Friday 31 May 2013

Mesoplodont Mystery

WARNING - the photos below are not for the squeamish, look away now if you are not a great gore fan!

We got a report of a cetacean down near Bunowen Pier at Ballyconneely last Monday night. We headed down the next morning to have a look. It turned out to be a beaked whale species. Unfortunately for identification purposes it was a female. Male beaked whales have distinctive teeth which greatly aids identification, however females lack these.
Our best guess is either a Sowerby's Beaked or True's Beaked Whale. There are only thirteen previous Sowerby's Beaked Whale records and eleven True's Beaked Whale records for Ireland so either would be quite rare. Some are leaning towards True's Beaked Whale but it may have to be eventually identified by DNA. It was 5.0m which suggests it was an adult animal. It's thought beaked whales (around 14 described species) mostly eat squid.
A team from GMIT/IWDG came out on Thursday and removed the stomach and intestines to examine the whales diet and also the head to aid identification. Again the photos below show part of the dissection which involved stripping off the blubber, cutting off most of the ribs with a large garden shears and the removal of the digestive tract. I've spared you the process of the head removal!

There were some recent strandings of True's Beaked Whales in Donegal, so to have this animal also stranded here is a little odd.
Alot of beaked whales have never been seen alive at sea and some species have only been described to science from a handful of stranded animals or washed up skulls.

Short piece about this stranding on the IWDG site here.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Armenia; Armash - Vedi

Final instalment of the Armenian trip. We spent an entire day at the much hyped Armash Fish Ponds on the way back North to Yerevan which was to be our base for the remainder of the trip. Armash has been described as one of the premier wetland areas in the Western Palearctic. Claims like that nearly always leave one disappointed. However this site lived up to its fame and for me exceeded expectations. The day spent birding here was one of the most enjoyable and productive days birding I've ever had. It's a huge area of manmade fish ponds very near the Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran border area. We only visited a small fraction of the area. Probably the one stand out aspect of the day were the sheer numbers of birds. We made a conservative estimate of 5000 White-winged Black Terns in the area and Sand Martins must have numbered in the tens of thousands. I've uploaded a video of one the ponds showing some of the White-winged Black Terns, Pygmy Cormorants, Coots, etc.
The warblers of the ponds were also amazing with Moustached, Caspian Reed, Great Reed, Paddyfield, Cetti's, Savi's, Eastern Olivaceous and Menetries Warblers all seen during the day. Bearded Tits were particularly numerous in spots. Just to give an idea of the quality of the birding on the day here's a list of wetland species I managed to see myself - Ruddy Shelduck, Gadwall, Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, White-headed Duck, Little & Great crested Grebe, Pygmy Cormorant, Little Bittern, Little Egret, Black-crowned Night (particularly numerous), Squacco, Grey & Purple Herons, White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Marsh Harrier, Osprey (one and only one of the entire trip), Moorhen, Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Collared Pratincole, Little Ringed, Ringed, Kentish & Grey Plover, Lapwing, Little Stint, Ruff, Black-tailed & Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank, Greenshank, Wood & Common Sandpiper, Turnstone, Red-necked Phalarope, Black-headed, Slender-billed, Caspian, Armenian Gulls, Gull-billed, Common, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns. Add to this Blue-cheeked & European Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Roller, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Bearded Tit and Rose-coloured Starling.
Paul and a few others had distant flight views of a White-tailed Lapwing but I just couldn't get onto it. We ended up being about 2 or 3 hours late getting back to the hotel in the centre of Yerevan but it was definitely worth it!

One of the many fish ponds at Armash. Those are mostly Sand Martins on the wires.

The lads trudging through extremely sticky clingy soil, a bit of a work-out!

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Pair of Feruginous Ducks, common at Armash.

White-winged Black Terns mostly.

The next day we headed on up to Mount Ararat where we easily caught up with the rather understated Raddes Accentor in Juniper scrub.

Amberd Church

White-throated Robin

Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Bunting

Rock Thrush

Lesser Spotted Eagle, digiscoped from within the bus with the window closed, not bad considering.


Fruitless search in the clouds for Crimson-winged Finches.

The Greater and Lesser Ararats, Turkey, Noah's old hangout.
Our last full day was spent in the Vedi area. Although we missed the Mongolian Finch target the brilliant selection of quality species made up for the miss. It was an excellent day for birds of prey. At the end of the wadi which overlooks a largely flat plain with a not too distant hill peaks we had Black Kite, Lammergeier, Egyptian, Griffon, Black Vultures, Short-toed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Steppe, Long-legged & Honey Buzzards, Golden & Booted Eagles, Kestrel and Hobby, an amazing selection.

Vedi Wadi

Vedi Wadi

Eastern Rock Nuthatch at empty nest.

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Male Finsch's Wheatear

Long-legged Buzzard

Upcher's Warbler

Isabelline Wheatear

Black Vulture

Grey-necked Bunting

Black-headed Bunting

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In the end we had a total of about 225 in Armenia and only had around 10 species in Georgia that we didn't have in Armenia. I managed to get 22 ticks for my trouble - White-headed Duck, Caucasian Black Grouse, Caucasian Snowcock, Caspian Snowcock, Levant's Sparrowhawk, Armenian Gull, Bimaculated Lark, Raddes Accentor, Alpine Accentor, White-throated Robin, Finsch's Wheatear, Persian Wheatear, Moustached Warbler, Upcher's Warbler, Menetries Warbler, Green Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Alpine Chough, White-winged Snowfinch, Red-fronted Serin and Great Rosefinch.
I've only just sent off the 7d and the lens for repair - still hurts ;-)

Thursday 23 May 2013

Armenia; Megri & Sisian

We pushed on to Meghri which is located just a few kilometres away from the Iranian border. Our accommodation for the next two nights here could best be described as "rustic". Breakfast consisted of an egg and bread with butter or cheese. Otherwise the food during the duration of the trip really was fantastic.
We moved right down to the sensitive area next to the border to a disused quarry at the entrance of a large wadi/valley to look for Persian Wheatear. We managed to pick up at least one pair here who were feeding very recently fledged young. Also seen here over the evening and the following day were Upcher's Warblers, Chuckar, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Sombre Tit, Eastern & Western Rock Nuthatch, lots of Eastern Orphean Warblers, Red-backed, Woodchat & Lesser Grey Shrikes and Black-headed Bunting.

We also tried for Caspian Snowcock during our two day stay. We managed to get one distant view of a single bird but despite hiking up after it we didn't have any others. Great views of Rock Thrushes, Alpine Accentor, Shore Lark and Twite up there also.

On the long way back North we jammed in on a pair of Bimaculated Larks in a ploughed field near Sisian. Some of the ploughed fields in this area were filled with resident and migrant species such as Northern Wheatears, Whinchat, Skylark, Horned Lark, Water Pipit, Red-throated Pipits, Goldfinch, Linnet, Twite and Ortolan Bunting. Some of the migrants well probably grounded by dank misty conditions. We also had a few flocks of Wood Sandpipers and White-winged Black Terns flying over arable and grass fields.

Persian/Red-tailed Wheatear

Persian/Red-tailed Wheatear

Upcher's Warbler, birds don't get more exciting than this...

brevirostris Twite

Alpine Accentor

Lesser Grey Shrike

Our transport up to the Caspian Snowcock site.
Left to right; myself, Paul French, Wilton Farrelly, Ian Graham, Garry Armstrong & Davy Steele with Iran in the background to the left.

I think this just the local race of Brown Hare? This guy was up at 2950m

Paul just about to open a randomly placed fridge at a isolated picnic spot, just anticipating someone to jump out at him.


Monkey Orchid

Bimaculated Lark

Monday 20 May 2013

Armenia; Dilijan to Yeghegnadzor

So onto Armenian. We collected Paul in Tbilisi on the way South. We had a singing Nightingale in no man's land while walking between the border of Georgia and Armenian, not countable on either country list?
We had our first encounter with close proximity of the Azerbaijan border, the first of many. A lot of houses were abandoned in the area due to previous conflict and ongoing sniping from each end. Several military are killed yearly on each side still, not the best areas to bird in!

Near Voskepar (I  think) with Azerbaijan in the background.
Our first real stop and overnighter was at the beechwoods of Dilijan. We stayed in some ex-Soviet holiday homes which had all seen better days. Some of the dwellings we encountered both in Georgia and Armenia were so dilapidated it was often hard to make out if they were occupied. Another odd feature of some of the two-storey houses was that only the ground floor would be live in with the first floor just being a complete shell.
Anyway the beechwoods at Dilijan were excellent with a large selection of woodland species. The main target here was Green Warbler. They were without doubt the commonest warbler present in the woods that evening and the following dawn. We had managed to miss them at Kazbegi, possibly a little early although Paul had a few the previous week there. Other good species seen included breeding Lesser Spotted Eagles, Middle spotted Woodpecker, Red-breasted Flycatcher (no Semi-collared Flycatcher though), samamisicus Common Redstart, Hawfinch and Common Rosefinch.

Dilijan, nice spot for Middle spotted Woodpecker...
Next day we continued on South and spent a few good hours around Sevan Lake, one of the largest high attitude (1900m) freshwater lakes in the world. It's also home to a large proportion of the world population of Armenian Gull.

Black-headed Wagtail

Adult Armenian Gulls

Adult Armenian Gull

Adult Armenian Gull
Adult Armenian Gull

Adult Armenian Gull (head & bill structure vaguely cachinnans-like)

Third-summer type Armenian Gull.

Glossy Ibis

Male-type Red-throated Pipit

Female-type Red-throated Pipit

caspia Reed Bunting, nice thick bill and pale rump area.

Female Ortolan Bunting

Armenian Gull colony in the background.

Azerbaijan border with the defensive structures (Hesco-like bastions) along ridgeline.
Further South we jammed in on a male Finsch's Wheatear. Just on the far side of Yeghegnadzor the following morning we had a great selection of birds in a semi-arid valley which included three lifers for myself - Levant's Sparrowhawk, White-throated Robin and Eastern Rock Nuthatch. also here were Western Rock Nuthatch, Black-eared Wheatear, Rock Sparrow and Black-headed Bunting.

Valley between Yeghegnadzor and Vayk.

Eastern Rock Nuthatch

White-throated Robin

Lesser Kestrel colony.

Spandarian Reservoir

Finsch's Wheatear