Sunday, 5 May 2013

John's Cyprus adventure. A Monty or a Pallid that is the question?

So, Cyprus. I always find it interesting to see what the local common birds are compared to the UK and here there’s no contest – Cyprus is definitely Hooded Crow territory. They’re frustrating birds as, due to their size and pale breasts it’s easy to mistake them for raptors. Cetti’s Warblers were often heard (though seldom seen)  and Zitting Cisticolas and Crested Larks were also widespread. On the flip side, Cyprus has no woodpeckers, perhaps not surprising due to their aversion to flying over water, but it also has no accepted record for Blue Tit, which is more puzzling.

‘Rapt..! No, just another Hoodie’ 
Crested Lark
Hooded Crow

Despite getting up at 4:30 for a 7am flight from Manchester, our hardy band made do with a quick splash’n’dash at the hotel before heading out into the foothills around Paphos to see what we could see. We managed to see the endemic Cyprus Warbler as well as confusion species Sardinian Warbler (key difference being the red eye ring of the Sardinian Warbler). A couple of Magpies then flew up into a tree to mob an unseen bird which, as it broke cover, revealed itself to be a Great Spotted Cuckoo, which gave great views as the Magpies proceeded to harry it across the valley. Given that the Magpie is the preferred host species for the parasitic great Spotted Cuckoo their ire was perhaps unsurprising, but this was a great start to the trip. 

The next day saw us ticking Alpine Swift on the way to a water treatment plant which also provided Spur Winged Plover, before we headed off to Mandria, where a female Harrier showed extremely well. But what kind of harrier was it? Owen thought it was a Montague’s Harrier but, when we pulled alongside some other birders to confer with them, they were adamant it was a Pallid Harrier (underwing markings don’t y’know). One of Owen’s birding contacts had also seen the Harrier at very close quarters and thought it was a Monty’s, but Owen resisted the temptation to make it into the rarer Pallid and put it down as an ‘unknown’. A couple of days later we met the same birders again, who apologised to Owen - they'd since been able to check their photos and confirm that it had indeed been a Monty's. I was both impressed by this piece of birding 'honour' and reassured by the fact that even experienced birders with  a good look at a bird can still struggle with IDs like the rest of us!

As the days went by we saw other Cyprus specialities such as the Cyprus Pied Wheatear and the Chukar partridge, supposedly the only ‘pure’ Chukars, the DNA of Chukars found in Turkey etc having been analysed and found to contain DNA from other  sources such as  Rock Partridge. Horse? Can’t rule it out…

There were also plumage differences with commoner birds – Cypriot Linnets seem to be more brightly coloured than their British counterparts.

A trip into the Troodos mountains was an opportunity to see the local races of Coal Tit, Three Toed Treecreeper, Jay and Crossbill, some of which may be split in future (look out for Dorothy's Treecreeper in a future Collins Bird Guide). I missed out on the Crossbill, but, between us, we managed to see the set, as well as an impressive Masked Shrike on the climb to the Troodos.
Masked Shrike

A bird that had proved easy to hear, though just about impossible to see, was the Black Francolin. We finally managed to see a female dash across the path ahead of our car, but hoped for a better sighting, which we were lucky enough to get on our way to Akrotiri, one of our party noticing a striking male calling and displaying on top of a hummock:

Black Francolin

And, shortly after that, we were treated to superb views of a group of Hawks:
Yes, the Red Arrows were in town, based at RAF Akrotiri as they practiced for the new display season.

Of course, it's not just about ticks - we had had some great views that we're used to seeing back home:
Red Arrows display team

Oddly, normally common migrants were proving thin on the ground – we failed to see a single lesser whitethroat, which is usually the commonest migrant - but conversely, did very well on ‘hope to see birds’ that were far from guaranteed. Blue Cheeked Bee Eater isn't an annual migrant, but we were lucky enough to catch up with five of them.

Blue Cheeked Bee Eater

Baillons' Crake was a great find, and we also managed to score a flycatcher hat trick - Pied, Collared and Semi-Collared, the latter also being a 'fingers crossed' bird for the trip.

And there were raptors – many birds seem to have been named in haste, leaving us to repent at leisure that a ’better’ (or at least more accurate) name wasn’t chosen instead. This was the case with a buzzard that I initially took to be an eagle due to its impressive wingspan. Which begs the question: if a massive wingspan is its most striking feature, why call it the Long Legged Buzzard?

We saw a Bonelli’s Eagle on the climb to the Troodos mountains (of which more later), and Agia Varvara and Anarita were also good for raptors, Montague’s Harrier being frequently seen though Kestrel was the most common.  The benefits of checking every bird were illustrated when one of our party announced ‘there’s something about this Kestrel’ and, when Owen checked, it was found to be an Eleonora’s Falcon.

The search for another raptor took us to the spectacular Kensington Cliffs - our initial attempt proved fruitless, but a return visit brought us Griffon Vulture.

Kensington Cliffs

Ayia Varvara and Anarita were regularly visited in the search for raptors, with frequent sightings of Montague's Harriers and Kestrels and were one of the final spots on our desperate last-day search - we'd visited Paphos headland in the hope of finding migrants but had struck out. Nevertheless, we kept at it, and Anarita duly paid dividends, with at least 6 Red-Footed Falcon and 3 Lesser Kestrels, one of the latter being considerate enough to perch on a weed stem and show off its lack of moustachial stripe and its pale claws (Kestrels have black claws). And, of course, raptors aren't the only birds that like perching on wires:

Thanks to Kathy Towers who took the pictures and agreed that I could use them for our blog.

 John Doragh