Tuesday 25 May 2021

Back in Blighty

Been back in UK for a couple of weeks but most of that was in quarantine so not much wildlife sightings to report on. The weather has been awful too with constant low night temperatures and very wet and windy so not great for moths. Nice to see the Swifts back outside the Beddington obs window. The obs is being refurbished at the moment ready for rent as we mainly close the chapter on Beddington Farmlands (which now has a new warden to take over from where we have left of). We are now making exciting plans to buy our own land and nature reserve in the UK and in meantime will mainly be based at Holly's family home and working on the Bulgaria project and the Azores project. 

The recent big news in the conservation world is Environment Minister's George Eustice's speech on the new ecological and environmental aspirations set out in the new Environment and Agriculture Bills. Hopefully there will be some opportunities in there for our new UK project with various incentives and subsidies for private ecological land management. According to Mark Avery and some other conservation commentators there is some post-Brexit weakening of ecological regulations but Richard Benwell of LINK was overall rather positive about it all (can't help thinking he is being duped though). No doubt companies like Viridor/KKR and corrupt councils like Sutton will find a way round any regulations (they are already not meeting hardly any of existing regulations or conditions which were backed by EU)  and are likely to become empowered even more outside EU accountability so not expecting much to change at Beddington Farmlands unfortunately (decline will almost certainly escalate) and the need for the private and individual conservation initiatives outside the sphere of the corpocracy in concert with deep systemic change has never been greater. In these deeply corrupt times when the Environmental Minister's speech has to be taken in context of the the bed of failed targets, misinformation and unenforced policies it's been built on, our change in direction from public partnerships to privately owned projects certainly feels like the best direction to be heading off in. 

The Beddington obs 'Bugry'- end of an era. Been many local natural history discoveries from this room over the last decade (SEE HERE
Visited Rosie's project in the week with Lee. Since lockdown certainly seems like there's been an upsurge in personal get back to nature projects which is great to see 
The lawn at the Old Vic is recovering after the winter Ponies 
The mini-farm is a bit behind this year with the weather but things are getting there and Holly's dad has completed his new barn and Coach House Conversion which is looking great. 
Jacob picking wildflowers from the garden and rescuing a young Great Tit from the dogs (below) 

Monday 24 May 2021

The Black Sea Obs Project

So that's it for now from Bulgaria Spring 2021. A superb trip and managed to progress the Black Sea Obs Project (Project outline at end of this post). Dimiter organised the boundary survey before I arrived and I managed to complete a basic habitat survey and commence both moth recording and nocturnal migration recording (We also received good news today in that we will be collaborating with Magnus Robb and the SOUND APPROACH on the noc-mig who have sponsored our own SM4 continuous recorder- thank you Mark Constantine! ). I also completed some preliminary habitat management plans in addition to populating various Ebird spots with data that we will be working on. 

Here's a drone video of our plot showing the context, we've got approx 2000m2 of this ( shown in facebook video below). 

Very much looking forward to returning in Autumn 2021! 

Anybody interested in collaborating/ volunteering on this project please contact me littleoakgroup@btinternet.com and if you would like to donate to or sponsor this project please do so HERE (Many thanks in advance). 

Dawn at the project site with singing Nightingale, Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove, Collared Dove, Corn Bunting, Skylark and Pheasant. 


Project: Black Sea Observatory (Bulgaria) 


Aims and Objectives: To set up a recording station to monitor bird migration and local biodiversity in the Dobrudja region of Bulgaria on the Black Sea Coast. To develop a small lodge/cabin and enhance the garden/grounds for biodiversity. This project is a satellite project to the Balkan Ecology Project https://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.com/ and also part of LITTLE OAK GROUP


Background: I've been working with my brother on the Balkan Ecology Project (in the Valley of the Roses) for the last ten years. The project has purchased several hectares of land there to protect it and also to develop wildlife-friendly farming. My brother and family runs regular residential courses through the year and also a plant nursery and permaculture small holdings. We've set up bird and ecological monitoring systems there and have run bird and wildlife tours/events etc. The Black Sea project is a satellite project of that and we will be developing the project site in partnership with both Balkep (who will do the landscaping and any permaculture elements to the project) and Neophron Bird Tours https://www.neophron.com/. Neophron plan to use the site for photography tours and we also plan to extend the site by purchasing more land next to the site that we have currently purchased. Neophron are dealing with the logistics, legal matters, translation, planning etc. Currently we own 2000m2 at the Black Sea coast site but hope to expand the site.


Additional Details: We plan to visit the site in both the spring and autumn migrations and hope to attract volunteers to cover much of the migration period. The project site is located conveniently (10-15 min drive) to monitor bird migration at Cape Kaliakra (the Spurn of the Black Sea) , the Shabla Lake Complex, Shabla headland, Yaylata Archeological Reserve and also Kamen Bryag (the project village location) and surrounding villages. The area is a Natura2000 location and is located within the Bulgarian steppe habitat (a rare remnant habitat).


We plan to study the following aspects:


1) Bird migration- daily counts recorded on Ebird during Spring and Autumn migrations 

2) Moths trapping for local and migrant species (also recording local butterflies)

3) Recording of local herpetology 

4) Nocturnal bird migration sound recording

5) Casual recording of other biodiversity in region (botanically the area is very important). We suspect there might be wildcats in the region too so will camera trap for mammals.


We also plan to develop the following:


1) A residential lodge/ research cabin

2) An area of improved habitat including meadows, water feature, trees, hedge and shrubs

3) To host tours, lead local tours and residential visits


Pipedream potential

We are building on existing success in the region with Balkep and Neophron and also proven working birding projects elsewhere such as Corvo/ Azores Birding and Beddington Farmlands Nature Reserve. More on our projects here LITTLE OAK GROUP and HERE .  We already own the land with no mortgage and have an allocated budget  to create the cabin and habitat improvements. We hope to crowd fund to buy additional land. We've been successfully working in Bulgaria for ten years already so in it for the long haul , got the right people for it, the seed money and the expertise so it's about as good as it gets.

Sunday 23 May 2021

Bulgaria Spring 2021- Butterflies and moths

We experienced pretty cool temperatures during this Spring's visit. Night time temperatures stayed below 10 C throughout so moth catches were minimal and the day time butterfly and moth activity was also fairly low. Here's a few pictures with tentative identifications, the highlight being a long awaited butterfly lifer-  Nettle-tree Butterfly. 

Nettle-tree Butterfly 
Female Southern Festoon
Mallow Skipper 
Glanville Fritillary 
Queen of Spain Fritillary 
Closest I could get to this was a form of Oak Beauty.
Not sure what this is- a Cucullia sp? It's a Silver Cloud (thanks Billy) . The most numerous moth at the Project site trap 
Coronet I presume
Lobster Moth
Tawny Prominent was the closest I could get to on this 
Purple Thorn (it's a Lunar Thorn- see comments, Thanks Stewart) . Other moths recorded at the project site trap were Knot Grass, Hebrew Character, Elephant Hawkmoth, Pale Brindled Beauty (or something similar), Muslin moth,  Scorched Carpet, several cnephasia sp and a daytime long horn (looked like A.reaumurella). 
Euclidia triquetra (Thanks Billy for id) 

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Bulgaria Spring 2021- Botany

I was absolutely blown away by the Spring botany on the recent trip, particularly on the Bulgarian Steppe. It was a constant distraction (a very inspiring one) and basically almost stole the show from what I was trying to focus on in the field - the bird migration and regional Lepidoptera. I've recently downloaded the Plant Net app Download Here. The reviews seem good and as a tool for a botany dabbler (i.e. me) it seems to be a good tool, not sure on the accuracy though so would welcome any corrections to the identifications. More plants on the album HERE  .


Ox-eye , Adonis vernalis and Fern-leaved Peony,  Paeonia tenuifolia
Fern-leaved Peony, Paeonia tenuifolia
Ox-eye, Adonis vernalis
Cyanus lugdunensis
Herbaceous periwinkle 
Large Pheasant's-eye
Block Salsify
Sand Catch-fly
Ophrys passionis. (210521- actually more like Ophrys mammosa, see comments) 
Green-veined Orchid 
King's Spear, Asphodeline lutea

Friday 14 May 2021

Pied Wheatears and 'hybrid Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatears' at Cape Kaliakra, Bulgaria

*See postscript below for comments/feedback on this post including the uncertainties regarding the 'white-backed' Pied Wheatears of Cape Kaliakra.

Cape Kaliakra is famous for it's breeding population of Pied Wheatears. In previous years there have been regular reports of presumed hybrid Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (see ebird etc) and indeed this Spring several hybrid birds were present (at least three males). 

This post looks at some of the birds present in Spring 2021 (and also some birds from a previous autumn trip in 2019) and also compares a few songs and calls between presumed Pied Wheatears and hybrid Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatear.  


Spring Wheatears are arguably at their most striking and distinctive following the tips to the autumn/winter feathers wearing away to reveal the characteristic summer plumages. These birds provide the best basis for establishing the hybrid contingent within the local breeding population. Both presumed pure Pied and hybrids were holding territory and presumed to be breeding in the area. At least one male Pied Wheatear was ringed so the population is presumably under study (any more details would be greatly appreciated). 

Adult male Pied Wheatear
Adult male Pied Wheatears in Spring are clearly striking birds with jet black mantle and scapulars, wings, face and upper breast with the black on the breast solidly (unbroken) connected to the black upperparts in line with the scapulars. The crown and underparts are a contrasting bright white. In Spring the diagnostic tail pattern (see below) and the lack of white in the primaries in flight exclude Mourning/Maghreb Wheatear and Cyprus Pied Wheatear has generally warmer pale areas and shorter primary projection. Eastern Black-eared Wheatear differ in that the  face and breast patch is disconnected from the upperparts. In autumn identification is much more problematic (see below).  

The distinctive tail pattern of Pied Wheatear showing the inverted 'T'- shape with black extending up the outer webs of the outer most rectrices - a pattern shared with Black-eared Wheatear 
Male Pied Wheatear singing 
Calls of several female Pied Wheatear and male singing

First summer-male Pied Wheatear
First-summer male Pied Wheatears show clear moult contrasts and brown worn juvenile feathers in the wings. Typically they have dark markings on the crown. 

Female Pied Wheatear

A fairly typical female Pied Wheatear showing dark upperparts extending to upper breast, typical tail pattern and off-white underparts 
An unusual female bird showing extensive black on the throat 
At the other end of the spectrum was this rather pale looking female Pied Wheatear (perhaps a first-summer?). Considering female Pied and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears are difficult to separate on plumage presumably identifying a hybrid would be extremely challenging. 

Adult male hybrid Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Adult male Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (above and below). A striking bird, looking very much like a Finsch's Wheatear (with white mantle and white upperparts that connect with white rump), however the structure is different, the pale tones are too contrasting and critically the tail pattern is Pied-like with black extending up the outer rectrices. Separated mainly from a contrasting Eastern Black-eared Wheatear by black on throat connected to black on upperparts (clearly not connected on Eastern Black-eared). 

The tail pattern and extent of white on upperparts shown above and below

A stand off between a male hybrid (left) and male Pied Wheatear (right). The hybrid appears like a first-summer bird with head markings and contrast in the wing feathers.

Songs of male hybrid Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. The songs of Pied Wheatear and Black-eared Wheatear are very similar and it appears that the song of the hybrids is consistent with the same repertoire. Both hybrids and presumed pure birds used a lot of mimicry in the song with Wood and Green Sandpiper and Yellow Wagtail calls often repeated. I did not record any Eastern Black-eared Wheatears at the Cape this Spring and the only other breeding Wheatear there was Northern Wheatear.  The possibility that the hybrids might be Pied x Northern Wheatear should also be considered so I referred the sound recordings to Magnus Robb who commented that he could not hear any Northern Wheatear influence in the hybrid songs/calls and also confirmed that Pied and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear songs were extremely similar also noting that genetically they are also largely undifferentiated. An online search revealed that hybrid Pied x Black-eared Wheatears are regularly recorded in the range overlap zone.   

First-summer male hybrid Pied x Black-eared Wheatear

First-summer male hybrid Pied x Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (above) showing the typical first-summer markings on the head and also dark markings on the mantle 

This post is mainly focused on Spring birds from 2021 but for comparison here a few photos of autumn birds from Cape Kaliakra taken in 2019 with a few presumed/tentative identifications and comments. The possibility of pure Eastern Black-eared Wheatears on passage must also be considered in these photos (see comments on facebook post below for opinions of some of the identifications which indeed include suggestions of Eastern Black-Eared Wheatear). 

Adult male Pied Wheatears, September 2019. The extensive black bases to the mantle and scapulars feathers are clearly visible. The pale tips will wear off to generate the distinctive spring male summer plumages. 
A rather Eastern Black-eared Wheatear looking adult bird, September 2019. 
This first-winter bird look very Eastern Black-eared Wheatear like. Considering separating first-winter Pieds and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear can be extremely challenging, presumably identifying a hybrid could enter the realms of impossibility. 
Autumn female-type 
First-winter male bird 
A presumed female Pied Wheatear, typically cold toned with cold fringing to upperparts

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lee Dingain, Chris Townend and Magnus Robb for feedback/comments.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, Hadarom Shirihai and Lars Svennson 
Advanced Bird ID Handbook, The Western Palearctic, Nils Van Duivendijk
Collins Bird Guide 

*Postscript: Had some very interesting feedback on this post. Comments in facebook post below and links to research paper and photos of known hybrids from Iran. It is not certain whether the white-backed Pied Wheatears in Eastern Bulgaria/Romania are hybrids or represent a morph, research is on going and more revelations are due to be published in the near future.