Monday, May 29, 2017

Spring Migration in Switzerland (and Sicily)

Central Europe may not be everybody's idea of the place to spend spring migration, but since it's our home, for now, Natalia and I made sure to get out to spot some migrants and returning breeders when weather and schedules cooperated.

Around Zurich most of the best birding spots are associated with small lakes and their fringing wetlands and forest patches. Two typical examples are Flachsee and Klingnauer Stausee, both easily reachable in roughly an hour by public transport.

This wasn't my first Wryneck, but the first to let me take it's picture. At Flachsee

Song Thrushes are back singing away. Flachsee

White Storks are common, even in relatively urban areas. This one at Flachsee wasn't shy at all.
Another local birding option is Greifensee, which Natalia and I can bike to in a little over an hour.

The most interesting Greifensee bird so far has been a pair of Eurasian Hobbies. eBird threw up a flag on this one, so I guess they're relatively uncommon on migration. We watched them hawk dragonflies, showing off their orange underpants each time they ate one on the wing

A lot of the migrant diversity in Europe comes in the form of the Little Brown Job. Old world warblers can be just as fidgety and skulky as new world warblers, but lack the flashy looks and useful field marks. I'm starting to get the hang of their songs, but the super common (and therefore boring) Blackcaps sing variably and use mimicry (the bastards).

Eurasian Reed-warblers can be heard singing from nearly any bit of reeds in Switzerland and an extensive patch like this one at Flachsee will host several. These are not to be confused with the nearly identical Marsh Warbler, which is mostly identified by voice and habitat.
Savi's Warbler acts like a reed warbler, but is in a different genus and thankfully sings differently, giving this odd insect-like-trill. There were several of these at Klingnauer Stausee back in April.
These warblers are tough to photograph, but you're not missing out on much anyway.  Trust me.

I've managed to spot: Sedge, Marsh, Great Reed, Chiffchaff, Willow, Wood, Western Bonelli's and Whitethroat. Garden and Grasshopper have eluded me so far.

Combing the reeds for skulking warblers sometime turns up other interesting skulking birds, like this Spotted Crake at Klingnauer Stausee
 In reality Zurich isn't the best area to catch migrants (you may notice that most of the species above are local breeders rather than migrants). With a new Swiss birding friend, Benedikt, as our guide, we ventured out to the other side of Bern to the 'best' migrant trap, a place well-named in my German-illiterate brain: 'The Funnel.' The fields and lakes in this areas sandwiched between the Alps and Jura mountains seem to attract a lot of migrants and the most dedicated of Swiss vagrant hunters as well.

Our 'best' bird here was a Red-throated Pipit. We also spotted a Little Owl using a nest box, a rare breeder in Switzerland.

The Swiss provide government housing for needy people and birds alike. This Eurasian Kestrel welfare queen lives in 'The Funnel'
But our favorite Swiss birding area and the one that produced the most interesting birds for us this spring was in Ticino. Lying on southern slope of the Alps, this area concentrates refueling migrants before they make transit through an Alpine pass. As a bonus the Ticinans speak Italian and the food is great.
We had a banner day for Red-footed Falcons, with 15 roosting together and then this lone female sitting in a field. Bolle di Magadino
Squacco Heron is a nice bird to find in migration in Switzerland, especially when it's hanging out with a breeding plumage Spotted Redshank and some Common Greenshanks
 One of the benefits of having four scopes and five birders is that there's always a pair of eyes not peering down into a tube.  While we were scoping the Squacco, Natalia spotted a female Little Crake lurking along the boardwalk behind our blind.  She managed to get our attention just in time for it to hop up onto the boardwalk and scurry across into the reeds!

The crake was only bested by our birder friend Tim's spotting of an odd wagtail flocking with a field full of standard Whites following a plow.

The wagtail turned out to be a Pied Wagtail, also known as 'British White Wagtail' following the serial split/lump saga that characterizes the White Wagtail superspecies. The Swiss bird police want documentation for this subspecies and this composite is the image I sent in with my report. Hope it gets accepted!
 We also did some birding down in Sicily this spring while visiting a Sicilian friend of Natalia's.  This Italian island (note: not a part of Switzerland) is famous for its raptor migration, but the winds were wrong, so we opted to spend our limited time searching for mountain and wetland birds.

We dipped on the 'Sicilian' Rock Partridge, allegedly an endemic subspecies, but this Subalpine Warbler consoled us with a territorial show. Sicily

After a lot of misses in Switzerland, we finally saw our first Corn Bunting (and what a drab brown beauty it was). Sicily
Even by land-locked country standards, Switzerland is remarkably depauperate in shorebird habitat. Yeah, you can find some Common Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers gleaning the gravel bars along rivers and Eurasian Whimbrels are conspicuous enough in the bare farm fields, but there just aren't any mud or sand flats to serve up that buffet of abundant and diverse waders that a coastal birder craves.

The Vendicari wetland in Sicily more than made up for all the shorebird-less Swiss birding days.

Always nice to spend some quality time with Little Stints. These probably occur regularly as vagrants in North Carolina, but they are just so damn tricky to separate from American peeps...

In short order we had amassed a list of 15 shorebird species, besting our total for all of Switzerland, at one site in just a couple hours. Even Natalia, a self-proclaimed shorebird skeptic, admitted that birding Vendicari was a special experience.

Can you find the Wood Sandpiper lurking among the female Ruffs ('Reeves')? (hint: it looks super scared that you'll notice it)

Natalia and I are off to the 'New World' for a couple months.When we return to Europe in August we will find plenty of low-hanging lifers to find out there in Switzerland and beyond.