After getting back from our Sri Lanka holiday we were delayed in the UK for family reasons so I haven’t spent much time in Murcia prior to the publication deadline. It means that my time out in the field has been somewhat limited. Instead, I have been going through all my notes of bird surveys carried out in the last 10 years, as I somewhat foolishly agreed to do a presentation at the 5th Annual Conference of Abarán and the Valley of Ricote. At the time it seemed quite a good idea to share my information after many years of carrying out surveys in the locality. However, now that I am preparing the presentation I am hoping that my Spanish is up to the task. Well, in for a penny in for a pound! Hopefully, they will be able to understand my English accent.
I have been carrying out annual surveys monitoring local bird populations as a volunteer. The surveys are organised by The Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/Birdlife) and all volunteers have used exactly the same methodology since their inception 24 years ago. The information provides a picture of the health of our bird populations and combined with similar surveys in the rest of Europe also give a wider continental perspective. The data is recognised as being robust at both governmental and European community level and is used by environmental policy makers to inform current and future policy making. All in all, a good example of ‘citizen science’.
In my presentation I will be concentrating on the local level with the data collected in my study area of 200 square kilometres in the Campo and Valley of Ricote.
So, what do the local figures actually tell me?
At a general level the bird populations appear to be relatively healthy, with positive population growth of nearly 22% for wintering birds and 16% for summer birds. The calculation is based over a 10-year period from 2008 until the present. That has got to be good news, but the figures do show some anomalies.
The number of birds dropped quite dramatically in both 2013 and 2014 and if I remember correctly it coincided with some severe drought conditions in this area. Birds are very mobile and they don’t tend to hang around if conditions aren’t good for them. If there isn’t enough food available they will move on quite quickly to find an easier life. Those that did stay probably had very poor breeding success and this would also impact on the populations. Therefore, I think that the drought conditions adversely affected the amount of seeds and fruit available and this caused some populations to crash. The effect was almost immediate and it demonstrates that birds and animals have precarious lives.
At a species level the survey information provides good news and bad news. The good news is that 3 species have significantly increased their numbers and expanded territorially. They are: Collared Doves, Golden Orioles and Magpies.
Nowadays the Collared Dove is a very common bird that probably everyone can recognise, but it wasn’t always so. In the late 19th century it was a bird of temperate and sub-tropical Asia, but in the 20th century it undertook an amazing colonization of Europe. It is a sedentary species that doesn’t migrate, but is also very dispersive and arrived in the UK for the first time in 1953 (You will probably remember that year as my home town football club Blackpool won the F A cup!). It started to breed in 1956 and since then colonized the rest of the country very quickly. It arrived in Asturias in 1960 and from there colonized the rest of Spain. It seems it was reluctant to live in the campo near me until 5 years ago. Collared Doves are particularly known for their strong pair bonds and can often be seen perched together very lovingly.
According to my data, one of the other successes is the Golden Oriole, a particularly striking bird, especially the males with their bright yellow and black plumage, which is a very welcome addition to my home patch.
However, the growth of Magpie populations is probably a mixed blessing as these noisy birds can predate the eggs and young of songbirds. It is interesting to note that the number of Blackbirds has dropped remarkably with the increase of the local Magpies, although scientific evidence demonstrates that, at a general level, this predation has very little effect on songbird populations.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was taking photos of its much more colourful cousin, the endemic Sri Lanka Magpie.
The bad news in my surveys is that some 5 species have declined quite remarkably; some of these are quite surprising eg. House Martins and Crossbills. Also, in the more rural areas where I live there have been quite marked declines of 86% for House Sparrows and a 68% decline in Spotless Starlings.
On balance, my local results are reasonably good, but unfortunately it doesn’t reflect accurately what is happening at a national level. The national and European results show that practically all the bird species that rely on agricultural habitats are in sharp decline. This is due to agricultural intensification, increase in monocultures and continued heavy usage of pesticides.
Populations of agricultural birds such as the Little Bustard have crashed and in Murcia they will be heading for extinction in a few years unless the trend can be reversed. However, with a little bit of luck they can still be seen in areas such as the Saladares de Guadalentín.
I apologise if this month’s article has been a bit dry and serious. I will try to make it a bit lighter next month, but in an attempt to finish on a more colourful note I will introduce to you a few of the striking species I photographed in Sri Lanka. They are:
Bee-Eaters which are very common in Sri Lanka and I saw 3 of the 4 different species that can be seen; all of which are photogenic. I have included photos of 2 of the species: Little Green Bee-Eater and Chestnut-Headed Bee-Eater.
The Pheasant-Tailed Jacana is a spectacular looking bird of wetland habitats that has large feet to help it walk around on the floating vegetation in shallow lakes. They feed by picking insects from the surface.
The Dusky Blue Flycatcher was quite eye-catching with its plumage colour just as its name suggests. We only saw them on one day of our trip when we were in the forests high up in the highland areas of the country. Subsequently I have read that they are birds of lowland jungle, so that’s confused me a bit!
Finally, I leave you with a photo of one of the beautiful endemic Parakeets of the country called Layard’s Parakeet.
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