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Some Birding in Lithuania and Ukraine, May 17th - June 3rd 2013 (1 Viewer)

dantheman

Bah humbug
The trip

An unexpected opportunity to do some birding abroad came up this spring at short notice. Basically, this came about due to a wedding in the Ukraine involving a family member. It seemed a bit impolite not to do a bit of birding whilst I was out there, and to fly all that way out there for just a weekend seemed even more impolite, so a plan was hatched …

Early on, I realised that Demoiselle Cranes probably still bred in the area, hanging on in the far south east of the Western Palearctic (as mentioned in rather vague terms in various bird finding tour reports). Thus I instantly had my first target species. I also decided to take the opportunity to visit Lithuania, where I had a standing invitation to visit some native birders I had previously met in Morocco and Finland. Never having visited Eastern Europe before, and having failed to clean up in Finland, I had a target list of a few species I had yet to enjoy the pleasure of seeing. Although I had these target lifers, I was also not too worried - as long as I saw some good birds and enjoyed some good birding I was prepared to act happy enough.

With short notice and a malfunctioning internet, preparations did not go as well as I would have liked, but thanks to a few bf members and others, enough info was garnered to know that at least some of my plans were worthwhile. At the worst it would be an adventure …

The wedding was set for Sat 25th May. In consultation with my birding contacts on the ground, I decided to visit Lithuania the weekend before (rather than after, as mid May seemed optimal for fresh-in birds displaying and doing their stuff in public), make my way overland to eastern Ukraine (a lot cheaper and friendlier than flying) for the wedding itself (ostensibly the whole reason for visiting of course), and then sort a trip to a site for cranes at some point. A few days was planned as a family holiday/honeymoon retreat on the Crimean peninsula in the south, this looked ideal for me to go off from and have an explore on my own.

Itinerary and travel connections

Thurs 16th May – train to Bristol
Fri 17th May – flight to Kaunus, Lithuania, bus to Vilnius, birding pm
Birding in Lithuania until Monday evening
Mon 20th – overnight bus to Warsaw, Poland
Tues 21st – birding Warsaw, then overnight bus to Lviv, Ukraine
Weds 22nd – birding Lviv, then 24hr train to Donetsk, arrival 6pm on the23rd
Family stuff Donetsk
Mon 27th – all day travel by train to Simferopol, buses to Bagerove, Kerch peninsula
Tues 28th – birding locally
Weds 29th – all day travel west back to Novyi Svit
Family wedding party/holiday/break
Sat 1st June – overnight train to Donetsk
Sun 2nd – day in Donetsk chilling/sightseeing, then overnight train to Kiev
Mon 3rd - day in Kiev (birding/sightseeing), flight from Kiev Zhulyany pm to Luton airport
Tues 4th – overnight travel (train/bus/train) back to Falmouth for 7:30am on the 4th. Shower, unpack and have proper cup of tea.

This allowed about 6 or so 7 days of proper birding, with other opportunities for casual sightings, the whole trip probably taking up far more time than necessary due to the way the weekends fell, excessive travel and the like. Plus they need to move all the airports a lot closer to Falmouth ...

Birding gen

I was unable to find a single actual proper birding trip report to Ukraine (Ukraine, as in Ukraine being a country, rather than 'The Ukraine', which indicates it's just a region of Russia … should get that one straight) on the internet, which initially panicked me somewhat (it's a big country, about the biggest in Europe), and even though cranes are quite big, it could still be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack if I didn't know where I was meant to be... One name kept cropping up – Bagerove (actually a google search cropped it up only a paltry 12 times when 'Demoiselle Crane + Bagerove' was entered, but at least one of those mentioned punkbirders, and had photos (in flight), so it seemed a worthwhile place to start looking). So I had a target area. Took the Collins, and some summaries of Ukrainian birding from books as supplied by a couple of BF members.

Background info and resources

A week or so prior to my trip I (well a friend did, cf previous mentioned internet problems) purchased the Lonely Planet Ukraine guide from Amazon (plus the Poland one), along with a map and a Ukrainian phrase book (which turned out to be fairly useless, as everyone speaks Russian in the east/south east). This helped a fair bit with info on the ground. Some travel arrangements were made via the internet, eg I was even able to buy my train tickets online beforehand on the Ukraine website. At the time of my trip 1 GBP = 0.08 AUH, travel was very cheap (eg bus/trams 20p, my 24hr 3rd class sleeper train journey costing c.8 quid), most other living costs also considerably cheaper than uk equivalents. Weather was mostly pleasantly warm, although it does get hot later in the season. Heavy rain an issue on several days. Mosquitoes not a problem in Ukraine, Lithuania already an issue in the forests etc. I felt perfectly safe almost all the time – rumours of gangs operating on overnight sleeper trains seemed far-fetched with the reality being young families and single women etc travelling the norm. As a westerner with no Russian beyond 'Da', 'Nyet' and 'Gorbachev' in my extensive vocabulary, I didn't even feel unwelcomed. People friendly and always someone speaks English if required (eventually, sometimes). Normal precautions in cities, but felt perfectly safe on the whole. Only really had trouble trying to find my way during rush hour commutes on occasion – but then I'm sure London is worse, and groups of shifty looking characters in the vicinity of Warsaw train station meant not that wise to hang about if you want to avoid hassle. ATMs (Bankomats) and money exchanges not a problem in the cities I passed through. Cyrillic alphabet a bit of a problem with getting around and purchases/getting information, but words like 'cypermarkhet' (with some odd symbols replacing some letters) recognisable after a while as a place to buy food provisions. Fortunately.

The countries involved

Lithuania was, to me, an absolute luxury – with birders on the ground I did not have to do any research/find out any gen at all for myself – absolutely atrocious behaviour! Some great birding.

Poland – with hindsight it would have been great to spend a few days exploring some of the premier sites in the country, eg Bielowieski Forest (which I quite possibly passed through on the night bus), then fly to Donetsk, but internet troubles and planning time predilected somewhat against this. Took this overland route rather than travelling more directly through Belarus as the cost of a visa (c.150 smackeroos) was excessively prohibitive!

Ukraine - would thoroughly recommend Ukraine as a birding destination. In addition to the above, hire car and petrol cheap, lots of cracking birding to be had in the south, eg around the Danube/Crimea/Carpathians. Barely scratched the surface in my few days, plenty of good birds I didn't target or see.


Full body of the trip report hopefully to follow, although this might be more of a rambling travelogue-type-thing than a proper hardcore birding trip report. We'll see.
 

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Staff member
Supporter
Scotland
This will be of interest. I'm often quite puzzled as to why more birders haven't visited Ukraine, as it must be good.
 

dandsblair

David and Sarah
Supporter
Lots of travel

Look forward to seeing the report, have to say too much bus/train travel for us.
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
It should be of some interest ... at any rate it'll be interesting to see when I can manage to actually put the report up - think I might have been a little bit hasty in posting the summary as everything's suddenly gone a bit busy at this end and typing plans have gone out the window somewhat. Should really be working on it now ...

Apologies.

This will be of interest. I'm often quite puzzled as to why more birders haven't visited Ukraine, as it must be good.

I was thinking it's a bit overshadowed by its neighbours? - Turkey the classic destination to the south has that many more species, its neighbours to the west (Romania/Hungary etc) always that much more accessible (except Ukraine has now opened up to general tourism much more). Guess the old school birders managed to get the Demoiselles whilst they were still in Turkey, or on migration in Israel, and no other real 'wp endemics' to be found otherwise?

Look forward to seeing the report, have to say too much bus/train travel for us.

Just gaining experience in my other main hobby, Awkward Travelling, aka the art of making unnecessarily convoluted travel arrangements for when my birding skills have totally dried up ;)
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Day minus One

16/05/13 17:28


A somewhat inauspicious start – missed my train. The train had already gone. I was there, but the train wasn't. There was an empty platform and me. The train ...


This was not particularly good, as it was the last train of the day from Falmouth to Bristol, and my flight was due to leave at 9 the next morning ...


Panic a bit!!!!!!!!


Fortunately however, I was able to catch a taxi* to the next town (Truro) where I made the connection with the main line service. This was a bit of a relief, and whilst I usually quite strongly disapprove of taxi drivers speeding recklessly through our quiet leafy suburbs/residential areas, knocking little old ladies over, etc etc, in the circumstances I could almost find no fault whatsover … Unfortunately, the taxi fare (30 GBP) made a slight mockery of my super saver advance fare to Bristol (20 GBP), but at least I now had a slightly better chance of making the flight to Lithuania (49.50 GBP) ... Birds en route (from the train - view out the taxi window was just a blur) included Shelduck (quite a few) near Plymouth, and a Whimbrel** near Exeter.

Ignored by the first bus as I turned from reading the schedule on the wall next to the stop (I was just in the middle of re-focussing on the big sign on its side reading 'airport bus' as it drove off), I shortly after caught the next Bristol Flyer (7GBP) from Bristol Temple Meads bound for Bristol Airport. Again, this (not getting the first bus) did not seem to portend particularly well for a trip in which I was relying heavily on having my wits about me in the grand arena of public transportation, hopefully catching vast swathes of further buses and trains smoothly and in a calm and collected manner on a regular basis ...

Having safely arrived without further ado, I thought I’d found a great place to sleep for the night under the escalator (turned off for the night), but it turned out to be rather too dusty. Instead, a couple of seats near the washroom area (toilets) sufficed (perfectly hygienic, just a bit noisy with regular and loud clacking heels on the highly polished floor). Didn’t even have to unwrap the rollmat - the armrestless seats perfectly accommodating myself and frame.




(*I very rarely use taxis, this perhaps being the fifth or sixth time having used this mode of transport in the UK (literally,almost) quite a departure from the norm.)

(**It's a bird report, allegedly - just thought I'd mention a few birds along the way ... )

(***Ok, can't be bothered to correct the star thingies, but just thought I'd note for the public record this was the first train I've missed in my life)

(****Note to self + others - probably no more * thingies from now on ...)
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Day One - Lithuania

17/06/13

Probably not a bad nights sleep, although the resumption of morning flights from about 5am meant that I was awake, fitfully, quite a bit earlier than I would have liked. Thankfully they no longer seem to broadcast the extremely annoying and, in my opinion, somewhat unnecessary announcements that 'all unattended bags are likely to be destroyed/given to homeless children/sold on ebay to fund the pilot’s private teabag fund' every 20 minutes or so. Almost makes airports seem like an expensive country retreat in comparison to the past ...

The usual procedure of booking in went smoothly, a spot of mild entertainment provided by a Mr Cessna (although quite possibly not spelled quite the same as the well-known light aircraft manufacturer) trying to explain to the customs officials that the large jars of powder in his luggage were pollen from Lidl’s and not something slightly more exotic. My bag went through without a hitch and I onto the plane for my flight.


And so it was that a few hours later I found myself in a brand new country – Lithuania. My first visit to the Baltics, my first to Eastern Europe even, possibly a bit remiss of me after all these years. (I still need to visit central Europe even (Germany, Austria and all that), the edges seem that much more exciting, from a birding perspective at least … ). Anyway, to meet up with my birding contacts in this virgin territory I had to first take the Olex courtesy bus from Kaunus airport to Vilnius. The driver and conductor were indeed courteous, a pleasant surprise, in a non-English speaking kind of way, despite my not having printed out my boarding ticket beforehand.

The rather large gentleman with two walking sticks who managed to squeeze into the seat next to me on the bus was also friendly, insisting on conversing with me in highly limited English after I replied to his initial conversation starter with my stock phrase ‘do you speak English?’ in response to his opening native phrase. (Maybe I need to come up with something else … maybe a reply in bad French would do the trick?) The second half of the journey he spent mostly asleep, the pervading smell of alcohol in the immediate atmosphere getting stronger as time progressed. Which was when I realised he was somewhat inebriated as the oxygen in the back of the minibus was slowly replaced with alcoholic vapour. A sneezing, hacking coughing fit (in which he remained firmly asleep) liberally covered the seat and girl in front of him with mostly fine mucus, and on sudden braking on one occasion he neatly smacked his head on the headrest in front. Still he soundly slept on, like a giant baby. He even rolled his head onto my shoulder at one point. I managed to extricate my shoulder. As a result of these um, entertaining distractions I didn’t really notice that much out of the side window – apart from exciting birds like House Sparrows and Starlings early on at the airport, nesting White Storks on the outskirts of Kaunus were the undoubted highlight, their oversized stick nest constructions one of those classic holiday sights.

The Panorama Hotel, our destination, arrived soon enough, and I hastily disembarked, allowing for the fact that I couldn’t until other persons had extracted themselves from the vehicle first. I don’t have a clue what the Panorama Hotel was like inside, as this was merely the drop off point for the airport bus. There was a McDonalds nearby, and more relevantly, my hosts (or half of them) and birding guide, Milda there to collect me. I say birding guides – I had not had the opportunity to gen up, but Milda and Laimonus (whom I’d previously encountered on trips to Morocco and Finland) were Lithuanian and knew the area and its birds well enough, which meant I didn’t have to until I actually experienced it. In real time. No scrabbling around for gen beforehand, frenziedly printing out trips reports and working out an itinerary by candlelight. Luxury!

Milda’s driving in the rush hour traffic was not quite so luxurious as we left Vilnius behind for the more open countryside– we had a deadline to meet, and whilst the rest of the traffic was perhaps a little overcautious we certainly weren’t. Our deadline was a rendezvous with a local ringer friend who was going to be ringing a Tawny Owl and chicks at around five pm at a place called Uzutrakis Park, with which Milda was previously unacquainted. We still had time to pick up a meat pie and a quick beverage whilst a Lithuanian pasty heated up. (Actually we didn’t really, but the pie had been pre-ordered). Mosquitoes, a brief thundery shower and Great Crested Grebes on a nearby lake provided some light entertainment, with yet more provided when Milda failed to notice the car in front had stopped for a pedestrian crossing the road. Fortunately I had, and my yelp of ‘Stooopppp’ fortunately came just in time as with an ear-piercing screech of tyres on the wet road we narrowly avoided hitting the stationary car. One of the perils of birding – Milda had spotted something flitting off to the side. All part of the fun …

Milda hadn’t seen Tawny owlets before, and whilst it seemed a bit dudey we were happy to attend as the area was meant to be good for birds generally. We had a map print-out of sorts and found the spot on the other side of the lake, and eventually thereafter the group, and the owls. It was however, a little anticlimactic as the owls had been out for a while and were ready to be put back, and the chicks were a bit ugly -tiny little white things rather than the fluffy brown bundles of joy Milda had envisaged. (A rather lethal kind of joy, admittedly). Was a little perturbed when the guy climbed up the 30 foot ladder without hands to put them back in the nest – adult in one hand, owlets in the other, but maybe this is normal practise.

And so to bird. The rest of the small group invited to the ringing had left, and so we explored. Apparently it was a good spot, with River Warbler to be found amongst others – we found a likely looking area, but no luck. A Hawfinch was nice (it would have been very nice had it been back in Cornwall of course), but a willow/marsh tit was too brief to be sure which. Rainclouds beckoned and with only a few other commoner-ish birds apparent we decided not to explore any further and head back to better sites with which Milda was more fully acquainted.

I had managed to supply Milda with a list of 8 or so target species beforehand. Some of these were probably a bit unrealistic (eg Terek Sandpiper a rarity, not even annual), but at least some of the rest were certainly quite possible. Most of these would be lifers for me, along with the addition of Barred Warbler of which I had yet to see a proper ‘barred' adult and Black Woodpecker, of which I’d only had flight views before. I wasn’t too worried if we didn’t connect with all, as long as could just get some generally good birding in. The next site had promise, with at least two birds on this list a very distinct possibility.

Milda’s driving had abated to the point where I was now worried we were going too slow and wouldn’t even reach the next site before nightfall, but I needn’t have worried. Actually there was a slight worry there might be too much light. We broke the journey briefly when I spotted a small seemingly unfamiliar passerine of which we were probably to see hundreds over the next few days – Whinchats. Oops! Don’t normally see them as a breeding species. Smart little guys.

Paluknio Meadows are a reasonably extensive area of wide-open lush meadows to the south of Vilnius which, being quite meadowy (and not being cut too soon in the year) and in the right part of the world hold a rather good population of Corncrakes. Driving slowly down a central track with the windows down, it wasn’t long before we became aware of a distinct ‘Crex Crex’ call distantly emanating from the grassland. Almost before I knew it, Milda had whipped her phone out and given a short burst of call back to the grasses.
 
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dantheman

Bah humbug
Day One cont ...

A bird responded, a little closer, and I realised that the initial calling bird was probably not as distant as I’d initially imagined. Another bird called on the other side of the track as we were now totally surrounded by Corncrake song. Not a bad situation to be in.

(I’m not really a fan of playback, to be honest, but appreciate there are certain situations were it can be useful – to monitor birds or ‘just’ for a ‘tick’. Certainly with lots of birds, and few birders, any effect this could have on the population as a whole or even an individual bird would be so low as to perhaps be negligible in circumstances such as we were in. And when in Europe, do as Europeans do, and all that (although some would alledge the UK is in Europe, I know) …)

As the light slowly faded, outbursts of creaking could be heard all around as we slowly drove on after a few minutes – regardless of whether we were encouraging them or not. There could have been a whole army of small wee people out there carefully and intermittently flicking their fingers on plastic combs in a determinedly ominous manner for all we knew – the grass didn’t stir. Harriers twisted and turned – both Marsh and Montagu’s. Now a head or two did emerge from the grass –first a Black-tailed Godwit, then a Lapwing. But no Corncrakes. Lapwings tumbled and rose distantly against the backdrop of the enclosing coniferous forest.

Another hundred yards or so and a calling bird seemed tantalisingly close. Again the phone came out and instantly a response came back with renewed vigour. A sea of waving grass surrounded us, and it seemed rather unlikely that we would see a small unobtrusive creaky crakey thing at all, no matter how much it called. These skulkers are renowned for being able to sing continuously from a patch of grass merely a few feet square without ever even giving a glimpse to the observer. And here there were acres upon acres of ironically waving grass in the early evening light ... All fears were soon dispelled however, when I suddenly became aware of a beady eye fixated upon me from not 10 yards away. A head, and then a neck resolved. Even a portion of heavily-spotted mantle as it stretched upwards. It was a Corncrake!

A person of overly negative disposition might have dismissed the sighting as untickable, only half the bird being seen. I am not overly negative. A cracking (half) bird! The soft muted grey and warm russety tones, on what to the unsuspecting invertebrate was probably silently stalking death on creeping feet, glowing brightly in my new bins. (*)

Another eye appeared on Milda’s side of the track, as if to say ‘I’m here too!’. We enjoyed the two birds responding to each other and our occasional calls, song continuing unabated until one moved off into the longer grass, probably in disgust, a rustling quivering line of stems indicating his disgruntled passage. Rasping calls continued, but we let them be. The immediate end of the track came, and a junction left and right. We were going to head off on foot for a bit, but the heavens threatened as ominous looking clouds came to our attention. A few heavy drops of rain splattered the windscreen so instead we carried on by car on the left hand fork, fortunately the main cloud movement passing us by. Birding was made a little awkward, but we soon reached another turning where we turned right, to travel on a track running in a parallel direction to our initial one.

This proved rather good.



*(Seeing half a bird in good light is probably better than seeing the whole bird in poor light, or in silhouette perhaps, even if you can be sure of its id. I have the moon on my UK satellite list, despite never having seen the far side of it. I’m assuming Pink Floyd has never seen the dark side of the moon either. I’ve never seen Pink Floyd, so not on my list. If I’d seen them (or him – I’d always mistakenly thought it was the blokes name) walking across the street and a low Wall was in the way, obscuring my view and Cutting off the Final part of their legs and feet I’m sure I would still be ticking them …

(And I'll mention the bins again soon enough))
 
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MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
The birding and the random make for an entertaining mix - looking forward to more.

Cheers
Mike
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Thanks for deciding to write this entertaining trip report! Looking forward to more.

The birding and the random make for an entertaining mix - looking forward to more.

Cheers
Mike

Cheers guys.

Back from France now (where I was painting the outside of the parents house - it got a bit hectic at the end due to rain and that, but got there in the end!), hopefully will get more time now to carry on now. Can't guarantee it will remain entertaining though! And probably one of the lengthiest reports from one days trip in recorded history?! (And still a way to go).

Nice one Dan, what was down the track...?

Coming up soon ... I guess that was a bit of a cliffhanger, wasn't it? ;)
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Day one, still continuing ...

Driving only a short distance, we parked up alongside a small humpbacked bridge crossing a wide ditch and started birding again. A channel ran alongside the track to our left, and we now were happy to contend with scrub and trees, in addition to wet meadows. A Yellowhammer slurred its ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeese’ trademark song from a leafy perch, a Nightingale sang its resonant fruity tones from deep within the alders and waterside trees, except of course it was actually a Thrush Nightingale. There were more than one, and I managed to sight one on its dimly lit perch within the arbours. This was nice as I’d only seen them on one occasion before – a bunch of migrants on the edge of a reedbed in Turkey. Corncrakes continued to call from the damp grasslands to our right. Something bigger and browner flew over the track and behind the trees – Woodcock I wondered? Most probably it was. We hadn’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards and to another bridge when Milda signalled another bird song – ‘River Warbler’ she said. And yes I could hear it too, to quote from the Collins ‘… a remarkable machine-like shuttling …’ Now I am a bit rubbish on calls and birdsong at the best of times, but having heard reeling Grasshopper Warblers down on The Lizard (Cornwall) not a few weeks before I could actually appreciate the difference. But now to see the bird …

‘They’re usually really well hidden in the trees and scrub’ Milda said ‘We might not see it’. Whereupon I replied ‘Is that it?’, indicating a small brown shape in a tangle of dead stems on the ditch bank.

And indeed it was it.

I think I can best describe the bird as a small greyish-brown triangle, a bit rounded at the edges admittedly, but a smart wedge of a bird indeed. A Sedge Warbler popped up, giving a nice size comparison – it wasn’t actually that small. It flew across the ditch (it looked a bit less triangular shaped in flight), and continued to sing in full view on the top of another tangle of dead stems, albeit mostly with its back to us, its broad rounded tail and occasional head profile revealing its true shape (still quite triangular, there's no getting away from it!). Excellent! Another target species in the bag. Being a bit too casual for some reason, we’d left both scopes back in the car – my lightweight ED50 Nikon travelscope and Milda’s hefty Kowa. This being a lifer, and a bit distant, Milda graciously trotted back to the car for the scope, returning with hers a few minutes later. The bird hadn't moved.

We (ok mostly me) enjoyed cracking scope views of the songster, occasionally flaunting its distinctive white-tipped undertail coverts like a mini Black-billed Cuckoo. Ok, not really, but they were smart and distinctive. I also looked at the topside of its tail (it’s probably deemed a bit rude to look at the nether regions of a bird for too long) for balance, although this wasn’t quite so exciting. For the record, this was browny coloured.

At this point a fluty, rich, bugling could be heard off to our left, further down the track – Common Cranes. Of course, they probably bred here. To be honest, I don’t recall hearing a single pair of Cranes before – large flocks on migration or wintering in France and Spain, so we left the River Warbler to its own devices for a while, and carried on down the track a little way past the belt of trees accompanying the slow- running ditch.

This was reasonably good ... but
 
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dantheman

Bah humbug
Day One ... final bit

Another large meadow stretched into the distance. A quick scan with the bins revealed 3 distant grey shapes out in the middle of the extensive sweep, but an odd bird vocalisation nearby caught my attention … regardless, views of the cranes would be so much better in Milda’s scope. ‘The Cranes are over there I said’ to her as she caught up, indicating roughly the part of the meadows they were in. I don’t know quite what was making the odd noises (perhaps a Thrush Nightingale with a nasty throat infection?), because a moment later Milda exclaimed in a rather strange quiet tone ‘I think I’ve got a wolf’. Her urgent, hushed tones would have caught my attention straight away, even if she hadn’t mentioned the W word.

At this point I was somewhat taken aback as a) Wolves are a bit unusual b) I didn’t even know that they occurred in Lithuania c) I wasn’t expecting Milda to say something like this.

Something did click into place however, with regard to those 3 dim grey shapes I’d seen in the bins – two rounded, one a bit longer and more of a rectangle or oblong, or some such similar shape* …

Taking a look through the scope in turn, we rather gobsmackingdly agreed it did indeed appear to be a Wolf (at any rate it wasn't a badger, dog or seemingly anything else). The evening light was not that great, and it was rather a long way off, but the large grey creature, slowly escorted to safety by the pair of perhaps slightly indignant cranes, did indeed appear rather wolflike, at least based on my expectations of what a wolf should look like. Large and rangy, easy-limbed and certainly unlike any mere dog I’ve ever seen.

This was quite good ... very good tbh!

It was slowly making its way through the distant open meadowland, at one point disappearing from view as it traversed a ditch. However, still accompanied by its two be-feathered bodyguards it soon reappeared, continuing with a slow lolloping easy gait for maybe fifty yards or less at a stretch, whereupon it would it would stop and turn on its haunches, as casual as if it was merely viewing the scenery. Often it would then disappear completely in the long grass as it presumably lay down. Lapwings swooped and skimmed as they moved forward – up to 20 or so at one point, and although I didn’t see it (should have carried both scopes with us), flushed and attempted to pluck from the air a roosting harrier. The cranes, keeping their watchful eyes on the beast, eventually decided they need accompany it no more. As it came closer to us on the angle, and even face on at one point, we could pick out the long narrow muzzle, upright rounded ears, with white underchin and throat distinctive, a long decurved tail, the general essence and jizz of its long rangy body probably being etched indelibly onto our memories forever. Not bad!

It continued to get closer, upon reaching the edge of the meadow and the dividing belt of trees we had crossed over from the River Warbler side, it suddenly became aware of our presence, at approximately five or six hundred metres, and it was off. In the opposite direction unfortunately (and predictably, perhaps). We were out in the open, relatively speaking, not having thought to get under cover of the nearby trees whilst we could. Maybe we could have enjoyed closer views, but there you go. We had been able to enjoy the animal working its way through the meadows for over half an hour, so we weren't complaining!

(To put the sighting into some perspective, this was a lifer for Milda too, in her 8 or so years birding the wild places of Lithuania this was her first wolf. And I had it on my Lithuania (and world) list within 5 hours of setting foot off the plane!)

The cranes were quite nice too, although I don’t think I really registered them as much more than large grey shapes resembling a pair of rotund fuzzy grey Roadrunners, as famously depicted accompanying the infamous Wile E Coyote, of Warner Brothers fame.

Two Woodcock chasing and calling overhead (a pair?) were very nice too, helping confirm the earlier sighting just that little bit more, and to round off this side of the meadows one of those frogs that sound far too much like Savi’s Warblers for my liking calling from somewhere along the ditch, with a Quail calling briefly from the meadows. And so, on to the other side, where the River Warbler (plus at least two others) was still merrily trilling its heart out in hope of a suitee (or whatever the female equivalent of the suitor should be called). I crept closer with the hope of full frontal views (bird porn at its best?), but although I was successful it was now really rather gloomy, so views weren’t the best. I could at least make out the mottled upper breast markings as a darker smudge, so I was happy. A trio of Corncrakes calling at hand, Thrush Nightingales competing nearby, all contributing at once, the atmosphere was perfect. It doesn't get much better than this.

Back, rather happy, to the automobile, a couple more cranes alongside us close by, and a final swansong of a Thrush Nightingale (that would be some mimicry …) nicely illuminated in the car headlights on the track back to the main road and civilization, and perhaps slightly more traditionally, a Nightjar a little further along, eyes aglow in our nightlights.

All in all, not a bad start to the trip. Three excellent new birds for the day – Corncrake, River Warbler … and Wolf!





(*Unrelated to pretty much anything else going on, all this talk about shapes clicking into place brings to mind that children’s play shape thing from someone’s childhood – excellent device it was too – the 'shape o ball' google tells me it was called)**

(**It should be noted that the use of these star thingies***will still continue, but hopefully in reasonable moderation, from here on in).

(***I’ve since remembered that they’re actually called Asterixes. Goscinny and Uderzo notwithstanding)****

(****Unbelievable! There’s still excessive use of the asterixes going on in this thread!!! (Link for the uninitiated, just in case it's required.))
 
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dantheman

Bah humbug
Some pics.

I didn't take that many, and quality will be not necessarily be that great, but it's some kind of record.
 

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dantheman

Bah humbug
Lithuania Target Species list

Corncrake
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Terek Sandpiper
Eagle Owl (only seen Pharaoh EO!)
Tengmalm’s Owl
Pygmy Owl
White-backed Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
River Warbler

Also nice would be–

Three-Toed Woodpecker (views of an adult, not just a nearly fledged young head)
Barred Warbler (one with bars)
Black Woodpecker – proper views

This wasn’t a clean up at all costs exercise – I was informed a number of these were either not really present in the area I was visiting or very difficult, so as long as we connected with some and just enjoyed some good birding, success would be deemed achieved.

The list started off a little shorter than this, but grew as I remembered more birds that might be possible (or that I thought might be)
 
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JWN Andrewes

Poor Judge of Pasta.
There's a note in this July's BBC Wildlife about co-operative hunting between Coyotes & Sandhill Cranes (page 53).

Well done Dan, and thanks for the write up.

James
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
There's a note in this July's BBC Wildlife about co-operative hunting between Coyotes & Sandhill Cranes (page 53).

Well done Dan, and thanks for the write up.

Cheers. Sounds interesting. Not having seen the article, don't really know if ours were in a similar position to be co-operating, although given the calling it didn't seem like that kind of interaction ... but you never know, I did think the wolf could have had one of the cranes if it had wanted to ... might look out in the newsagents if they have a copy.

*****isn't the plural of asterix asterices Dan?

Asterisks, or asterices apparently. Not asterixes though, you're right!

... because you know what, in checking, found that one isn't even called an asterix , but an asterisk! Misled by a comic book. Doh! :-O
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Day 2. Lithuania - some fishponds and other places (Birveta Fishponds).

After the excitement of the previous evenings sightings, and relating the events to Liamonus on our return (who’d unfortunately been consigned to domestic duties for the evening), settling down for the night had taken a bit longer than perhaps it should have, given that we had plans for an early start the next morning.

But we did all manage to get up, perhaps not quite as early and in as sprightly a manner as we would have liked in an ideal world (as an aside, my ideal birding world would involve the dawn chorus starting at around, say, half eight, nine o-clock, but, bizarrely, birds (and plenty of mammals too) seem to have their body clock set so much earlier than mine … weird or what?) First stop was a local area of forest not far to the north of Vilnius where the guys had seen a Three-toed Woodpecker feeding and displaying in the winter season.

It was now 7:30, dawn quite a while back, and there didn’t seem to be too much bird activity. Twenty minutes passed, with Chaffinch the main highlight.

We decided to split up, or at least I wandered off. I still saw nothing. This was a tad upsetting, because on my return, I found that Liamonus had enjoyed cracking views of a Black Woodpecker coming to a nest hole not twenty yards from where we’d been stood, and Milda had enjoyed a White-backed Woodpecker fly past on her explorations.

Despite these birds being in the area, and target species, we decided to press on (more chances should come later). Returning to the car, it got a bit better, for me at least, as I quickly spotted and called a Honey Buzzard circling lazily around and Liamonus called a Red-breasted Flycatcher in the pines. We didn’t see the latter though (and to make it worse I realised a flycatcher I'd seen briefly earlier on may have been this species after all).

We now headed roughly north east to some fishponds on the Belarus border.

This was touted as a cracking spot, and it turned out to be not bad at all. On the way we’d seen a Turtle Dove sitting in a roadside field (not common in spring here apparently), a smart male Garganey sat on a grassy pool (where a pair of Marsh Sandpipers had bred a few years before!) and the first of many White-tailed Eagles sitting distantly on the ground. A distant raptor disappearing into the trees may well have been the hoped for Lesser Spotted Eagle, but we'll never know- there were plenty of eagles about, and we'd be bound to catch up with one sooner or later.

We soon reached the first ‘pond’ – in actuality a rather large water body, and with a fair amount of birdlife. First, on our side a reasonable (for the time of year) mixed flock of Tufted Duck and Pochard with the odd Goldeneye thrown in for good measure. A large gullery/ternery on a sandy island was the main feature, with assorted wildfowl and birds flying to and fro. The plan was to drive around a rough track to view the other side, but this plan quickly came unstuck as we became stuck in axle-deep soft mud. A muddy looking patch on the dirt track was actually more akin to a hippo wallow once we’d hit it, as we slowly slid to a cloying halt. This did not look good – the prospect of valuable birding time being lost and hassle of getting (finding even) a local to tow us out not one that filled us with relish. However with low revs, and myself and Milda donning wellies and pushing we somehow managed to ease the car forwards and onto firmer ground. We escaped un-besmattered with mud too, which was a large bonus. The relief all round was almost palpable.

A decision was made to park up at this point rather than risk further mishaps, and so we set off a little way on foot. A rather elusive bird in a nearby bush gave a bit of confusion as we struggled for the English name. Not a rare hippo, but a relatively common acro, the Marsh Warbler remained frustratingly hidden from sight, with occasional flight views only as it would temporarily change its songbush for a better tree, and vice versa.

Black-necked Grebe’ I said to the others on scanning the water properly for the first time on my turning from the elusive songbird. ‘Where?’ they exclaimed, almost in unison. It turned out this was their target species for this spot, they'd tried scanning unsuccessfully for it for the last 10 minutes or so, and had all but given up. Yet another example of my superlative birding skills in action as I calmly found them the bird (!) The two birds were distant, but nice nonetheless. The Common Terns made a great spectacle, but most of the birds present were of the fairly ordinary kind (Shoveler, Gadwall, trashy male Garganey etc), so we didn’t hang about.

Using the firmer ground to the side of the track we safely re-negotiated the muddy wallow, and proceeded to explore the network of trackways running along the embankments between the ponds, disembarking for brief sorties at times. It wasn’t particularly dripping with birds, but we enjoyed the odd Grey Heron and Little Grebe, 3 Black Terns quartering a pit with perhaps more notable the dry ground birds – a parliament of 50 or so Ravens resting on the track before us before we disturbed them (they're quite impressive at the best of times in ones or twos - I expect 50 would be positively disturbing if you happened to be of a particularly nervous disposition, or an emo)*, and an even more impressive 9 White–tailed Eagles emanating from another dried up pit like so many giant black sticklebricks, huge and satisfyingly chunky, fingered projections and all. A Red Kite drifted over, almost a description species apparently (I won’t describe it here though). An island held all 3 large grey-backed gulls - Herring, Caspian and a single Yellow-legged Gull.

Waders were unfortunately very thin on the ground (if it had been colder they’d have been more fluffed up perhaps?), with 5 sum plum Grey Plover, 2 Dunlin and a Ruff the sum total from the drier pits. Not even a sandpiper on the damper ones, although we did enjoy almost point blank views of a Little Ringed Plover we nearly ran over on the track before us. My expectations of finding the place dripping with Broad-billeds and Terek Sands seemed like a laughable fantasy from another world**. A stop for lunch ensued, with good views of Great Reed Warbler in the thin fringing of reeds, and a great birding tradition revived in the shape of sardines on bread for sustenance. We were just in the middle of some probably incredibly important conversation when I suddenly noticed something dark, furry and furtive slinking along a short wooden jetty in the background behind their heads. This was more interesting! (than their heads, or the conversation.)

Lunch was abandoned (only temporarily of course) as with one accord we turned to attempting to see the beast again. My first thoughts were of a large Mink, but I didn’t really know what the other options were, and better views were desired. There was an old caravan on the bank near where we had parked the car, and the animal was briefly seen ducking under this as it climbed the bank. We now approached the caravan and cautiously peered around to one side – nothing. I went around to the other side, and there it was, basking in the sunshine on the concrete padding of the sluice gate system. I hoarsely beckoned the other two over, and we were all able to enjoy close views of the short-sighted beast disporting itself in the sunshine. A fairly large, dark chocolately mustelid, it had to be a Mink. Another lifer for Milda, whichever one it was – introduced American or native European. I’d recently read on a familiar internet forum that European Mink had a white chin. This had a white chin, and considering we were in Europe, I was reasonably confident (95%, I think I said) that it must be a European. Very nice, and if that was the case, another mammal lifer for me!

However, on returning home, we found that both species have a white chin – but the European has a white upper lip too (and a pink nose) which ours didn’t have. So just a mere poxy American then. Oh well. (For 'Oh well', read - 'Aaaargghhhh!') I guess the habitat wasn’t ‘rare’ enough anyway – farmed fishponds and concrete sluices rather than the wild and rugged shoreline of some isolated tree-lined lochan (or whatever the eastern european word is for an isolated tree-lined lochan). It should of course be noted that I've seen American Mink a few times in the UK before - otherwise I wouldn't have minded so much it not being the other one.

Lunch over and we stopped again for a perambulation down a partially vegetated and presumably little used side track. A cracking spot, first up was a singing Citrine Wagtail perched in the tree next to the car. I managed not to see an unwarrantedly shy Common Rosefinch singing lustily nearby (those superlative birding skills again …), a Penduline Tit flew past, and then another Citrine Wagtail appeared. Probably the same 3 Black Terns as earlier put in an appearance, a Shelduck flew over distantly, and then Liamonus picked up a different warbler song from the undergrowth.



(* Actually emos would probably embrace the Ravens (in a non-physical kind of way of course). Similarly, emus wouldn't have a problem with a bunch of corvids. Emus are bigger than ravens... and anyway, never mess with an emu. Pitting an emu against an emo might be interesting though ...)

(** The same world in which dawn starts at c.9:15 every day?)
 
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