Thursday, 28 November 2013

The adventure of birding

What does birding mean to me?

Ah yes, the age old question. The one which irritated Aristotle, vexed Voltaire and positively perplexed Plato. Birding is a thing of many limbs, a tree of infinite branches, how on earth does one begin to describe what it means to their good self? We've had some excellent articles on this already, and, before I begin, I must apologise to our readers for bringing it down a notch.

There are many reasons why we might delve into ornithology from a young age. For some, it is the collectors urge, the desire to see as much as possible; that same urge we find in Pokemon, in antique collecting and maybe even in our endless thirst for information and knowledge. For others, it is the peace and tranquility offered by the natural world, an all too valuable commodity in our increasingly urbanised; hustling, bustling and frantic lives. For some it is the companionship and camaraderie, and I certainly think that this aspect, which I found when I became an ‘NGB’, helped keep my own passion ignited at the same time as teenage doldrums threatened to sweep me away. But for me, birding, the mutli-limbed, many-faceted hobby, can be boiled down to one thing. Adventure.

We live, as any young person will know, in increasingly sterile times. We also live in what are, for 99% of the young, financially very restricted times. This is a double-whammy, meaning the adventurous, curious mind of many a young man or woman is increasingly restricted by overprotective adults and lack of funds for exploring pastures new. But birding can offer a way out of this. What it can offer is cheap, it’s safe and it’s thrilling. Have you ever had the rush of finding a Long-eared Owl? Scouring the local countryside, at a time when most decent people are tucked up in a soft bed, and hearing that ethereal hoot, or seeing a silent silhouette swoop onto some unfortunate nocturnal mammal. Have you ever camped up all night with a Nightjar? Have you ever walked on your local patch, for another dull winter walk, and seen an incredible bird you’d never even dreamed would occur there?

I believe birdwatchers are thrillseekers at heart, regardless of how much of a bunch of anoraks we are perceived to be by society. Think about it. When you start birding, everything is new, everything is fascinating, every new piece of information you pick up feels like another weapon in your arsenal. Every bird you see is thrilling, exhilarating. Then, you grow your wings, if you’ll indulge me that terrible metaphor. This may involve different things for different people. Some will chase the ultimate thrills in the form of rarities, birds that may only be seen in your part of the world once in your lifetime. Some will stick to their local patches, getting their thrills from the unexpected on your doorstep. Though, as one of these people, I would say that the thrills of patch birding can be every bit as fantastic as the Needletails and Dusky Thrushes others may chase.

I guess that, for me, the best thing about birding is that so much is unknown, and there is so much I haven’t experienced. Now I’m a bit older than when I started, I do see myself as free to do what i want, within limits, and for a birder this is fantastic. There are so many things I want to find out. Just where are all those elusive species I’m sure must occur in my local area; the Long-eared Owls and Goshawks for example. Can I find the feeding spots of the Purple Sandpipers that roost on the piers at Newhaven and Brighton? How many Caspian Gulls will I see this winter?

Some local birders will spend their days attempting to find rarities. I've done this in the past, but really, now I feel like I’m through that phase. I have a local area where, for better or worse, almost all birders concentrate upon the few well-known sites, such as Cuckmere Haven and Newhaven Tide Mills. This means a fairly vast array of unexplored habitats. Not all of these will be brilliant, not all will reward me with superb birds, but I find the not knowing so much more thrilling than just strolling up to a well-known location, or strolling up to a crowd of other birders and a confused waif from halfway around the globe. To quote Helen Keller, Life is either a great adventure, or nothing. 
And I think the same thing can be said for birding.

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Obscure bird of the week: The Great Grebe

We at NGB are introducing a new series showcasing our world's 'obscure' birds; from the poorly known, the recently discovered to the downright bizarre, starting with the Great Grebe. Each week a NGB member will be profiling the little-heard story of these birds, hoping to raise awareness, promote support and appreciation for the species. If you would like to contribute, email
Great Grebe pair in Chile by young birder, photographer and film-maker Cain Scimgeour
It's a well-known but little uttered fact that bigger is better. Ok, so good things can come in small packages, but better things arrive in a huge cardboard box you can turn into a habitable fort afterwards. I mean; you'd rather a burger than a breadstick, tuna over a turbot and who even buys those fun-size Kitkats? We all know 'cosy' is code for 'cramped'. Therefore it's no surprise that the world's biggest animals get the press. "The Blue Whale, the biggest creature alive", "Polar Bear: largest land carnivore", "Komodo Dragon, king of the lizards". Even Capybaras, Mekong Catfish and King Crabs get a look-in.

So I'd like to introduce the most sizeable member of that middling bird family of grebes; the fantastic Podiceps major, or Great Grebe.

It's a terrible name. Really awful. Just add a 'crested' and you've got yourself the wonderful but tragically overlooked dandy weed-flinger of Eurasian waterways. Not the kind of title you want to merit a successful Google image search.

Ginormous Grebe would have been better. Or Periscope Grebe. Or The Loch Ness Grebe. I'll get onto the guys at the Birdlife checklist about that. Even its scientific name comes out as "Big Arsefoot", which is a good description, but it's not the most flattering latin tag.

It's an iron-grey and rust-red present day Plesiosaur, with flat rubber-glove feet and a gleaming silver Excalibur bill, the stuff of fishy, froggy, crabby nightmares. They're even known to take the chicks of coots; of which there are several species in South America, each with its own gaudy frontal shield; an avian alternative to the family crests of mansion houses and people who own too many Labradors.
One such species is the Giant Coot, a hulking T. rex of a fulica, which if occurred in the UK, would scatter the swans and wrestle the bread-throwing park-goers to the ground. I imagine when coot and grebe meet, the scene is reminiscent of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" only with more armadillos and less screaming Japanese people.

Battle of the century: Arsefoot and Cootosaurus
Thanks to their ability to chow down on most aquatic life, they're found across large water bodies in western and southern South America, from rocky coasts hugged by sea lions to the guanaco-frequented lakes of the Argentinian Chaco, with inland birds succumbing to the lure of the sea once breeding is over.
The breeding itself is a confusing affair: Stretched out across the whole continent of South America, it's bound to not be uniform, with some populations even breeding at any time during the year. Elsewhere, laying occurs between October and January, even later in southern populations, and to throw another spinning plate to the mix, the isolated Peruvian population may breed twice a year: between September-October and January-February.
The infamous grebe pre-breeding ceremony is not well-executed in Great Grebes. Perhaps they're unimaginative, or clumsy, or just bad at flirting. It's a minimalist display; all synchronised swimming, slow head shakes and raised black crests (think Elvis quiff meets Basking Shark fin). No veggie props, no angelic water-dash, not a lot to get Bruno Tonioli shouting. Copulation is ungainly and awkward, heaved out on a constructed raft of vegetation; the soon-to-be nest.

As both mum and dad possess a brood patch, incubation of the 3-5 mud-stained eggs is shared, as is the free ferry service the adults provide once the young giants hatch. Extremely protective parents, Great Grebes are well known for their aggression, probably because they keep getting hit on by sleazy sheldgeese. A short-tempered grebe lowers its head and neck, with the bill almost parallel to the water service, apparently the level of lividness can be determined by the amount that the neck has been lowered. Failing this, the grebe displays it's hanky white underwings. Terrifying.

The mathematics of Great Grebe threat displays...honest
Thankfully, this leviathan lake dweller species is ranked as Least Concern by Birdlife International. This may be partly due to its large range of over 2million km, ability to breed during much of the year and a largely catholic diet. This carefree badge cannot be worn by many of the other South American grebe species, though. It's a sad state of affairs, with a quarter of the South American species ranked as critically endangered, and one species, the Colombian Grebe was officially declared extinct in 1981. Threats to South American grebes include drowning in gill-nets (with a shock figure of one dead Titicaca Grebe per net each day for both of the 2 fishermen evaluated during a study in 2005), chemical contamination from metal mining, introduced fish (particularly the Rainbow Trout) and fluctuations in lake water levels due to hydroelectric plants. Any hope held for these species evaporates further when one realises that some species are limited to just one or two lakes.

So whilst Podiceps major might have it best living it large, spare a thought for its smaller contingents, slowly becoming tiny shadows on the great birding map. 

Read more about threatened South American grebes here.
Read Birdlife's Hooded Grebe (critically endangered) project here.

-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig and being distracted by bugs. 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Field Sketching - A dying art?

I must confess, it has only been the last couple of years that I have kept a notebook whilst out birding. 
I guess the reason for not keeping a notebook in the past has been my long-standing blog, so have kept this as a sort of diary for my birding daytrips. It was in fact Mr L. Evans who alerted me to how it is a 'dying art' in the birding/twitching scene today.
Needless to say, whenever I go out birding these days, the notebook is just as important as my binoculars and feel somewhat naked without it. Those of you who keep a notebook already will already know the huge number of pros for keeping one, but I for one have certainly noticed that I have vastly improved the extent of my local patch birding by doing regular WeBS counts, vis-mig counts etc, so I have become a much more thorough birder.  
Field sketch style White-tailed Lapwing

The point of this post is to go a little deeper. I've noticed that there has been an increase in notebook keeping in recent years, especially with the birders associated with Next Generation Birders, but what about field sketches?
They say a picture is 1000 words, so when out on a twitch and having brief views of a bird, why would you waste time writing 1000 words (figuratively speaking) when you can whack out a quick field sketch showing the key features?
I will admit, the above White-tailed Lapwing wasn't actually done in the field, but was treated as such by doing quick sketches from photos and videos online to improve my fieldsketching skills in the early days of birding (I actually did that back when I was 15).

One of the most common answers to the question "do you ever fieldsketch?" is "No, I can't draw".

Being able to draw/paint well is not a very common ability, otherwise the likes of of Mr. Mullarney and Mr. Lewington would not considered extraordinary! My point being that I don't think that I have a natural ability at drawing and certainly not painting, but I have been attempting artwork on and off for several years now, and I now know my own techniques to get a bird looking at least mildly like what I intend it to...sort of!

The YOC used to operate a 'young birder of the year' competition that included the best notebook, the best fieldsketches etc. This was done to encourage the younger birders to learn their craft properly and improve their notebook taking and field sketch skills etc. It doesn't matter if you can't draw, if you practise, you WILL get better!

The point of a field sketch is a reference point to you, the owner of the notebook, so it doesn't matter if an outline of a coot looks more like a wigeon, if you put arrows to certain parts of the bird and label them with references.

1st w Caspian Gull

The above Caspian Gull for example looks to me, like a 1st winter Caspian Gull. Gulls are a perfect example of the benefits of field sketches and notebooks. Sketching causes you to look a great deal harder at a bird. It helps to look at every feather, every feature, everything about a bird and will ultimately help you to get your records accepted. If you draw what you see, you are a lot less likely to miss any critical details. For example, I attempted to write notes about the reference photo I used for the above gull and then tried to turn that into a field sketch. I ended up missing out certain features of the bird that I didn't even know I'd originally sketched, such at the light barring on the flanks and the partial white orbital ring.

One of my first paintings - Eiders

I presume that everyone reading this will have attended at least one twitch. The last bird you went to see, I bet that you didn't look at certain things like the emargination of he inner webs of the primaries, or the length of the nostrils of the bird? This may not be a perfect example as some of you may just be that thorough. I will therefore ask you to draw a Blue Tit from memory. I will bet you a decent amount of money that your drawing or even description would miss out at least one major detail. 
My point is, look at the blog post about the Devonian Dusky Thrush. The field sketches/paintings that emerged from that bird were incredible. There was so much detail in those paintings that would require an enormous amount of description.
One of my personal favourites - Sooty Shearwater

I know it certainly is in the pipelines to potentially resurrect the 'Young Birder of the Year' competition that may well include a notebook/fieldsketch section. 
Cameras cost thousands; a pencil and notebook can cost as little as £1...on your next twitch, patch visit etc, there's no need to break the bank! The art of field sketching isn't dead just yet!

By Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch, he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 21 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Birding brain-games by William Jones

Conquered the large white-headed gull complex? Pick out the Semi-P in that Dunlin swarm from Google Earth? Able to seperate Fea's and Zino' smell? 

Yes? Then you'll find these easy...probably. 

Next Generation Birder William Jones has created a range of brain-wringing quizzes on Sporcle (that black-hole site of lost office hours and OCD) to truly test the worth of what you know about ornithology. Pour a cuppa, go to the loo and clear the calendar, this may take some time...

A quiz on the bird orders. You're given the order names and have 4 minutes to give an example of each of the 40 orders. Moderately easy.

Test your knowledge of world bird names. The starts of bird species names are given with their family name missing. You must identify the family name. Eg. Dalmatian, Spot-billed, Brown, Australian: would have the answer Pelican. 10 mins. Getting harder.

How well do you know your scientific names of species on the British List? More specifically, those with tautonyms (a scientific name which repeats itself eg. Lagopus lagopus). 15 mins for 37 tautonyms. Tricky.

A few more tautonyms, from further afield. 15 mins for 23 tautonyms.

Can you name the world's auk species? 10 mins.

A budding Chris Gooddie? Jewel Thrush make you drool? Or just a fan of Middle Eastern flatbreads? Take the Pittas of the world test. 10 mins.

Same as above, but with those dandy feathered limes: the Turacos. 5 mins.

A skull grinder: name all the world's species in the wader mega-family Scolopacidae (sandpipers et al). You won't believe how many you forget. 15 mins.

A list of bird names, some astonishingly real, some fabrications. Click on the ones you reckon are true. Look out for the soul-singing gamebird. 10 mins.

Geographer and birder? Or just a useless trivia sponge? This might be for you: name the country that has one of the 28 bird species listed as its national bird. 13 mins. 

For latin fiends: click on the order of the bird that appears on the screen. Tougher than Guillemot jerky. 10 mins.

A warm-up to the shark-infested marathon ahead. Name all the non-passerines on the British List. Put the gun down. 20 mins. 

The Mother of birding quizzes. Settle down with some snacks, this'll be a long one. All the passerines on the British List. 20 mins.

Name all the warblers on the British List. 10 mins. A head-pounder/eye-twitcher/scream-inducer. Do not attempt around knives (for your own safety) or kittens (for theirs). 

For real experts. Name all the 114 countries in the world without endemic birds. It'll surprise you too. 10 mins.

One for diversity: Britain's butterfly species. 10 mins.

Finshed? Welcome to 2017. I know, I can't believe you forgot that warbler either!

-William Jones
William originally hails from the birder's paradise that is Shropshire. However he is currently living in Uppsala, Sweden where he is studying the effects of malaria on Pied and Collared Flycatchers as part of a Master's Programme in Ecology and Conservation. When not in the lab he can usually be found trying to track down Sweden's Owls, Woodpeckers and Gamebirds with limited success.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Trip report: Liam Curson in Fuerteventura

Fuerteventura Trip Report
By Liam Curson 

The island of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
Duration: 24-26 October 2013
Flights: Easyjet from Gatwick to Puerto Del Rosario
Hotel: Castillo Beach Park, Caleta De Fuste
Rental Car: Fiat Punto from Goldcar Rental
Target Species: Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Fuerteventura Stonechat (endemic), Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Afrocanarian Blue Tit (ssp degener), Southern Grey Shrike, Berthelot’s Pipit, Azorean Yellow-legged Gull, Spectacled Warbler, Barbary Partridge, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Trumpeter Finch, Stone-curlew, Hoopoe, Barbary Falcon.

DAY 1: 24 October
We actually arrived in Fuerteventura on the evening of Wednesday 23 October 2013, but it was dark by the time we landed, so, having located our apartment, we crashed out ready for the first day of our three-day birding trip. Having woken up at about 07:00 to find it still dark, we left the apartment at 07:30 looking for a supermarket. By wandering around the resort searching, we added our first three species, Collared Dove, Linnet, and Southern Grey Shrike, we hadn’t even gone birding yet and I’d managed a lifer!
Our first port of call was Barranco De La Torre, from 08:15-10:30. This was listed in our guidebook (the invaluable Birds of the Canary Islands by Tony Clarke and David Collins) as a reliable site for Fuerteventura Stonechat, and as it was only a few miles from our hotel, was a nice and easy start.
Barranco’s are steep-sided river valleys, which sometimes, as in this case, have thick growths of vegetation. In the wet season these rivers often flow a fair amount, but right now this Barranco had only the merest trickle, with a few pools downstream of the main tamarisk growth. These pools were where I found another lifer, a pair of Ruddy Shelduck, alongside a Grey Heron and a Common Sandpiper. There was a variety of odonata to look at too, including the beautiful Scarlet Darter, Epaulet Skimmer and Emperor. The Tamarisks were remarkably poor for birds, the only species seen in these dense thickets was Sardinian Warbler which were supremely elusive. In the coarser vegetation on the rocky slope above were a flock of 30 Spanish Sparrow, two singing Berthelot’s Pipits, and what I later learnt were Spectacled Warblers, heard only. These have a trilling alarm call not dissimilar to a Mistle Thrush. There was also a flock of Pigeons which, based on immaculate plumage, wary behaviour and their choice of habitat, in a fairly remote area, seemed to have decent credentials for wild Rock Doves. On the way back, I saw a Pallid Swift over Caleta De Fuste.
Berthelot's Pipit
By 10:00 you could really feel the heat of day, and we thought it best not to be out birding in these conditions. I relaxed, contented, by the resort, with a Berthelot’s Pipit feeding near the pool and Azorean Yellow-legged Gulls lazily soared overhead; pure bliss!
The village of La Oliva was our destination for the evening’s birding. This was about a 40 minute drive from Caleta De Fuste. La Oliva seemed from the guidebook to have almost everything; the areas of cultivation attract large numbers of birds, including (and I thought this was very optimistic) Houbaras!
We followed our noses at first, and ended up at Casa De Los Coroneles (translated- The Colonel’s House), a historical monument on the outskirts of the town. The cultivation behind it was being used mostly for goat grazing, with lots of small bushes and cacti growing wild. Berthelot’s Pipits were everywhere, with at least 20 seen, while at least 10 Ravens circled overhead. 5 Spectacled Warblers were quickly seen and were lifers for me, and, despite it not looking like suitable habitat, three FUERTEVENTURA STONECHATS were found! A male and two females; they offered fantastic views! The stone walls and earth mounts in the fields provided useful cover and allowed for a very close approach to the chats, which were working their way back and forth along a stone wall. At one point the male was perched on the same rock as a male Spectacled Warbler, just like a Stonechat and Whitethroat I thought!
Fuerteventura Stonechat
The Stonechats here really are stunning birds. The males, with bright orange breasts and white superciliums, look a little bit like Whinchats, while the females look halfway between a female Whinchat and Wheatear, but are more pallid than both.
We then took a wander down a mountain road that went off to the left on the FV-102. We stopped where the road forked sharply to see what we could see, and were rewarded with distant view of about 40 Barbary Partridge on the hillside, the covey gradually working it’s way up a ravine. When trying to scope them out I also found another FUERTEVENTURA STONECHAT, but the views were brief and distant. We still had a bit of time to kill before it was worth checking our Houbara site, so I thought it would be a good idea to wander back to Casa De Los Coroneles again. Much of the same, and while admiring the Stonechats, Dad picked up a CREAM-COLOURED COURSER in the background! He rushed back to get the scope from the car while I kept track on the Courser, and another five or so appeared around it!
This rapidly becomes one of the best birds I have ever seen. Our views weren't as good as those twitchers who travelled to Herefordshire in May 2012, the heat-haze made for fairly poor visibility and the coursers, while not scared of us, would run further back if you approached much closer than 50 metres. But it was a truly amazing experience seeing this party feeding together, doing what I always thought Coursers should be doing. They were all running a few steps before stopping, like clockwork toys, and tilting their whole body forwards to pick up insects from the ground. They were mostly adults, and when the light was right the blue on the hindcrown was really obvious; even with binoculars. We eventually estimated eight were present.
Cream-coloured Coursers
It was getting towards sunset now, which meant we had one last rendezvous we needed to get to. The guide mentions an area called Rosa De Los Negrines, a good site for Houbara Bustard. To get here, take the FV-10 out of La Oliva. About 2km down this road you take the steep left-hand turning, look out for this as it’s easy to miss. Follow this dirt track down towards the cultivation and over the plains scanning for Houbara.
We had just driven past the four palm trees, placed two either side of the road, when I looked out to the left and my heart leapt out of my mouth. 30 metres away, walking across the plain, I had one! It was so close that Dad, in a panic, didn't notice it for almost a minute! The HOUBARA BUSTARD walked off to the left, down the hill, into the cultivations. Here, we had fantastic views of it for almost half an hour, picking off leaves, insects and berries. We were close enough that you could see the pale colour of its iris through binoculars! Houbara is a surprisingly delicate looking bird, about three feet tall, with a stealthy gait, and cryptic colouring perfectly camouflaged against the rocky plains it inhabits. The pale crown, and extensive tiger barring on the back, are the main features to separate Houbara from the Middle-eastern Macqueen’s Bustard. The Canaries race, Chlamydotis undulata fuertavenurae;, is distinguished from the nominate race C.u.undulata by the bolder striped patterning on the back and darker crown sides, which create a lateral crown stripe. In this area we also saw another Southern Grey Shrike.
What a day it had been! I’d thought getting our three main target species would be hard work, but with a bit of luck, we had somehow managed to get them all in one two hour burst, in two sites no more than three miles apart! You could have covered that area on foot in a couple of hours and ticked off the three biggest targets on this 70 mile long island, it truly was extraordinary. It shows the importance of well vegetated areas like La Oliva in a desert country, even the hardy desert species, like Cream-coloured Courser and Houbara, gravitate towards these areas. It was almost dark by the time we were back at the hotel complex, so we celebrated with a nice Argentinean dinner, and some well-deserved but warm beers.

Day 2: 25 October
How could we possibly top yesterday? We both agreed that, having seen our three biggest targets already, today we should focus upon finding Black-bellied Sandgrouse. I was almost as keen to see Egyptian Vulture, a species I've always dreamed of (surely one of the most stunning raptors in the world!). We visited the Jandia peninsula, in the SW corner of the island. This is an area renowned more than any other for Sandgrouse.
We had a look around La Pared, an area of sand dunes the guidebook recommended. It was about an hour’s drive from Caleta De Fuste, but mostly you just follow the FV-2, and turn onto the FV-605 at Costa Calma. About 9km along this road is a dirt track. It proved too much for our rented Fiat Punto, so I’d advise birders looking to drive this to rent a car with higher clearance. Instead, we spent about two hours wandering the sand dunes on foot. As we were parking, a Southern Grey Shrike was perched in a bush by the side of the track.
At first, it was totally hopeless. A pair of kestrels momentarily relieved the tension, but for the first hour or so, the only birds seen were Ravens, at least 10 overhead, mournfully cawing. However, Dad had plenty of experience desert birding and knew the lulls all to well; he encouraged me to keep my spirits up and thank god I did! Towards 9.30 things started to liven up a bit. We picked up a pair of Berthelot’s Pipits and heard a singing Lesser short-toed Lark, while several Barbary Ground Squirrels were to be found. The area looked suitable for Courser, but none were found, and by about 10:00 we were both bored and a bit peed off. But, just then, Dad picked up a flock of seven birds flying high to the North. The first thing he said was, ‘are they just pigeons?’, and I, fully expecting them to be, almost failed to raise my bins until too late. They were flying away from us now, but I was still just about able to make out the contrast between the black of the belly and the chestnut colour of the upper breast... hang on, they’re BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE! Over the next three minutes we hit upon a purple patch, two more flocks of seven and nine followed the same flight path, getting picked up sooner and giving better views. Five minutes later and two flew up calling from about 60 metres away, giving excellent flight views. They have a remarkable call; which can only be described as ‘bubbly’! I suspect all these birds were flying from their feeding grounds to a drinking area, likely to be one of the reservoirs further to the north.
We next visited Hotel Los Gorriones. To get here you backtrack along the FV-605, and once you hit the FV-2 turn right. About two kilometres south of Costa Calma, Los Gorriones is signposted on the seaward side, take this road down the Hotel, and carry on driving along the dirt path that goes south along the coast.
This was a decent area, but not somewhere I’d recommend for any of Fuerteventura’s specialities. There were tidal pools on the beautiful and popular sandy beach, which despite plenty of disturbance held six Ringed Plover, two Kentish Plover and an Oystercatcher. Four roosting Grey Herons out distantly on the beach held a Little Egret and, once I’d got the scope to confirm it, a SPOONBILL. This is a reasonably uncommon winter visitor and migrant in the Canaries, and a good local recordSouthern Grey Shrike and Spectacled Warbler were in the scrub further back from the beach. Be aware that many walkers and windsurfers use this beach, and that early morning will be most productive. Also, watch out for nudists, especially if equipped with binoculars, telescope and camera!
Next up, a reservoir called Catalina Las Garcia. I was hopeful we may find some waterbirds at this site, approximately 3km south of Tuineje on of the FV-20, but it was completely dried out. A walk around the husk of a reservoir produced three Berthelot’s Pipits.
I was drifting off to sleep in the car when Dad pulled over, at the Km. 29 marker along the FV-2. He pointed out to the right, where a raptor was being mobbed by a crow. In my semi-torpid state, it took a while for it to sink in that it was an EGYPTIAN VULTURE! This bird really delighted us, flying low and direct over the car, only about 40 metres overhead! Easily close enough to see the stunning yellow face of this fine adult specimen. I was scarcely able to believe my luck, I had once again managed to see my two main targets for the day, and get excellent views of both!
We were back at the hotel mid-afternoon; so I caught up on some sleep before going out for a nice meal in the resort, interspersed between various trips to the pool. One of the most unexpected highlights of the whole trip was seen well past dark, around the resort as we walked back from our meal, when I noticed a small, unassuming figure pacing around under a streetlight. Based on it’s long legs, drooping rear, rounded forehead, plover-like bill and clockwork style of walking, it could only be a STONE-CURLEW. They are quite common on Fuerteventura, but this was my only one of the whole trip. I've seen Bush Thick-knee in similarly urbane settings in Australia, and I always think there is just something fantastic about a species we assume is so quiet and secretive, wandering around tourist resorts in another country!

Day 3: 26 October
Having seen almost all of what we wanted to see in Fuerteventura already, today we just went out with no pressure and enjoyed the birding. It was by far and away the best day of the whole trip, even that first day at La Oliva couldn’t quite compare. I only had one big target left for the trip, Afrocanarian Blue Tit. Beyond that we were just looking for areas for good birding, and visiting areas we’d liked before.
I had really wanted to visit Los Molinos ever since I’d read about it in the guidebook. It’s the only permanent body of water in the whole of Fuerteventura, and as such offers excellent birding. To get here, take the FV-221 to Las Parcelas. At a goat farm in Las Parcelas is a very sharp right-hand bend in the road, with a dirt path forking off to the left. Take this path past the farm, but be careful for the dogs, one of which almost ran in front of our car! Follow this road until you reach the dam, where there is a car park.
As we drove down the path, the first thing I noticed was a pair of Ruddy Shelduck in the middle of a goat enclosure! These were wild birds which must have been among the goat herd for food. I then picked up a flock of about 50 BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE flying over a mountain to the right, the other side of the Barranco. Flocks were seen in flight several times during our visit here, with up to 100 in the air at any one time. The true number present was probably a lot more, and I suspect this is a popular watering hole for them. The time we were present (10:00-11:00) also ties in with the time I had seen sandgrouse flying over La Pared towards the reservoirs. Sadly we never saw any actually coming down to drink while we were here.
The Reservoir was absolutely alive with birds. 60 Ruddy Shelduck were present, and another 70 flew in, making it 130 overall. When the guide was written sixteen years ago, this species was, incredibly, still listed as ‘accidental’ in Fuerteventura, and the first record had only been a few years beforehand! Several small ducks were seen, all of which were identified as eclipse Garganey, plus there were many waders. 15 Black-winged Stilt, 10 Green Sandpiper, 5 Common Sandpiper, 5 Little Ringed Plover and singles of Greenshank and SPOTTED REDSHANK, the latter an unusual migrant in Fuerteventura. Many of the plains species were present around the edges of the reservoir, Berthelot’s Pipit, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Linnet  all flocking in good numbers towards this precious water source. Two Azorean Yellow-legged Gulls were also present on the shore of the reservoir. This was by far the most diverse area we had visited in the whole of Fuerteventura, a whole 17 species of bird were seen!
Ruddy Shelduck
If you followed the footsteps down from the Dam you could find your way into the Barranco, which has a reputation as an excellent chat site. Here we got more superb views of FUERTEVENTURAN STONECHAT, with two males and one female. The males were engaged in a territorial spat, chasing each other up and down a rocky scree, and this was the only time I ever heard the chats calling. It is a sharp ‘teck’ similar to Saxicola Torquatus, but a lot quieter and more discreet. We took extra pleasure in these birds, knowing they might be our last of the trip.
Next up, we paid a visit to Vega De Rio Palmas. To get here, follow the FV-30 and turn off at the signpost for the above mentioned. This is a small village in the middle of the mountains, and enjoys a slightly cooler atmosphere, meaning it was actually bearable to walk around in the middle of the day! We hadn't even parked the car when I’d heard our quarry, making a call quite a lot like a tit from back home. It flew onto a wall and, before it disappeared into a crack, and so I got a pretty fantastic view of this AFROCANARIAN BLUE TIT. In terms of looks this might be the best bird I saw on the whole trip! Shape, call and behaviour are all very similar to European Blue Tit, but the cap is a deep, glossy hue of blue, the mantle is cerulean blue, the belly is brighter lemon-yellow, and it has a shorter, thicker central breast-stripe than European Blue Tit. The race occurring here, Parus Ultramarinus Degener, is thought to be a different species to that found elsewhere on The Canaries (except Lanzarote), with both islands populations being a race of the North African species. It can be separated from the Blue Tits found on Tenerife, La Gomera and El Hierro by the double white wing-bar and glossy blue (rather than black) cap. By walking along the dried out Barranco I saw at least 10, some giving great views! There were quite a few other birds to see, most especially about 1km further down the Barranco, where a spring formed several small pools of bubbling water. I saw three Southern Grey Shrikes, 20 Spanish Sparrows, 5 Berthelot’s Pipits, 3 Spectacled Warblers, a singing Lesser Short-toed Lark and a Hoopoe, which was new for the trip too! Scarlet Darters and Lesser Emperors flew around the pools, and I saw quite a few butterflies. The Barranco held a very healthy colony of Monarchs, with at least 20 seen, as well as singles of Painted Lady, Clouded Yellow (the only one of the trip), and Long-tailed Blue. Vega De Rio Palmas was a highly enjoyable place to visit, and for those interested in this gorgeous race of Blue Tit, I highly recommend it.
With the Blue Tit seen, and with a Hoopoe thrown in for bonus, there really was very little left to see! We therefore decided it would be a good idea to go back to La Oliva. I doubted we’d be lucky with courser or bustard again, but it was a good area regardless, and I hoped to see the chats one last time before we left for our flight that evening.
There were, perhaps, only two realistic new birds for the trip left. One was Barbary Falcon, the other Trumpeter Finch. Barbary Falcon is very rare on Fuerteventura, so I didn’t really hold out much hope. But as we were driving along the FV-30 to La Oliva, I saw a falcon 40 metres above the car, and by its shape could immediately tell it wasn't a Kestrel. The following ID is quite tricky, especially from a moving vehicle, as Peregrine is also a winter visitor to the islands. But I noticed this falcon had an obvious dark band on the end of the tail, and it’s underbelly was very faintly barred, with a slight buffy-yellow colouration to the belly and inner wing. It had to be a BARBARY FALCON!
I didn't really hold out much hope that La Oliva would produce, it had seemed too good to be true the last time! But, if anything, today it was somehow even better! Around Casa De Los Coroneles, the chats were nowhere to be found, but eight CREAM-COLOURED COURSERS were in the same sandy field, still feeding on the many locusts. By using the stone wall as cover, we got to within about 20 metres and had excellent views. There was also a fantastic number of small birds feeding here, with 60 Linnet, 30 Lesser Short-toed Lark, two Southern Grey Shrike, five Berthelots Pipits, a Spectacled Warbler and, at long long last, a TRUMPETER FINCH! As I was watching this subtle, but devastatingly beautiful little bird, I realised I had seen every single target I had set out to see. A wave of gratitude came over me, as I realised how generous Fuertaventura had been with her beautiful birdlife. There were also two Kestrels, three Buzzards (an endemic Canaries subspecies) and many Ravens overhead. I was enjoying myself a lot here! The volume of passerines was unlike anywhere else we visited on the island, and, once again, shows how important these well vegetated areas like La Oliva are for them.
It would feel wrong, almost sacrilegious, not to look in our Houbara site again before we left. So, as it approached sundown, we once again took that dirt track, stopping to scan near the four palm trees. We could see nothing, and I had almost given up hope. But I noticed a greyish blob, about 100 metres away, half illuminated by the fading light. I’d been fooled by god knows how many rocks, bushes and illusory effects on these islands already, and felt sure I was about to do so once more. But as I dutifully checked what it was through my binoculars, my eyes registered without really comprehending it. I was in a sort of trance, I  felt like I was gazing into the soul of the HOUBARA, and, rather than the disbelieving, euphoric shout  I’d given when I first sighted one, I merely whispered to Dad, in a serene, contented and remarkably calm voice, ‘I’ve got it again’.
Our views were, as before, nothing short of superb. They are wary birds, but seem at ease with cars. However, at one point Dad got out so he could put the scope on the roof. We had been warned not to do this, as Houbara’s fear humans as soon as they step out of a vehicle, but we made the mistake of disbelieving the information in our guide and trusting our own, admittedly euphoric judgement. The effect on the Bustard could not have been more pronounced. It looked over towards us, saw Dad and almost immediately dived into cover, crouching out of sight behind what seemed a minute shrub. After five minutes of disappointed waiting on our part, it failed to re-appear. However, we drove away and five minutes later, returned. The HOUBARA was once again out in the open, and we got more superb views from the safety of the car. I could have stayed here forever, but we had a flight to catch at 21:00, so we had to leave this confiding, remarkable bird to feed undisturbed in the cultivations. What a way to end a truly remarkable holiday though.
Houbara Bustard
If you’re thinking of visiting Fuerteventura, it might be worth remembering how very lucky I was on this trip. Aside from Plain Swift (a rare species on Fuerteventura), I saw literally every single island speciality in three days, a feat I think I’d be unlikely to repeat. However, I do believe that there is a ‘best way’ to bird this island.
There are, in my opinion, five standout birds on Fuerteventura. Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Fuerteventura Stonechat, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Afrocanarian Blue Tit. With a bit of luck, it is possible to see all five in one day, as I did on 26th October.
Los Molinos is an excellent site for Fuerteventura Stonechat, and I think a late morning visit should give a very reasonable chance of Black-bellied Sandgrouse too, as they come in from the plains to drink. Ruddy Shelduck should be present all year round, and in the winter and passage months a variety of Ducks and Waders might be expected. Aside from the slight chance of Marbled Duck and Red-knobbed Coot though, none are likely to whet the appetite of most British birders. It may be worth checking the sandy plains around Los Molinos early in the morning for Cream-coloured Courser, provided you have a vehicle you are comfortable going off-road in.
Los Molinos dam
Following this, spend the afternoon around Vega De Rio Palmas, which seems to be a spot where Afrocanarian Blue Tit is almost guaranteed. The village of Betancuria is also a good spot, and I’ve heard they even occur in La Oliva. If you haven’t brought lunch with you, Betancuria, on the FV-30 north of Vega De Rio Palmas, is a good spot to eat out. If you’d prefer to bird the early morning, do this site first, then get to Los Molinos for about 10:00. If you’ve done that you may as well find a nice place to sit and relax for the afternoon.
Finally, nothing could beat visiting La Oliva in the evening. The area around Casa De Los Coroneles is truly superb. While I can’t guarantee Cream-coloured Courser will be seen there, we did have a 100% success rate over our two visits, and other people have reported them here in past trip reports. It’s also a good chance of seeing Hoopoe, Trumpeter Finch, Spectacled Warbler and all the other Fuerteventuran countryside birds. Fuertaventura Stonechat occurs, and Barbary Partridge can be found in the mountains. Egyptian Vultures might be around.
On the outskirts of La Oliva, I think every birder should visit Rosa De Los Negrines at least once during their stay. The views we had of Houbara on both occasions were simply out of this world, I had never imagined I could possibly see one so well. I would visit this place every night if I went back. While some of the plains do offer the chance to see more Houbaras, I suspect that this favoured feeding area is a more reliable site than simply driving across the desert they normally live in, and are perfectly camouflaged in. It will almost certainly yield better views too, unless your luck with birding the plains is truly astounding. Also, while trip reports from 10 years ago often report seeing flocks of up to nine on the plains, I believe they have declined recently, so this may now be even less likely.
For some of the other target species, luck will be more heavily involved. Egyptian Vulture has become scarcer, but still if you fail to see one during a trip out here you can still consider yourself quite unlucky. They may favour more mountainous areas, but must surely be seen almost anywhere on the islands. Just watch out for them while driving, and always check overhead wherever you are. The same applies to Barbary Falcon, though this is a lot rarer still and will require plenty of luck. I believe there may be sites however, for example the mountains around Vega De Rio Palmas are thought to be particularly good.
The diversity of species is by no means astounding. I saw 39 species over three days, and while I did manage 17 species at Los Molinos, at many sites I was lucky to see five or six. At Rosa De Los Negrines I saw three species; Houbara Bustard, Southern Grey Shrike and Feral Pigeon! However, you don’t come to Fuerteventura for it’s birding quantity, you come for it’s birding quality. And my word, that quality is some of the most astounding birds in the Western Palaearctic, in the entire world for that matter. This may be the best place in the world to see Houbara, Cream-coloured Courser and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and is the only place to see Fuerteventura Stonechat. So would I recommend Fuerteventura to the travelling birder?
Yes, in a heartbeat...

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

Species List in Taxonomic Order
  • Ruddy Shelduck- 2@ Barranco Del Torre 24th Oct; 130@ Los Molinos 26th Oct    
  • Garganey- 5@Los Molinos on 26th Oct                                   
  • Little Egret- 2@ Hotel Los Gorriones on 25th Oct                                
  • Grey Heron- 1@Barranco Del Torre on 24th Oct, 4@ Hotel Los Gorriones on 25th Oct
  • Spoonbill- 1@ Hotel Los Gorriones on 25th Oct, rare migrant in Canaries
  • Egyptian Vulture- 1@ FV-2, Km 29 on 25th Oct                    
  • Buzzard- several seen around island, endemic subspecies insularum
  • Kestrel-common, endemic subspecies dacotiae
  • Barbary Falcon- one seen near Betancuria on 26th Oct                              
  • Barbary Partridge- 40+ near La Oliva on 24th Oct
  • Coot- 50+ at Los Molinos on 26th Oct  
  • Houbara Bustard- 1@ Rosa De Los Negrines, La Oliva on 24th and 26th Oct, likely same individual
  • Black-winged Stilt- 15@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct
  • Eurasian Stone-curlew- 1@ Caleta De Fuste on 25th Oct
  • Cream-coloured Courser- 8@ Casa De Los Coroneles on 24th and 26th Oct
  • Little Ringed Plover- 5@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct
  • Ringed Plover- 6@ Los Gorriones on 25th Oct
  • Kentish Plover- 2@ Los Gorriones on 25th Oct 
  • Green Sandpiper- 10@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct 
  • Greenshank- 1@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct  
  • Spotted Redshank- 1@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct, rare migrant in The Canaries 
  • Azorean Yellow-legged Gull- common, seen from all coastlines
  • Black-bellied Sandgrouse-25@ La Pared on 25th Oct, 2@ Barranco Del Torre on 25th Oct (JC only), 100+@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct
  • Feral Pigeon- common, some showing characteristics of wild Rock Dove at Barranco Del Torre
  • Collared Dove- common in all urban areas
  • Hoopoe- 1@ La Oliva on 24th Oct (JC only), 1@ Rio De Vega Palmas on 26th Oct
  • Pallid Swift- 1@ Caleta De Fuste on 24th Oct
  • Berthelots Pipit- very, very common
  • Lesser Short-toed Lark- seen at La Oliva, Los Molinos, La Pared and Rio De Vega Palmas
  • Fuertaventura Stonechat- 3@ La Oliva on 24th Oct, 3@ Los Molinos on 26th Oct
  • Spectacled Warbler- fairly common, seen at Barranco Del Torre, La Oliva, Los Gorriones, Rio De Vega Palmas
  • Sardinian Warbler- 15@ Barranco Del Torre, 24th Oct
  • Afrocanarian Blue Tit- 10@ Rio De Vega Palmas, subspecies degener
  • Southern Grey Shrike- common bird of open country
  • Raven the only crow on the island and abundant, seen almost everywhere
All photographs ©Liam Curson