26 Jun 2016

26 June 16 - European Bins & Scopes To Be Banned

Following the tumultuous vote in the British Union For Ornithology (BUFO) referendum on the question "Do you wish to Remain to be allowed to use European Optics" or "Leave the European Optics alone", then there have been traumatic times for British Birders in the last few days.

With the vote unexpectedly going in favour of the Leave campaign, then there have been major drops on the FTSE & sterling. The Leave team had campaigned to stop Birders from being able to buy expensive European optics. As a result, shares in camera and optics companies have plummeted on the news of their victory. Similar big drops in the share prices of banks have occurred as Birders will no longer be asking for loans to buy expensive optics.

The Outers, who had no plan for the future, have reacted to the news of their victory with joy, but panic (as they never expected to win). When asked for his thoughts & his favourite optics, the leader of the Leave campaign, John Boriston said "Cripes. So we won, crikey. Old JoBo's favourite optics have always been my eyes. I've always been a keen birdwatcher & I'm especially keen on those two-legged Birds". At that point, he saw a good looking Bird go past & cut the interview short to cycle after her.

Another Leave supporter quietly admitted "I only voted Leave, so I could moan for the next few years, everything was the fault of the Remain camp. What have I done?".

Another more candid comment came from an unnamed Birder who said "I could never afford the prices of a pair of Leica or Swarovski bins on my benefits. Therefore, it was natural I voted Leave. Why should other Birders have what I can't afford? If the Remain camp were serious, then they should have increased my benefits, not cut them".

Many Birders woken up shocked & stunned, at the Leave news on Friday morning. A Birder who didn't want to be named, told our reporter "The problem is the referendum was opened up to the wrong people. The decision should have been left to the experts, namely Birders. We care passionately about our optics. By opening the referendum up to the families of Birders, then you allowed my wife a vote as well. She was swayed by the Outer's promise, that if I wasn't spending the money we should have being saving to allow our children to go to university, then she could have a new kitchen. Where the logic in that?". He the added "Please don't publish my name as I can't afford a divorce at the moment, especially as I still have to pay off my now worthless telescope for the next two years. I only told my wife about the initial deposit, not the monthly repayments. She hasn't spotted my new camera body either".

Perhaps the strongest opposition have come from the Next Generation Birders (NGB) community of Birders, who are all under 25. One prominent NGB Birder said "I will be permanently in debt for many years to come. My bank refused me a huge expensive loan to buy my European optics. My only option was to go to university & spend much of my student loan to buy a top of the range Swarovski bins & telescope. Now I have to study for the next two years & I don't know where the money for that will come from".

As the pound crashed following the news of the Leave vote & the expected ban on European optics, then traders rushed to put their money into the traditional safe havens of gold & silver. But market watchers were surprised that the price of scrap brass doubled in the first hours after the result was announced. Initially this confused market analysts, until news started filtering out that the only British telescopes ever made were a long forgotten range of brass draw tube telescopes. It is thought they will be the only ones allowed in the future.

This has led to long retired Birdwatchers searching their lofts for their old brass draw tube & up to now, worthless telescopes. Back in the 60s & 70s, keen seawatchers could be seen huddled stretched out on cold beaches using long brass draw tube telescopes looking out to sea. Photos are rare of these telescopes, but check out this photo of one in use at the first British Forster's Tern twitch.

In the 80s, the first of the new generation telescopes appeared and Birders suddenly realised you didn't need to lie down on a cold sloping beach & balance a five foot long brass telescope on your feet. Instead you could see more using a modern shorter, light-weight, telescope balanced on a tripod. The European telescope manufacturers flooded the UK market & Birders quickly dumped their useless telescopes, putting the UK telescope companies out of business.

NGB Birders have complained, the result of the referendum is the fault of the Birding Old Timers (BOT). It's alright for the BOTs, they still have their old optics. We can't afford to buy these antique telscopes, whereas they still have them. It's bad enough that the BOTs all have big lists, whereas we still have to race off all the time to slowly try to close the huge gaps in our lists. But now they have the only optics that are likely to be legal to use in the future. They won't even complain that the quality of the optics is poor, as they will assume it their failing eyesight anyway & just book up for another eye test. It's so unfair.

2 Jun 2016

2 Jun 16 - The Final Finnish Ticks

I was half way through the second Finnature trip on my Owl trip to Finland with Mark Edgeller, Andy Rhodes & Simon Ingram. It was only 06:30 in the morning, but we had met the guide Olli at 03:00 & been at a hard Birding pace since we started. In the previous Blog Post, I had covered some of the crazy species seen including a Willow Grouse sitting on a lamp post & very close views of a male Capercaillie. But we had come to Finland for its Owls & so far we had seen only three of the five key species: Pygmy Owl, Ural Owl & Great Grey Owl on the first Finnature trip in the Oulu area. We had also seen a Short-eared Owl, but that didn't count as they aren't hard to see in the UK. Our final two target Owls were Tengmalm's Owl & Hawk Owl. I had seen Hawk Owl before after twitching one in the centre of the small town of Zwolle, Holland in Nov 13, but it was a Tick for Simon. As Hawk Owls are such cracking Owls, I was keen to see another. Fortunately, Olli said the right words when we met, that he knew a site where we can see a Tengmalm's Owl & we will start by looking for that first. Both of the small Owl species are happy to nest in nest boxes & by the start of June, they are bringing food to the chicks. There is little chance of upsetting their breeding cycle by brief visits to the nest box at this time of the year. The only drawback is the light was very poor & I was trying to hand hold an unstablised 400mm lens on ISO 10,000.
Tengmalm's Owl: This nest box was near to a quiet road where we waited. Olli walked over & scratched the tree, which was the cue for his friend to appear
Tengmalm's Owl: This is the nominate funereus subspecies which occurs from Scandinavia to the Pyrenees & the Urals. The overall range of Tengmalm's Owl is huge as it is occurs in all the conifer forests across Northern Europe to China & Alaska, Canada & the Northern US (where it is called Boreal Owl)
After looking for the Willow Grouse, Black Grouse & Capercaillie (see the previous Post), it was time to head off to look for Siberian Tit. This was another nest box stakeout.
Siberian Tit: This pair were actively feeding the youngsters in this nest box
Siberian Tit: It quickly popped out again
Siberian Tit: This is the lapponicus subspecies which occurs in Scandinavia & European Russia
Siberian Tit: They occur from Scandinavia to Alaska & NW Canada
Siberian Tit
Northern White-faced Darter: Female
Grey-headed Wagtail: Male
Next on the itinerary was Hawk Owl. The numbers of breeding Owls fluctuate annually, depending on fluctuations in Vole & Lemming numbers. This year, the numbers of breeding Hawk Owls weren't high, but Olli had a site a few miles before the Russian border. It was a bit of a drive, but worth it. It was such a remote site, we could have spent a month trying to find this pair without local information.
Hawk Owl habitat: There was a lot of similar habitat
Hawk Owl: Olli said the youngsters of this pair has recently fledged. We decided to stick with the parents, rather than cause them concern by looking for the youngsters
Hawk Owl
White-tailed Sea-eagle: Adult
By late morning, we were back in Kuusamo. We had enough time for a leisurely drive back to Oulu to catch the plane home to the UK. Our short four day trip was over, but it had been a good trip & four days was long enough. If you are planning a trip to Finland at this time of year, I can thoroughly recommend booking the guided trips at Oulu & Kuusumo with the Finnature guides. They seem expensive for an eight hour long morning, however, they will have most if not all of the speciality species staked out. But book early to ensure you can get onto a trip as spaces are limited. Finland is such a vast area & it would be very time consuming to try finding these species without very good local information. However, as a cost-effective compromise, you can hire cars at a reasonable price & driving in Finland is easy. There is plenty of self-catering accommodation available online. Therefore, it is reasonable to book the two Finnature trips & have a few days Birding on your own seeing the easier species. There were a few other Scandinavian goodies I didn't see, but they occur several hundred miles further North. They were Pine Grosbeak, Brunnich's Guillemot, King Eider & Steller's Eider. However, these are best seen by a trip to Varanger Fjord in Norway. I've seen all of these species as vagrants in the UK over the years, but I am still tempted to go to Varanger Fjord for a few days at some point in the future. One final thought, I wish I had bought one of the mozzie head nets before the trip. Olli lent us some for the final morning & having one for the rest of the trip would have been good.

2 Jun 16 - You Don't Have To Be Mad To Live Here, But It Helps

Only a few hours sleep again, before the alarm went at 01:45 for an early breakfast. The bags we quickly packing the bags into the car as we weren't going to have time to return to the chalet after the Finnature tour finished. We were first to the meeting point in Kuusamo, with the other three punters appearing a few minutes later & finally our guide, Olli, appeared just after 03:00. After a quick discussion on key species, we were heading off to cruise a few roads on the edge of Kuusamo in the hope of Hazelhen. But again, we were unlucky. Next on the list was Willow Grouse, the continental versions of the UK Red Grouse. We pulled up on a road just outside of the town, with five metre high Conifers & Birch trees on either side. It looked completely wrong for a Red Grouse cousin. But Olli played a tape & almost immediately a Willow Grouse came bounding out of the trees & landed on the road. Why couldn't a Hazelhen have been so obliging.
Red (Willow) Grouse: Unlike our Red Grouse subspecies which stay brown all year, Willow Grouse have a brown & white plumage in the summer & turn all white with just a red eyebrow in winter
It was still quite distant & so Olli said he would play the tape again as it had yet to do its party trick.
Red (Willow) Grouse: An out of focus photo after it had flown past us which shows how much white they retain in the summer 
Red (Willow) Grouse: It quickly responded to the tape & then decided on the obvious place to land for its party piece of sitting on top of a lamp post: I had though he was taking the piss when he said that's where it likes to perch
Red (Willow) Grouse: In the early morning sunshine
We had to push on. The next stop was a Black Grouse lek, where they come out of the forests to an open grassy field. It was possible to park on a side road next to this field. It is difficult to call it a lek on this occasion, as we only saw one male in the field & another briefly flying around the distance trees. But I guess we were late in the season.
Black Grouse: The views weren't close, but given it's a species we had all seen on various occasions in the UK, we weren't too bothered at the views
We carried on & the next stop was a ski centre. Olli said there were a number of cross-country skiing tracks & we were heading along the start of one of the tracks for his next target species.
The ski centre
Me at the ski centre: Modelling the latest must have clothing range
The ski centre: Andy, Edge & Simon: the Southampton boys
The ski centre: There was some good forest in the area
The ski centre: There was some good forest in the area
After walking for a few minutes up one of the tracks, Olli took off the main track & told us to wait. He then picked up a pine branch off the ground & headed over a small ridge with a running commentary. A minute or two later he reappeared with a male Capercaillie following him. The branch was to protect him from the Capercaillie, whilst not hurting the Capercaillie. He then stepped back out of its territory & the Capercaillie continued to walk up & down in front of us, call regularly & occasionally trying to attack Olli (hence the pine branch). He later explained that this was a well-known & well-liked male Capercaillie which lived close to one of the cross-country ski routes. It was well-used to people & despite regularly harassing the cross-country skiers, they had no wish to harm it. At this time of year, it probably had regular visits from Olli to show his punters. Fortunately, there isn't the same problem here, as has occurred on a number of occasions in Scotland where dog owners have failed to control their dogs & the dogs have attacked & killed Capercaillies. This behaviour by Olli would be clearly be illegal in Scotland where Capercaillie numbers are declining, but Capercaillies are a common species in Finland & they are hunted in the early winter.
Capercaillie: Male. Uncropped
Capercaillie: Male
Capercaillie: Another uncropped photo of this totally stunning, but crazy male
Capercaillie: A final uncropped photo
After a few minutes, we decided to leave the Capercaillie in peace & victory, until the next Finnature tour. We carried along the main footpath to a viewpoint over the forest. We did see a Red-flanked Bluetail singing from one of the tops of the pine, but far too far away for any photos.
Waxwing: While we were looking for the Red-flanked Bluetail, our only Waxwings flew over & briefly settled near to where we were standing
One of the key species we were keen to see was Siberian Jay, as we had failed to find that ourselves on the previous afternoon. Fortunately, a small party of Siberian Jays appeared to make up for our dip the previous day.
Siberian Jay: We had good views of three individuals, but this was the best photo I managed to take
Black Woodpecker: This was the only photo before it flew & disappeared out of sight
It was only 06:30 in the morning & I was already feeling tired. However, we had several more hours of Birding left before our guided tour was over. I'll cover the rest of the species in the next Blog Post.

1 Jun 2016

1 June 16 - June Started Early

June started early with an 03:00 departure to allow us to drive on the dirt track back roads near to our chalet, about twenty kilometres SE of Kuusamo. We were hoping to find a Hazelhen on these quiet back roads, but unfortunately, we were not that lucky.
We found this great view over the lake next to the accommodation as we crossed a nearby bridge
Looking South from the same bridge
Nearby we found three male Smew on a lake which apparently breed in small numbers in the area.
Smew: Male. They were surprisingly jumpy considering they were at the back of the lake. But they gave a brief & much closer flight view as they circled on the lake
Whooper Swan: Nearby were two Whooper Swans
We also saw a few Mountain Hares. Closer to Oulu, we had seen a number of Brown Hares, but all the Hares we saw in the Kuusamo were Mountain Hares: we were far enough North for Mountain Hares to be found at low level (Kuusamo is about 260m above sea level). The adults all seemed a bit too keen to get off the road as they saw us, even when we stopped at a reasonable distance. So perhaps the suffer from being hunted at some times of the year.
Mountain Hare: Great to see this superb Mammal. Sadly, I only seen a few in the UK & none have been really close. They are still a heavily persecuted Hare wherever there are Grouse shooting interests in the UK
Mountain Hare: The black ears with the white edges, white bellies & white legs were great to see
Mountain Hare: Eventually, I saw this youngster disappear off the road & then freeze not too far in. Like the pale eye ring
We spent some hours birding in one of the Gosney's hillside sites, but it was surprising at how quiet the forests were: apart from the ever present mozzies. Frustratingly, we flushed a Hazelhen as we were walking up the main path on the hillside, but it didn't fly until after I had walked past it & the first I knew was of a shout behind me: I never saw it.
Reindeer: Youngster. Getting desperate for another Mammal to add to this post. They weren't very common. On one occasion, we saw a couple in an office car park just feeding on vegetation. An early morning youngster
Reindeer: We saw a few each day in the Kuusamo area, including this roadside party
Reindeer: Male
In the afternoon, we tried a lake on the edge of Kuusamo. The highlight of the visit was a distant breeding plumage Red-necked Grebe.
Red-necked Grebe: Nice to see it in summer plumage rather than the winter plumage I normally see at Studland. Unfortunately, it was well beyond realistic photographic range & all I could end up with was a record shot from the SX60 on a ridiculous 130x magnification, with a delayed timing to try reducing vibration on this high magnification
The mid afternoon rain set in again & make it even harder to find Bird activity. So we decided to try a layby site to the North of the Ruka ski centre, where we had a chance of seeing Siberian Jay. We ended up putting food into the empty feeders & sat it the car, hoping that some Siberian Jays would appear. At least, we managed to stay dry & catch up on some food & drinks, but no sign of the hoped for World Tick. Finally, it stopped raining & there was a chance to walk one of the hillside paths. By now it was early evening & as the Bird activity seemed to drop off in the evening, we were not surprised we didn't see that much. Time to call it a day, head back to the chalet for an early night. We had a 01:45 alarm call to get some breakfast, before heading off to Kuusamo to meet our guide for the Kuusamo guided tour the following morning.
Whooper Swan: Party of a twenty strong flock on the way back to the chalet