle) over to the pool where the Phalarope had been loitering, and there it was, dibbling around in the water, feeding in a most distinctive fashion, fussily pecking at small insect prey on the water's surface. Brilliant! We watched it until the light became too poor to see much, and then headed on to our base for the weekend, the Cliftonville Hotel in Cromer, for dinner and an excellent night's sleep. What an awesome day!

The next morning we went to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, where we enjoyed more great views of hunting Barn Owl over the grassland! The epic rain overnight must've prevented it from catching a meal the previous evening so it was out in the morning instead. Stonechat and Kestrel were also to be seen, and Chinese Water Deer grazing in the grass and reedbeds. We also saw a Black Swan, presumably an escapee. There were a lot of these attractive berries around, another identification to attempt:

Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) I reckon.
We watched some interesting behaviour - a Jay landed on a gate and put two acorns down on top of the gate which it had been carrying in its crop. It picked them up and put them down a few times, and rolled one around a bit. Maybe it was deciding where to cache them, or was trying to dry them off if they were slightly damp? After a while it picked them both up again and flew off. Fascinating behaviour, if anyone knows what this Jay was up to I'd be very interested to hear.

I did a couple of sketches of Shoveler at Strumpshaw:

Shoveler sketches.
After that the plan was to go to Stubb Mill at Hickling Broad to watch the Cranes and Hen Harriers fly in to roost, however unfortunately disaster struck when we broke down a short (but too long to be walkable!) distance from our destination, argh! The AA arrived on the scene quickly but the problem turned out to be fairly serious - the car was eventually towed back to Birmingham and we got a taxi back to Cromer, a bit disappointed that we'd missed out on the Cranes, but at least we were all OK - the car engine and power steering had just cut out in a quite alarming manner and if we'd been on a busier road it could have been nasty.

The weather was pretty wild the next morning, with the wind and rain rattling against the windows as we ate breakfast. Undeterred we went to Salthouse and although it had just about stopped raining the high winds made it a bit grim! 

We'd walked into the wind down to look at some of the pools, and decided to walk back along the shingle bank to look over the sea, with the wind at our backs. Out at sea a Razorbill flew past, then I spotted something high up, flying in from the sea, that was definitely not a seabird. It was an owl traveller, a roaming Short-eared Owl arriving from more northerly climes for the winter! Major excitement as I'd never seen one coming in from the sea before! It sailed over our heads and dropped down to land on the marsh, out of view behind a hummock. We started to rush over to see if we could find it again but before we got that far another WMBC member attracted our attention, he was photographing a flock of around 30 Snow Bunting on the shingle - we got a brilliant close up view for a minute or two before they flew off, flighty chaps that they are. We searched a bit more for the owl but couldn't find it, it was probably having a well-earned rest somewhere out of the wind. Pleased that our perseverance had paid off, we continued on to Titchwell.

Fortunately at Titchwell the weather was sunny and the wind much reduced. We decided to go to the beach first as high tide was just receding, however we inevitably got distracted by various bits and bobs on the way down such as Spotted Redshank and Curlew. On the beach plenty of Sanderlings were scuttling around, they are great!

Out at sea I saw a seal and a couple of Red-throated Divers but to be honest I possess neither the patience nor the kit (saving up for a decent scope!) for sustained periods of seawatching, and after a while I went for a walk down the beach, where I didn't see much of note but warmed up at least. We walked back through the reserve, stopping at the hides where we had great views of Pintail and distant Avocet, among others. I was just starting some sketches of Shelduck when Mike P had a call from Andy M (who'd gone to buy a new coat in the shop) to say a Short-eared Owl was flying around!

Unfinished Shelduck sketches!
We hot-footed it out of the hide and soon spotted the owl hunting down towards the road. However it was coming our way! It was lit from one side by the low sun so that its wings glowed, embodying its binomial name Asio flammeus. We had awesome views as it flew right past us! Unfortunately for the owl it was being bothered by Black-headed Gulls and it shortly turned back, vocalising grumpily as it did so - another treat for me having never heard a Short-eared Owl before. So we had awesome views again as it flew past us back the other way! After that we heard that there was a White-fronted Goose with Greylags on the freshwater lagoon, some patient searching from Mike P soon located the bird and we were able to enjoy good views - when seen with Greylags the differences were obvious, its smaller size and daintier build, proportionally smaller head and bill and of course the white flash above its bill. It even obligingly got out of the water so we could see a couple of dark marks on its belly. The light was starting to go by this point so we headed back to the car - on the way we stopped as we heard Bearded Tits in the reedbed, but we didn't manage to see any. However I did get a great view of a Cetti's Warbler, its white throat was very bright in the low light! A great end to an excellent birding weekend, of which the owls were definitely the highlight :o)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

132. Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)

Northern Bald Ibises are classed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, as they survive only in very small isolated breeding populations in Syria and Morocco; they spend the winter further south in Africa. They nest in rocky desert areas near to running water and forage in fields, on dry ground and along river and sea shores. In flight they could be confused with Glossy Ibis but Bald Ibis' feet do not project beyond their tail tip as their legs are much shorter; they are also more likely to soar. The juvenile is a dull greeny black without the feathery neck ruff.

Northern Bald Ibis, ©Agustín Povedano, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Northern Bald Ibis painting.
Haha I was determined that this one would go better than my poor Glossy Ibis effort, as you can see I really went for it this time with somewhat mixed results, I don't think you can fault the enthusiasm at least!

131. Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

Glossy Ibises are distributed patchily mainly around Mediterranean coasts in Europe where they breed before wintering in Africa, but they turn up in the UK as vagrants too, in fact I think there may be one or two kicking around at the moment. The photo shows an adult in summer plumage, outside of the breeding season they are duller and less glossy with pale speckles on their heads, and the juveniles are similar but more uniformly coloured dull greenish brown. Glossy Ibises are gregarious, breeding colonially and often flying in loose lines. Their preferred habitat is marshy shallow lakes and coastal lagoons with emergent vegetation.

Glossy Ibis, ©Derek Keats, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Glossy Ibis painting.
Oh dear, this one didn't really go too well - I spent way too long on the head and struggled to get the colour of the body right - then ran out of time in the end as I also had to fit in some studying that evening. Doh!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

130. Black Stork (Ciconia nigra)

Black Storks are the shy and retiring cousins of White Storks - they are not nearly as approachable, nesting deep in large forests with swampy areas, marshes and rivers. They are not found in western Europe as much as White Storks, being distributed more through central Europe. Although when seen clearly they are easily distinguished from White Storks, it can be harder to tell them apart in flight at a distance - the much smaller amount of white on the underwing of the Black Stork can be a good clue. Juvenile Black Storks are are dull greenish-black with grey-green legs.

Black Stork, ©Sergey Pisarevskiy, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Black Stork sketch.
Just a pencil drawing this time, as I did it on the train on Sunday on my way back from Bath (I went to a surprise baby shower for my cousin, hahar!), didn't think the watercolours would work on the train although I did very briefly consider using the bottle of sparkly red nail polish I had with me. I copied from a black and white printout of the photo (I normally work straight from the image on screen) and on that, the red around the eye came out virtually the same tone as the surrounding plumage - so there's not really any sign of it on my drawing! Funny how it would have come out looking quite different if I had worked from a colour image.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

129. White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)

White Storks are very familiar birds in many parts of southern and central Europe, as they like to nest on raised platforms handily provided by house roofs and chimneys, telegraph poles and church towers. They are migratory and spend their winters in Africa. They breed in open farmland with nearby marshy/flooded areas for foraging, and they have some nice courtship behaviour, which involves the male and female making clapping noises with their bills and throwing their heads back. They are fairly unmistakeable and in flight hold their necks out straight, like all the storks, cranes, spoonbills etc. rather than bunching them up as per the herons, egrets and also the White Pelican which can at a distance in flight be mistaken for a stork. Juvenile White Storks look very similar to the adults, but with slightly duller red legs and bill with a dark tip.

White Stork, ©Sibylle Stofer, via Flickr Creative Commons.

White Stork painting.
Hurrah, another one I'm quite happy with :o)

128. Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)

Purple Herons are fairly widespread during their breeding season throughout southern Europe as far north as the Netherlands, before wintering in Africa. However like many of their relatives, they too are spreading northwards and the first reported successful breeding attempt by Purple Herons in the UK was at RSPB Dungeness in 2010, exciting times. In flight they can look very similar to Grey Heron, however the Purple Heron's bunched up neck tends to form a more angular shape than the Grey Heron's, and it is more likely to spread its toes out whereas the Grey Heron keeps them folded together. Purple Herons are also slightly smaller, and more slender than Grey Herons. Their preferred habitat is rivers, wet meadows and shallow lakes with reedbeds, trees and vegetation.

Purple Heron, ©Steve Garvie, via Wikimedia Commons.

Purple Heron painting.
Well I tried to do this within my set time limit, but it didn't happen, and as I was enjoying it and it seemed to be going well I decided to finish it the next evening. Quite pleased with this one.