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Raptor watchers at Sagres Peninsula, Portugal. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

By Tim Gallagher

As I write, the temperature outside my office at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology hovers at 4 degrees Fahrenheit and is expected to drop to -8 tonight, not counting wind chill, so perhaps I can be forgiven for daydreaming about birding in warm places, where people (and birds) flock to escape the ravages of winter. One such place is Portugal—a tiny nation at the far southwest of Europe, which I was fortunate enough to visit this past October.

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Mertola is a spectacular hilltop town in southwestern Portugal, right in the heart of great birding country. It’s Moorish and Roman ruins illustrate a fascinating history going back over 1,500 years. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

As a birding destination, Portugal has been greatly neglected. (Just ask any Portuguese birder or tour guide.) The problem is that the vast majority of tourists opt to visit the country’s nearest neighbor, Spain—which is too bad, because Portugal has a lot to offer, especially for birders. Don’t get me wrong: Spain is wonderful. But it’s a huge country, taking up more than 75 percent of the Iberian Peninsula, which it shares with Portugal. To see all of Spain’s avian specialties, you need to cover a lot of miles, whereas Portugal is tiny and shares most of the same birds.

I’m writing a feature about birding in Portugal for an upcoming issue of Living Bird, but I thought I’d offer a sneak peek at the article in this blog post, covering a few of the places we visited—just in case any of you are looking to take a midwinter trip to a warm and very bird-rich place.

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A Black-tailed Godwit. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

I had a very able host in João Jara—one of the country’s preeminent birders and nature guides. He invited me (along with Matt Merritt, editor of the popular British magazine, Bird Watching) to spend a week traveling with him through southwestern Portugal, sampling its abundant birdlife. What amazed me most after João picked us up at Lisbon Airport was how quickly we were in the field birding. Less than 30 minutes after loading our luggage into the back of his car, we arrived at the edge of a tidal mudflat in the Tagus Estuary, one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

João stood like a statue at his spotting scope—scanning shorebird flocks with all the intensity of a microbiologist peering through a microscope at swarms of bacteria, trying to spot one that’s slightly different. It has definitely paid off for him. Over the years he has turned up an amazing array of rarities—for example, the first Surf Scoter ever recorded in Portugal and numerous second, third, and fourth sightings for the country, such as Black-throated Diver, Slovonian Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Blue-winged Teal, Pink-footed Goose, Marbled Teal, American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, etc., etc., etc. (He also found Portugal’s first nesting pair of Glossy Ibis.)

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Bonelli’s Eagle can be seen year-round in Portugal. Photo by J. Muchaxo.

On this day, João quickly pointed out a Marsh Sandpiper—an eastern European species that usually has only two or three sightings a year in Portugal. A short time later, we headed to a nearby semi-open area with numerous cork trees and enjoyed close-up views of a Black-shouldered Kite. We then moved farther up the estuary, which abounded with Greater Flamingos, foraging in the shallow water and flying past overhead. We also encountered a Bonelli’s Eagle, which made a spectacular diving attack on a Northern Lapwing, and barely missed capturing the bird. But some of our best raptor sightings took place a couple of days later in the steppe country near Castro Verde.

Driving there, we entered a land of parched, rocky hills, covered with dry grass, which reminded me of parts of Central California, except that all of the birds were different. On this day, often driving on dirt roads, we searched for Great Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and various raptors. (I should admit here that I’m a complete raptor freak!) We checked several places and finally heard a sandgrouse calling. An instant later, a flock of 17 flew past us and landed nearby. (We didn’t find any Great Bustards until the following morning.)

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A Spanish Imperial Eagle, one of Portugal’s most impressive raptors. Photo by P. Brueckner.

Then we got into raptor-search mode. João drove us to a place across from a vineyard, a high hill with rocky outcroppings on top—the known territory of a Spanish Imperial Eagle pair. We waited for half an hour in the blazing sun without a sighting, but João was sure something would happen soon. And it did. A pair of the spectacular eagles came soaring in at the top of the hill. We heard the female’s call, sounding almost raven-like, followed soon after by the male’s, which reminded me of the bark of a small dog. We gazed upward at the soaring male for a long time, and also had a flyover by a Bonelli’s Eagle. It was all good—but it soon got better.

As we were driving to another area, a juvenile Golden Eagle emerged on our right from the valley below, barely above eye level at first as it circled upward on a thermal. We parked and stood outside the car with our binoculars trained on her as she soared higher and higher in the warming afternoon air. Suddenly a Spanish Imperial Eagle came diving down with a great swoosh to drive off the intruder. After a couple of skirmishes high in the sky, an enormous Eurasian Black (Cinereous) Vulture appeared nearby, which was more than the Imperial could stand. Breaking away from the Golden Eagle, it plummeted downward, making a spectacular stoop across the sky at the huge vulture, which was almost as large as an Andean Condor. And then three Griffon Vultures materialized in the open blue sky. We were ecstatic as we followed the action unfolding above us—an angry eagle with bunch of big raptors to chase. As I told João and Matt, for me, raptor watching doesn’t get any better than this—so many birds, so much beautiful flying in such a short space of time. But then, a couple of days later, we headed to Sagres, the southwesternmost tip of Europe, and I had to eat my words.

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On the Sagres Peninsula, concentrations of soaring birds gather looking for the best route across the sea to Africa. Here, a Eurasian Black Vulture circles overhead. Photo by A. Ferrer-Correia.

Sagres is a narrow peninsula where southbound migrating raptors congregate before attempting to fly across the sea en route to Africa. The only problem is, there’s too much water for them to cross at this point—some 400 kilometers of open sea—and the birds have to circle back and find their way south to the Strait of Gibraltar, the closest point between Europe and Africa, where the water crossing is only about 14.3 kilometers (8.7 miles) wide. So you get great concentrations of soaring birds. This day was no exception. We drove out a long dirt road to a semi-open area with a scattering of small conifers. As the morning warmed up, the skies filled with soaring raptors—Booted Eagle, Eurasian Black Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard. We stood with a dozen or more other birders, intently scanning the sky above us with binoculars and scopes.

Of course, it wasn’t long before João came up with another rarity: a Pallid Harrier—a species of eastern Europe and Central Asia that virtually never shows up this far west. Photos of the bird have been submitted to the country’s rarities committee, and if the sighting is accepted, it will be only the fourth or fifth record of the species in Portugal. Score another big tick for João!

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A close-up flyby by Great Shearwater. Photo by Tim Gallagher

We decided to spend the last afternoon of our Portugal adventure going on a half-day pelagic birding trip from nearby Sagres Harbor. We sailed aboard a large inflated craft—basically a huge Zodiac with a row of forward-facing saddles on each side. And it was amazing, at times like a wild bronco ride as we bucked the waves en route to and from the continental shelf, about 10 miles out. But it was well worth it. We saw a scattering of Northern Gannets soon after leaving the harbor, but it got better and better the farther we went from shore. Soon we were getting close-up flybys by Wilson’s Storm-Petrels as well as Cory’s, Balearic, and Great Shearwaters, as Matt and I fired away happily with our cameras, nailing numerous full-frame pictures. As a bonus, we also saw (and photographed) numerous marine mammals, such as harbor porpoises, bottle-nosed dolphins, and even a minke whale.

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White Storks used to be considered only summer residents, but in recent years, some have been staying in Portugal over winter. Others return from their African wintering grounds starting in February and March. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

As the winter weather turns ever colder in Ithaca, I find myself daydreaming more and more about Portugal, where the days are balmy and filled with opportunities to see all the great birds that have fled from the frigid climes of northern Europe. For many aquatic birds, such as flamingos, spoonbills, ibises, waders, herons, egrets, cormorants, ducks, geese, coots, and gulls, winter is a peak time to see them in the wetlands of southern Portugal. Some birds traditionally considered summer residents—White Stork, Black-winged Stilt, and Hoopoe—have been wintering there in recent years. And many summer species— Lesser Kestrel, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Yellow Wagtail, Black Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Black Stork—begin arriving from Africa in February and March, so it’s definitely not too early to think about taking an impromptu birding excursion to Portugal.

For more information about birding in Portugal:

 

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By Jessie Barry

As winter’s chill sets in, ducks are heating things up. Winter is the season when many ducks pick their mate for the year. Our featured video gives you a mash-up of some of the best duck mating behaviors from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library. Watch for these behaviors on neighborhood ponds, lakes, and rivers that don’t freeze over.

Most species of ducks find a different mate each year. Many waterfowl pair bonds form between the months of December and March on the wintering grounds or during spring migration, which is different from songbirds that find their mate after they arrive on their breeding grounds spring.

In waterfowl mating, it’s the female’s choice. Groups of males perform for the female, and she picks her favorite drake with the best plumage and the best display. Some waterfowl species have some incredible courtship moves, such as the Head-Throw-Kick performed by Common Goldeneye and the Salute-Curtsy signature move of a Red-breasted Merganser. These are ritualized behaviors— members of the same species perform the same display that is hard-wired into their genetic makeup. Courtship displays range from elaborate postures to subtle gestures that you may notice only if you are watching for them.

Commonly Seen Mallard Courtship Behaviors

To see duck courtship in action, find a group of Mallards and take a minute to watch what they are doing. Most of the time they’ll probably be feeding or resting, but if they’re actively swimming around, watch for these behaviors.

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Head-Pumping: Males and females rhythmically bob their heads. This display is often repeated and followed by mating.

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Head-Up-Tail-Up: With a loud whistle, the drake pulls his wings and tail up, shows off his purple-blue secondaries and compresses his body. This is a quick gesture, often given by males in a group to impress the female.

P10 Grunt-whistle

Grunt-Whistle: A one-second display where the male raises out of the water, pulls his head up, and gives a remarkable whistle, followed by a grunt as he moves back into a normal posture. Often given by groups of males to show off for females.

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Nod-Swimming: A male or female swims rapidly for a short distance with its neck held low, just grazing the surface of the water. Females use it to express they are interested in courtship and stimulate the nearby males to display. Males perform this display during bouts of Head-Up-Tail-Up display and immediately after mating.

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A Common Goldeneye performs a Head-Throw-Kick. Photo by Cos van Wermeskerken/GBBC.

 

Looking for ducks this winter? Over the course of the winter waterfowl shift south as frigid lakes of Canada and the northern U.S. freeze over. National Wildlife Refuges, coastal bays, reservoirs, and warm-water outflows can have incredible duck concentrations! Check out eBird under the ‘Explore Data’ tab for recent sightings near you.

 

Find out more about ducks and bird courtship:

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SnowyOwl-Mandel

By Pat Leonard. Top image: Snowy Owl by Missy Mandel/GBBC.

Last year’s blizzard of Snowy Owls in the Great Lakes states, the Northeast, and down the Atlantic Coast was epic, an unprecedented irruption.

Now some birders are asking, is it happening again?

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This winter Snowy Owl reports are lighting up eBird maps for the Northeast and Great Lakes. (Click on image for a larger map, and see eBird’s Snowy Owl map for more locations.)

Snowy Owls are being seen and reported on eBird this winter across the northern-third of the Lower 48 states from Washington state to Maine, with some reports of snowies as far south as Oklahoma and Maryland.

Scientists surmise that last year’s large southward sweep of Bubo scandiacus east of the Mississippi River was triggered by a record nesting season among the breeding population in northern Quebec. When it came time for fledglings to disperse, some among the bumper crop of young snowies had to travel far south to find food. The majority of Snowy Owls seen in the Lower 48 states last year were young males.

This past summer, there was another bumper crop—this time in Nunavut. Researchers from Canada’s Laval University reported record numbers of Snowy Owls nesting on Bylot Island. The previous high found in and around their research plot was 33 nests in 2010; this year they found 116 nests.

So this winter’s Snowy Owls could be returnees from northern Ontario, new birds from Nunavut, or a mix of both. A Snowy Owl geotracking effort called Project SNOWstorm may help answer that question. (See Science from a Snowstorm below.)

Comparing the frequency of Snowy Owls reported on eBird checklists in the Northeast shows that so far this has been a good winter for snows…but nothing like last year. Graph from The Cornell Lab’s Birdcast article, Species on the move: Snowy Owl.

According to Marshall Iliff, a project leader on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird team, this year’s winter Snowy Owl flight into the Lower 48 is impressive but not at the scale of last year’s irruption. For comparison, last winter a 5-state block in the Northeast had more than 8,000 reports of Snowy Owls from November to January. This winter that same block has had 1,200 snowy reports so far.

Still, Iliff says, it’s an above-average winter for snowies.

“This flight can be thought of as an echo flight,” said Iliff. “Echo flights are above average flight years following a very above average year. The exact cause is unknown and might be related to good summer food resources [lemmings] continuing from the previous year, another region with above average food resources, or possibly one-year-old birds returning south via last year’s route.”

For up-to-date reports on where snowies are being seen this winter, check out this custom eBird Snowy Owl map. You can also sign up for eBird’s Snowy Owl alert service.

Science from a Snowstorm

Very little is known about where Snowy Owls go when they travel back north after an irruption. So with snowies in spades last winter, noted naturalist/author Scott Weidensaul helped organize a scientific effort called Project SNOWstorm to put solar-powered data loggers on Snowy Owls and track their movements.

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A Snowy Owl with a Project SNOWstorm solar-powered data logger on its back is helping scientists learn more about where Snowy Owls go when they travel back north after an irruption. Photo by Alan Richard.

Last winter the project tagged 22 owls in 7 states. Now they’re waiting for some of these owls to return. Their data loggers will download automatically once they’re within cellular signal range.

So far this winter three tagged owls have flown back within cell range in southern Ontario. The downloaded data from one owl showed that it flew 1,200 miles north from where it was tagged in Erie, Pennsylvania, to spend summer in the subarctic tundra near the Hudson Strait. This may be where this owl was born, since it’s the area of northern Quebec that had a record Snowy Owl nesting season. By October, the owl had flown back south to the St. Lawrence River Valley along the Ontario–New York border.

The SNOWstorm team hopes to tag another eight to 10 owls this winter. If they do, scientists may be able to determine if this winter’s owls return to Ontario, Nunavut, or somewhere else during the breeding season.

To see project updates, visit the Project SNOWstorm blog.

 

For more about Snowy Owls:

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TKingbird-Hall

By Jennie Miller. Top image: Tropical Kingbird by Penny Hall via Birdshare.

For most birders, there’s almost always an opportunity to add a new species to a list—a migrant, a vagrant, an irruptive, or just a bird that you’ve never been able to nail down.

If you use eBird, then eBirds’s new Targets app can make it easy to tack on those easy gets, and get your most wanted birds, wherever you are and at any time of year.

Simply enter your location and time period, then sit back while eBird cross-references your current life list against birds seen by others in that region. eBird Targets will give you a list of your missing species, along with the frequency of how often they’re seen (so you can gauge your chances of getting them) and a link to a map of spots where they’re being seen.

Use eBird Targets around your home to spend a quick morning filling out a few missing species on your list. Or use it for trip planning when you’re going on vacation and want to target the best spots for getting some new birds.

Here’s an example. Say you’re headed to Puerto Vallarta for a little winter respite. As you pack your bags and your binos, spend a few minutes with eBird Targets to hatch your game plan for adding Mexican birds to your life list. First, specify your dates and destination (in this case, the state of Jalisco).

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Then, eBird does the math to list and sort your soon-to-be lifers in order of how likely you are to see them.target2

Fianlly, eBird gives you a map of where you may find the birds you’re looking for. In this case, Tropical Kingbirds abound, just steps from your hotel!target3B

For more about eBird and how it can be part of your travel plans, check out:

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