Thursday 17 October 2013

Italy. October 2013

We're in Italy! Castelforte, near Naples. It's so exciting being in a new country, with new birds. I love the act of spotting, trying to note as many details as possible, looking in the book and **hopefully** identifying. It makes you look more carefully at each creature you see.

Back home I know all of the regular birds and it's too easy to take them for granted and hardly look at all. Here, that blackbird (or is it a starling?) that's just flown to perch on the parapet of San Giovanni Battista belltower might be a blackbird, but it might be something else... like a blue rock thrush! Monticola solitarius. Dusky blue and black. An especially beautiful bird.

Two black redstarts were up on the tower before, fluttering out and back, out and back, to catch flies and the floating spiders that use silken threads as sails to ride the wind. The male redstart looks shimmery coal black until he turns and you see his rust red tail. The juvenile and non-breeding plumage is a lighter tan grey, still with some of the rust red on tail.

This morning from the balcony a blue tit was on an aerial across rooftops. That seemed strange, such a familiar bird in such an alien setting. A small but bright dab of yellow and blue amongst whitewash and red tiles.

Other familiar birds are feral pigeons, collared doves, magpies and sparrows. Though the the sparrows so far have been tree not house.

From the car yesterday I saw two sparrowhawks, one plunging towards a spooked group of pigeons. At the car hire outside the airport two parakeets were flying far off, long-tailed and squawking, like the ring-necked's in London. Also gulls overhead, no attempt yet to identify.

At the mall (yes, I thought that too, but with eight of us we needed to do a big shop...) crows were chattering around the top of a pylon. Quite a few carrion crows and two their grey-tabarded relatives, though my book doesn't show hooded as being in Italy at all. Carrion and hooded are the same species but two different races, with mostly separate ranges. Interbreeding does occur.

It's not just birds. Plants are new, and insects and reptiles. Lemons are growing and yellowing, prickly pear fruits are reddening, olives are browning. Two geckos suckered vertically outside our kitchen veranda last night. A bat flying through lamplight below and around the balcony. I could slightly hear its squeaking but Eva could hear it better with her younger ears.

Lizards were scuttling along the walls of a square that we stopped in. Seeking sun to warm bodies of green, brown, yellow scales. They dart, stop-and-start, like a mouse. The kids gave an impromptu performance of 'Crazy Crazy' and Gangnam style in the circle in the square here whilst the more attentive adults watched and I scanned the opposite hillside for birds, hearing what I think were jays. A big patch of ivy flowers (unassuming light green buds) attracted more bees, hoverflies, wasps, flies and ultra-large wasps (some type of hornets?) than we'd ever seen, making more insect noise than we'd ever heard.

There are red admirals and whites and one butterfly with sunshine yellow wings, flame red towards the body, that glided past me, gone before I'd had time to do more than briefly wonder.

Our traditional old Italian mansion is amazing, filled with the family history of its owners. Its view is incredible. Stereotypical Italian rooftop vista, hazy light like a Turner. I think I'm almost feeling relaxed.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

2013 - October BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

My monthly BTO WeBS count along the Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun.

(NB my September 2013 WeBS count has not yet been blogged, despite being referenced later in this post.)

Thursday 10th October 2013.

Start time 9am
End time 12noon

Bright sun, hot sun (when walking fast) - cold if you stood still - a strong northerly is blowing, bringing us Arctic air. No rain.

Still no flood-field?:

It's looking like the farmer's efforts to drain the field might have worked. We've had some rain recently but not even a puddle has accumulated. My waterbird counts are probably going to become a lot less interesting in terms of species and numbers. Today in the field - crows, rooks, jackdaws and cows.

count notes 10.09.2013

The count:

Today's weather conditions were about the worst possible. I don't like to do the count on sun shining days because it glares into my eyes from forwards right, exactly the direction I need to look to see the canal. Unless I walk backwards. Which I don't. Even a peaked hat doesn't solve the problem - the sun still reflects up from the surface of the water.

Gulls were in evidence but only ever far overhead, not eligible for the count. I saw moorhens, mallards, two swans and something unusual - a large flock of waders, large for here anyway. On a freshly planted field. Fairly far off and awkwardly lit. I'm not good at most of the waders but I thought of golden plovers or dunlin. Crouching against a section of towpath wall and using knees as an elbow rest I counted the group and took down as much detail as I could see through my binoculars. They were very round little things, fluffy-like. Warm white/light cream under and a beautiful golden-green on top. The low autumn sun accentuated the gold. They had stubby black beaks and I wanted them to have dark legs too - I think that's what golden plover have - but I couldn't see. There were 73, give or take a few. Some were preening, most just resting, heads tucked under wings.

Suddenly I was hearing a low plaintive whistling and a second group of the same birds were sweeping back and fore above the field. They seemed to want to land but never quite managed, nearly touching down before en masse swooping back up, wing a flutter. They flipped side to side in the air, showing uppers then unders, uppers then unders. Uppers were entirely dark, unders entirely light. Their legs were dark! There were 25 in the flock, give or take a few. Once they passed directly over my head and I heard the swoosh of their wings.

Rory, who I meet almost every time I'm out on this count, came up. He's retired, cycles or walks his dog along here most days. We chatted about what we'd seen, about his daughter in Australia and my brother in Australia (Not together. See Roan's excellent blog here - ) and about my exhibition that opened in Glasgow the week before last (see the exhibition online here - Rory expressed shock that I couldn't definitely identify this group of waders. I asked him not to tell the BTO. I spotted a kestrel fly past, scimitar wings, long straight tail, like other birds of prey. We looked back to the waders - gone. Scared off by the predator.

Now that I've written-up the encounter I'm going to consult the books...

(5 minute pause - if this was live I'd say make yourself a cup of tea)

Golden plover! (Pluvialis apricaria) There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of knowing a bit, observing and jotting down everything that might help, then getting to your books and searching through the birds. They weren't grey plover because they hadn't black armpits. Dunlin are far smaller. This is the golden plover's call in flight - Grey plovers' in flight sound a more definite 'pee-oo-ee' -

Golden plover i.d. notes

All water birds eligible for count:

moorhens - 8
mallards - 8
mute swans - 2 (both green ring, black lettering. Female LPJ. Male PFB.)
golden plover - 98

All birds seen:

mute swan
golden plover
house sparrow
blue tit
great tit
collared dove
gulls (unidentified)

24 (+) species

and a red admiral butterfly.

In the woods:

The Philpstoun woods were less abundant in fungi than last month, when I did the walk during a much wetter period. The little spheres clustering together on the mossy fallen tree have now darkened and some were bursting to reveal and release their dark green spores. I had my fungi book with me this time - Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme). My favourites, Candle snuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) were growing, standing to attention to scrappily formed ranks.

Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)

rude Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)

Candle snuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

a bug stuck to a discus seed

Not in the woods:

a dredger, churning the water traumatically