Sunday, May 28, 2023

Ixobrychus minutus

Today I share pictures and thoughts about Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus,  the smallest of the breeding herons of Europe, a shy, secretive bird, a species seen on a recent trip to Skiathos, Greece. This is a much sought after bird by British birders, one that rarely occurs here but one that causes a stir when it does. I have seen Little Bitterns in the Mediterranean and in the UK too, but have never watched them as closely and for such long periods as the ones in Skiathos. Click the pics for  large size pictures.

Wherever it occurs the Little Bittern is uncommon to locally fairly common but secretive and easily overlooked. This is a tough bird to see because of its tiny size,about that of a pigeon, and its plumage and camouflage skills. Little Bitterns like fresh marshes and wetlands with reed beds, where they clamber high in reeds as well as feeding low along edges. Most likely to be seen in flight, early or late in the day, low over reed beds. Very small for a heron, and rich buffy overall with black cap. A large pale panel on upper wing visible in flight; male has dark back, female back streaked. 

Little Bittern - Bright green = summer. Dark Green = winter.
I thought I got lucky in May 2022 when for a day or two I had close views of a female Little Bittern. On some days it would slide through the reeds and then seemingly disappear; but it was there, silent, immobile and made invisible by its camouflaged colours of reed stems, greenery and sunlight, waiting for me the intruder to leave. 

Little Bittern
Little Bittern

And then in early May 2023 I had the extreme good fortune of finding an altogether more accommodating male Little Bittern in the exact same spot. Here I was able to pick & choose to watch over several days of our fourteen day trip to the island. Luckily the bittern was just yards from a favourite beach where long suffering wife Sue was able to indulge my obsession while enjoying the Greek sunshine. 

Little Bittern

Little Bittern

Little Bittern
The bitterns were in perhaps the most unlikely looking spot, a three foot wide reed lined ditch fed by water run off from the nearby hills mixed with saline water from the Aegean Sea just metres away. The giant reeds of Skiathos are more like a bamboo, very tall, dense and extremely tough, quite unlike the phragmites reed of the UK. 

Aselinos, Skiathos
The ditch contained a fair amount of detritus that is found on so many beaches of today’s world - lumps of polystyrene, drink cans, plastics and paper cups. All in all, not a salubrious spot to bird! However the ditch holds a population of Greek stream frog Rana graeca, an attraction that explains the continued presence of a predator like Little Bittern. 

Greek stream frog Rana graeca

Greek stream frog Rana graeca

The bittern faced another hazard in the form of the local herd of 50/70 goats which roam the hills and fields of the north of Skiathos where the mix of landscape provides variety to their all inclusive diet. The goat’s regular route in 2023 included a five minute crash through the bittern’s favourite patch of mud and reed where they grabbed a munch of bamboo before moving along the buffet trail.

Goats of Skiathos

Goat Dog and Goatherd

All the while, the bittern watched and then came back to feed once the animals had moved on. 

Little Bittern 

Little Bittern

Little Bittern
Little Bittern
Little Bittern

The list of “Birds of Island of Skiathos” (sic), The Systematic Classification of Skiathos Birds”, Presidential Decree 86/1969 Greek Legislation” does not include Little Bittern. The list is rather short, containing a modest list of species with a number of both likely and definite omissions, species I have seen on the island over a number of years e.g. Great Egret, Red-throated Pipit, Richard’s Pipit, Lesser Grey Shrike, Wryneck, Whinchat. 

The lack of a complete list is not wholly surprising as Skiathos has no resident birdwatchers and very few visiting birders to what is essentially a tourist destination of sunny beaches with limited birding opportunities. And dare I say, the birding concept has yet to catch on here. The average Greek would never be seen out birdwatching with a pair of binoculars around their neck, least of all, a Greek man! 

There is no doubt that Little Bitterns are scattered across Skiathos at least in the springtime. Whether they breed on the island is anyone's guess. There is a large population of Little Bitterns at Lake Mikra in Macedonia, Northern Greece and it could be that early May sightings in Skiathos are migrant birds heading north. 

In Skiathos there’s lots of reedy bamboo and a good population of frogs to be had from reed lined drainage ditches that run from the hills down to the coast. I got lucky by not having to sit around for hours looking in likely spots as tourists in shorts and T shirts hung around nearby bars, beaches and sunbeds while giving me curious looks. Each to his own. 

Will I be going back to Skiathos and being the only birder on the island? You bet. 

Fifteen weeks to go and counting.  I’m sure I can add to that list again when those September birds come along.



Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Goldfinch To France

News arrived of juvenile Goldfinch ALP8579 we caught and ringed at Oakenclough on 17 August 2022, when according to this blog : ‘Nothing much happened except for visible migration of more than 120 Swallows heading west in small groups together with several House Martins and a single Sand Martin. Invisible migration/new arrivals consisted of just 11 captures - 3 Blackcap, 2 Willow Warbler, 2 Meadow Pipit, 2 Goldfinch, 1 Goldcrest and 1 Chaffinch.’ 

Well something certainly happened later because one of those two Goldfinches was recaptured by French ringers on 7 January 2023 at Montmorillon, Vienne, some 143 days and 873 kms after our first capture. 

Goldfinch to France 2022 - 2023
Juvenile Goldfinch (3J)
Goldfinch migration -
From “Ringing recoveries identify three main connections between breeding populations and wintering regions. Birds from the British Isles move to the continent in a S or SE direction, with most winter records from the Netherlands to Spain (a few in Morocco). Birds from West, Central and East Europe move to the SW, though population from northern Italy, the Balkans up to Poland and the Baltic states move either to South West or to South East Europe. Birds recovered in North Africa (mainly Morocco) originates from South West but also West Europe.” 

Our UK Goldfinches are more migratory than many people realise, perhaps more noticeable when a garden that is usually full of Goldfinches becomes less crowded at the onset of cold weather. Our Goldfinch ALP8578 conformed to the migration behaviour and routes shown above. As a young bird born in the summer of 2022 it was just a matter of weeks before its inherited genes and DNA kicked in and sent it flying to the south of France many miles from its birth place. 

Log in again soon bird lovers. I think we are catching Sand Martins later in the week if winds stay low and from the east. 

Linking today to Eileen's Saturday.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Greek Delight

Back home now from our favourite Greek island. Here’s a picture or two of birds and Skiathos the place. Click the pics for close-ups. 

The locals told us that this May had been the coldest Skiathos for forty years. For us the northerly breezes meant cool mornings and chilly evenings but the days stayed dry. A number of cloudy days meant that photography was often in poor light but on sunny days Skiathos was as captivating as ever. We took full advantage of every single day with some on the beach, wandering around Skiathos Town or simply enjoying the landscape. 

The Bee Eater fest of Week One continued into the second week. Every single day we would either see or hear gangs of European Bee Eaters overhead, sometimes so high that they were barely visible, other times in view at moderate height but still too high for photos. Just one day I got lucky when a gang of 80 or more spent time around the area of Aselinos beach and when I grabbed a couple of shots into poor light. 

Bee Eaters

Bee Eaters

I am not sure if Bee Eaters breed on Skiathos. It seems more likely that many thousands pass through this part of Greece in the spring and autumn as part of the estimated European population size of 78-90 million individuals and a distribution area extending  over 55.7 million km². While a single Bee Eater can eat as many as 250 bees a day, 80% of their overall diet, it is thought this mainly bee diet has little or no impact upon the bee populations. With the species so numerous and widely distributed is is surprising that they don't occur in the UK more than they do currently. Perhaps that final flight across the English Channel is too much after travelling from deepest Africa?
Distribution of European Bee Eaters

Shrikes continued to be a feature of the scrubby fields, scattered trees and even roadsides where there is roadkill or insect activity. We had one or two sightings of Woodchat Shrike but multiples of Red-backed Shrike. The female shrikes seemed much more likely to hang around for a photo while the males proved very unwilling to be pictured.

Red-backed Shrike

Woodchat Shrike

Red-backed Shrike

Mid week brought a bird I’d not seen in many a year, a Lesser Grey Shrike. It’s a species rarely seen in the UK but one that is widespread in Central and Eastern Europe. 

I spotted a grey shrike on a post some 200 yards ahead while driving to Aselinos beach and thought it could be either Great Grey Shrike or Lesser Grey Shrike. On closer approach and because the bird was fairly obliging, I could name it as the Lesser Grey Shrike after its deep chunky bill, white feather patch in the tail, pinkish breast and long primary feathers.  Black eye in a black mask = always a difficult one!

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike

Closer to our base of Spiti Oneiro/Dream House we found a Little Owl, a common enough bird of the island but infinitely shyer than the UK equivalent. The Scops Owl is the most common of the Skiathos owls, one heard and seen at dawn and dusk, the Little Owl less vocal and very difficult to see. 

After a few clicks of the camera our Little Owl would sometimes disappear into the confines of the dilapidated shed upon which it sat. And when a noisy dog protested at our parking close to his property is it my imagination that the owl was not pleased to be disturbed from its afternoon nap?

Little Owl

Little Owl

More pictures below of the island landscape, views around town together with time spent at the boatyard. You see, Skiathos the island and Skiathos Town are places of work and normal life that the islanders are happy to share with tourists from far and wide who are eager to experience this unique and beautiful island.

Skiathos Town, Papadiamontis Street

View from Plakes

View from the hills above Skiathos Town

View from the boatyard

Mending Nets

More Tourists

A dead Leatherback

Don't attempt this at home!

Boatyard scrapyard

Making a new mast


Dino's Skiathos Town

Goat Dog

Meating point café

Bourtzi, Skiathos Town


At the airport


30 Euros a day


Supply Ship

"A knapsack on my back"

Shoring Up

View from Plakes

Skiathos Trails

Greek Delight

Other birds seen - Nightingale, Turtle Dove, Sardinian Warbler, Little Bittern, Little Egret, Roller, Whichat Black-headed Bunting, Hobby Collared Dove, Yellow-legged Gull, Barn Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow, Marsh Warbler, Reed Warbler, Scops Owl, Buzzard.

Back soon. Don't go away

Linking this weekend to Eileen's Saturday Blog and Anni in Texas.

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