I am currently staring at a blank computer screen, reminiscing about being in the warmth of Murcia under cloudless blue skies. Unfortunately, because of COVID travel restrictions I am still in the UK and will be for several more months.
For the moment, birding in Murcia, is about using my imagination rather than being in the local countryside observing nature and gaining inspiration for my next article. Obviously, I still get out with my binoculars on my daily local exercise walks, but the bird life in the UK is a bit different, as well as the weather!
In the meantime I have been using my extended UK stay to finalise work on the Birding in Murcia book that I am hoping will be published shortly. It has inevitably been delayed because Trisha (who is doing the design work), along with the printing company, my photo library and other files are all in Spain. However, I am hopeful, logistics allowing, that it will be published towards the end of April – fingers crossed!
The book has two main sections.
The first part will describe 14 of the best birding sites in the region, plus two that are just outside our boundaries. It will provide details on how to find each of the sites and what you are likely to see on any visits.
The second part is a comprehensive checklist of the 374 species that have been recorded in the region, with details of their status as residents, summer or winter visitors and how common or rare their occurrence is.
The two sections are illustrated with colour photographs of the sites and more than 200 bird species, so it should be attractive to flick through as well as providing lots of information.
Next month I hope to confirm publication and where you can obtain a copy if you so wish. As it is a self-funding project I am keeping my fingers crossed that enough copies will be sold to break even!
Apart from writing I have also been reading quite a bit and keeping up with events in Murcia via social media. There were three bits of news that have particularly caught my attention: one about a rare duck, the second about a common bird that is becoming rarer each year and another about the electrocution of wild birds.
In this day and age it is quite shocking that so many of our larger perching birds lose their lives by landing on poorly designed electric pylons and being electrocuted. It brings no credit to either the electric companies (principally Iberdrola in our region) or local regional politicians. The official report published by the Regional Government, identifies that nearly 1,000 birds have been killed in this way between 2012 and 2020. These are cases that have been proven beyond doubt and don’t include any figures for birds that have been killed in places where their bodies are either never found or reported. It is more than likely that the exact figure will be significantly higher, considering the number of these pylons that are located in remote mountainous and countryside areas. The majority of the casualties are large birds such as owls, birds of prey and storks; all those birds that frequently perch on high pylons. The problem is the lack of an earth connection, so if a bird touches another adjoining cable on the pylon, the current will arc across them and more than likely kill them.
There is a fairly straightforward solution to solve the problem, but it costs money! The electric companies are therefore slow to rectify known danger spots and local politicians are reluctant to take strong action against them. Meanwhile the death toll rises and in the period of the report there were 297 Eagle Owls (Bubo Bubo), 156 Kestrels (Falco Tinnunculus and Naumanni), 43 White Storks (Ciconia Ciconia), 39 Buzzards (Buteo Buteo), 42 Bonellis (Aquila Fasciata), 19 Golden Eagles (Aquila Chrysaetos), 29 Booted Eagles (Aquila Pennata) and 51 Short-Toed Eagles (Circaetus Gallicus) killed in this manner. Many of these larger birds take a number of years to reach breeding maturity so this situation undoubtedly will have a negative impact on future breeding populations.
Whilst talking of birds of prey, our migratory species should now be returning to their breeding sites after overwintering in sub-Saharan Africa. The smallest of these, the Lesser Kestrel (Falco Naumanni) is the earliest to return and will have already arrived at nesting grounds by early March. They breed in small colonies and favour old abandoned farm buildings as nest sites, but will also readily use nest boxes that have been erected at some of their breeding sites. The best places to see these small and pretty Falcons are the Saladares del Guadalentín, the Plains of Cagitán, the Steppes of Yecla and an area west of Caravaca de la Cruz.
Short-Toed and Booted Eagles will have returned towards the end of March and early April, so keep an eye on the skies to see these beautiful buzzard-sized raptors. They are both tree-nesting and prefer habitats with some woodland. They tend to avoid the coastal areas except on migration, but if you travel inland a little bit towards central and North-West Murcia they are relatively common.
Booted Eagles have two plumage types; a light morph and a dark morph and can appear like different species to the uninitiated. The lighter of the two is unmistakable in flight with bold and contrasting black and white plumage, whereas the darker one has dark brown or rufous-tinged plumage replacing the white of the light morph.
Short-Toed Eagles are slightly larger than Booted Eagles and when seen in flight they have distinctive very pale silvery-white plumage below. It should make identification relatively straightforward if seen reasonably well, as few raptors have this coloration. They are specialist hunters of lizards and snakes and will often be seen motionless whilst hunting as they hover Kestrel-like looking for their prey, before swooping down unexpectedly on a sun-bathing victim.
The other migratory bird that is mentioned in the list of electrocutions, is the White Stork. They are very common in many areas of western, central and northern Spain, but not so here. Groups of migrating birds are seen in the region during Autumn, but have not been considered as one of our breeding birds. However, in recent years the captive birds in the aviary at Terra Natura in Murcia, have attracted a few wild birds to that area and they are currently attempting to breed quite close to the zoo. The electric company has recently been dismantling their nest-building attempts on some nearby pylons, so we will have to wait and see if they are successful this year. Keep a watchful eye out as you drive past the zoo on the motorway and you might be able to catch a glimpse of one of these emblematic birds.
Earlier I mentioned a common bird that is becoming rarer each year, which is the very beautiful Turtle Dove (Streptopelia Turtur). Its population decline is thought to be linked to changes in agriculture, especially industrialised growing techniques that drastically reduce the range of wild flowers. The seeds of these are an essential part of the Turtle Doves’ diet. This is compounded by hunting. Spanish hunters have traditionally shot 900,000 of these birds each year; this is not sustainable. The EU has introduced a moratorium on hunting, but Murcia, like other Spanish regions, is avoiding full implementation of the ban. The EU is now starting legal action and in its defence, the Spanish government is suggesting that killing 400,000 per year is an acceptable number. Why do people wish to slaughter animals and birds just for pleasure? These birds are not a pest and when shot are just discarded! I remember coming across a dead Turtle Dove that had just been left on the ground by the person who shot it. Very sad to see and for me it was utterly pointless!
I will finish with something a little bit more upbeat about one of the rarest Ducks in Europe, the Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta Angustirostris). It is in fact, the rarest and most threatened Duck species in Europe and is in great risk of extinction on our continent. ANSE, the Association of Naturalists in the South East, have just announced a 5 year project that has obtained EU funding to arrest the decline of this species. The project’s aims are to improve 3,000ha of wetlands and provide more suitable habitat for the species. They also hope to purchase adjoining land where hunting currently occurs. It is illegal to hunt Marbled Ducks, but the practice of night-time shooting by hunters creates identification problems which then results in birds being inadvertently killed. The main focus of the project will be at El Hondo Nature Reserve just over the border in Alicante province, but I understand improvement works are also planned at Las Moreras Lagoons in Mazarrón. It is an excellent initiative that hopefully may bring this species back from an almost inevitable European extinction.
Finally, many thanks to John Thompson for the use of his wonderful photos of Common Kestrel and Marbled Duck.
If anybody has any queries or comments they wish to make, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org