Mike Mockler

Europe - Spring 2014

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SPAIN: steppe country and foothills of the Pyrenees
In springtime, much of rural Spain is awash with flowers and alive with bees, butterflies and other insects.  As for birds, the air is vibrant with the songs of Nightingales, many species of warbler and a whole range of different larks: Skylarks, Woodlarks, Calandra, Thekla and Crested Larks to name just a few.  The countryside rings to the "hoop, hoop" of Hoopoes, copses and stands of poplars echo to the fluty, mellifluous calls of Golden Orioles while, above, Bee-eaters announce their dazzling presence with evocative and distinctive trills.

This spring, I was drawn back to Spain yet again to see and, with luck, photograph some of Europe's most iconic birds.  One major target was Great Bustard, a species I had tried to photograph countless times before, usually with limited success.   Great Bustards are extremely wary birds, especially on their display grounds.  Back in March 1996, on the plains of Extremadura, each morning well before dawn, I secreted myself in an improvised hide close to display grounds of these magnificent birds.  Although I obtained some very ordinary images (on transparency film in those days), I had to admit that these smart birds had outwitted me.  

This time I used well-established hides with which the local Great Bustards were very familiar.  It was still necessary to be in the hide before first light, only re-emerging late in the day.  I was rewarded with some breathtakingly close views and excellent photo-opportunities.  As an added bonus, other species appeared close enough for photographs, among them Northern Wheatear, Corn Bunting, Skylark, Common Buzzard and Short-eared Owl.   

The main target, however, was Lammergeier (more appropriately named Bearded Vulture), another species I had failed to photograph well in the past.  In May 2011, I spent 40 hours in a hide near a carcass which was intended to attract Lammergeiers but local farm dogs repeatedly visited the carcass.  Not surprisingly, the notoriously shy Lammergeiers stayed well away.  

This year, things worked out much better.  The hides had a cast of bit-part players that provided photo-opportunities when top-of-the bill birds weren't around: Thekla Lark, White Wagtail, Carrion Crow, (Red-billed) Chough, Raven, Red Kite, Egyptian Vulture and Griffon Vulture. 
Lammergeiers drifted past frequently, providing opportunities for flight shots.   

There were some wonderful moments but two will live long in the memory.  The first was a bizarre case of avian coitus interruptus involving a pair of Egyptian Vultures and a Raven.  The Egyptian Vultures spent some time scavenging nearby and twice copulated in front of the hide.  On the second occasion, the erotic scene proved too much for an apparently deeply-offended Raven which flew at the amorous pair as they were coupling, striking the male and knocking him off the female's back.  Ravens are highly intelligent birds but acting as a winged moral crusader was totally unexpected! 

The major highlight came when a superb adult Lammergeier landed and strutted around in front of the hide. Eventually, it picked up a sizeable bone in its beak and swallowed it whole.  It then selected an even larger one and took off, flying low over the hide with the bone in its left talon. 

Spain's vultures face a terrible threat

The dreadful near-extermination of several vulture species in Asia has been ignored by the Spanish government.   The anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac which is known to have caused the deaths of millions of vultures in Asia (and other birds of prey, including eagles) has now been approved for use on livestock in Spain and Italy.  A similar terrible loss of vultures in Europe, including the rare Lammergeier, is now likely.  And not only vultures: other raptors such as Golden Eagle and Spanish Imperial Eagle which also scavenge carcasses will also be at risk.  Please sign the petition at https://www.change.org/petitions/janez-poto%C4%8Dnik-european-union-diclofenac-the-vulture-killing-drug-is-now-available-on-eu-market-ban-it-now

Hortobagy National Park and Zemplen Hills

In the north east of Hungary are the attractive Zemplen Hills, renowned for their rich and varied birdlife.  This became apparent in our first hour in Zemplen.  First up was an excellent view of a mature Eastern Imperial Eagle at the nest with its white, down-covered chick.  Around us at the time were numerous other birds: Red-backed Shrikes, the blue-headed race of Yellow Wagtail, Common Quails and flying birds like Marsh Harrier, Black Stork and Spoonbill.  We also watched a pair of secretive Little Crakes creeping along the margins of an overgrown pool.  Later, we visited Eagle Owl nest sites and saw fluffy Eagle Owl chicks with staring yellow eyes, watched a Lesser Spotted Eagle hunting and Honey Buzzards soaring overhead.  In a beautiful forest, where we disturbed Roe and Red Deer, we found nesting Grey-headed Woodpeckers and Ural Owls.  

The Bodrog River winds its way through the Zemplen Hills before joining the Tisza River.  In the luxuriant Bodrog water meadows, we stood waist-deep in billowing grasses and flowers heaped up like colourful duvets, among butterflies and bird sounds.  Songs and calls of Nightingales, Blackcaps, Barred Warblers, Great Reed Warblers, Golden Orioles, Wrynecks and Corncrakes filled the air.  A continuous, insect-like sound was the song of a male River Warbler singing from an open perch, providing unusually good views of this secretive species. 
House Martins and Barn Swallows flickered to and fro across the floodplain while Black Storks, White-tailed Eagles and Marsh Harriers patrolled the skies.  

At the southern end of Zemplen is Tokaj, home of the world-famous Tokaj wines.  We enjoyed an evening visit to a renowned winery and toured their cellars before a generous wine-tasting concluded our time in Zemplen before we moved on to Hortobagy.         

A year earlier I had a very enjoyable photo-trip to Hortobagy National Park so I was pleased to return to this bird-rich area.  We watched Red-footed Falcons and Rollers swirl around their nest-sites and, at nearby drinking pools, enjoyed close contact with many species including Hawfinch, Collared Flycatcher, Nightingale, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Turtle Dove.  

As well as the numerous "star" species of the Hortobagy, there were many others that were a joy to see and hear simply because they have declined in Britain: Corncrake, Common Quail, Red-backed Shrike, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Sparrow, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting.   

Memorable highlights included two Penduline Tits building their nests and, most thrilling of all, a Saker Falcon hunting low across the grasslands at breathtakingly high speed, with a colony of Sousliks its primary target.  Endearing, squirrel-sized, ground-dwelling rodents that look rather like small Marmots, Sousliks are favoured prey of Saker Falcons but, on this occasion, they were not caught unawares and the Saker flew off empty-talonned.  

ROMANIA: Northern Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania
On entering Transylvania, we were greeted by lovely scenes that seemed to have changed little over generations: some locals still travel by horse and cart, farms use small-scale, traditional methods and tranquil villages move at a reassuringly slow pace.  It was like stepping back in time, evoking memories of England as it was more than half a century ago.

Not surprisingly, wildlife thrives there.  Golden Eagles nest on lofty limestone cliffs, Peregrines and Crag Martins glide around high peaks and lower slopes are home to Rock Thrushes, Great Grey Shrikes, Barred Warblers and Ortolan Buntings.  Flower-rich meadows echo to the sound of Corncrakes, Common Quails and an assortment of warblers while large tracts of forest contain Lynx, Brown Bears and Wolves.  One evening, we sat in a small hide in a forest clearing and watched for Brown Bears.  Our patience was rewarded: over a period of just three hours, four appeared in front of the hide.

There were many highlights such as Lesser-spotted Eagles perching on roadside telegraph poles, a Beaver dam and lodge in a remote mountain stream, a male Bullfinch feeding on powder-puff catkins, a pair of Ural Owls side by side on a branch nibbling each other's faces and a rare White-backed Woodpecker preening and drumming.  Best of all, however, were stunning views of Wallcreepers, small birds that have acquired near-mythical status, so difficult are they to see.  Even when located, they are usually just barely visible specks on the gigantic rock faces they inhabit.  

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