It’s always a pleasure to have a picnic up in the mountains with a group of friends, but it was a bit unusual to be doing so at 1.30 in the morning! I don’t normally picnic at this time, but I was with my wife Jessica and a group of friends from the association ‘Caramucel’ after we had spent several hours in the Sierra de La Pila surveying Tawny Owls (Cárabo).
I have to say that fresh bread, olives, longaniza (a type of sausage) and cheese tastes are absolutely wonderful under a nearly full moon, especially after spending several hours in the dark listening to the creatures of the night. The cold beer to wash it down was also much appreciated as it is thirsty work chatting in the small hours. I have to say that Héctor and Domingo certainly know how to organise a survey!
It was our second survey of the year; the first was in the winter on the coldest night of the year! We had been trying to identify all the occupied territories. This time the objective was slightly different as we were trying to assess the breeding success of these owls by listening for young birds calling to be fed by their parents.
We had split into 3 teams and driven up into the mountains after dark to get to our allocated listening spots. Our team had 5 different survey points which entailed many kilometres of driving on quite rough and overgrown forest roads. Thankfully, José María was doing the driving as the dark drops to the side didn’t make me feel totally comfortable as I am prone to vertigo, but maybe it was easier not being able to see the bottom?!
At each survey point we played a short recording of Tawny Owls calling and then listened for the next 15-20 minutes, noting any birds that we heard. We were trying to identify if they were males, females or young birds. Our main objective was counting the juveniles, but we were also interested in the male and female birds so that we could confirm occupied territories. The traditional call of the Tawny Owl (tu-whit, tu-whoo), which is always featured in horror films, is actually a duet between the male and female. The calls of each gender are quite different and thankfully the juvenile calls are also noticeably different.
On completion of the survey our three teams had heard 10 males, 6 females and 4 juveniles and were quite pleased with the results, even though it suggests quite low breeding productivity. However, further work will be needed before we are sure how many successful territories there are in this particular mountain range, but as we say in Spain, “poco a poco” (little by little).
Besides the Tawny Owls, our team was lucky enough to disturb a Red-Necked Nightjar (Chotacabras Pardo) that had been sitting quite calmly on one of the forest tracks. They are birds of the night and during daylight hours will rest on the ground, relying on their impressive camouflage to avoid detection. I was once looking for one that I knew was only a few metres away and until a companion spotted it, I couldn’t see it as it blended in so perfectly with the leaf litter on the ground. Your best chance of seeing one is after dark and probably when they are resting on a road.
This unfortunate habit causes quite a few casualties as they can be blinded by the headlights of oncoming cars. They are a bit bigger than a Collared Dove and appear dark in flight, but with some very noticeable small white patches on the wings and tail. They are summer visitors and feed on moths and other flying insects. Although there are two different species of Nightjar in Spain, the one you are most likely to encounter here in Murcia is the Red-Necked Nightjar. When you are driving at night and see a dark mound in front of you on the road, slow down and if you are lucky you might just see a Nightjar.
Another of my excursions in June was to the coastal area of Águilas in pursuit of one of the region’s rarest breeding birds, the Rufous Bush Robin (Alzacola Rojizo). It is a bird I had seen years ago in Andalucía, but never here. Unfortunately, their populations have decreased quite markedly in recent decades and from being relatively common in Murcia many years ago they are now very scarce. ANSE (Association of Naturalists for the South East) has recently carried out an extensive survey of the species, so when the results are published we will have a clearer picture of how they are faring. They are summer visitors and in Murcia breed in low scrub cover with semi-desert-like habitats and ramblas (dry river beds). They are insectivorous and find their prey by searching on the ground and low-growing bushes. All of this means that they are not always easy to spot, so they are a bit of a ‘birding challenge’, especially coupled with their scarcity and the lack of suitable habitat.
Fortunately, a fellow Spanish birder who knows the area well and was involved in the ANSE survey, very kindly sent me location pins of several territories he knew in the Águilas area. I was really grateful for the information as it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack without this inside information. I decided to book into a hotel for the night so that I could spend sufficient time on my quest. On that first evening I spent a couple of hours before dusk searching an area which held two territories, but saw only lots Of House Sparrows, Sardinian Warblers and a very obliging Iberian Grey Shrike which posed patiently for my photos.
I had given up for the evening and was making my way back to the hotel when I saw a bird fly across the path and into a thicket some 50 or 60 metres away. I wasn’t very optimistic as it had gone into the centre and I was looking against the light. However, after spending several minutes looking through binoculars, I saw the movement of a spreading tail that suddenly jerked upwards and then slowly downwards. This tail movement is a very distinctive behaviour of the Rufous Bush Robin and I was happy to have had a glimpse of this elusive bird, even though it wasn’t the best of views. This tail-raising habit gives rise to its Spanish name, as Alzar is the verb to raise and cola means tail, hence Alzacola. The following morning I was up and out early before breakfast to visit some of the other locations I had been given. After an hour’s birding I was lucky to come across a family of Rufous Bush Robins and was rewarded with good views for 20 minutes or more as the parents attended to their recently fledged offspring. This was a far more satisfying experience than the previous evening and I went back for my breakfast far happier.
I will finally leave you with a couple of photos of young Cuckoos. The first one is a recently fledged Greater Spotted Cuckoo that was very noisily calling its foster parents to feed it. These more colourful Cuckoos parasitise Magpies and will share the nest with their half brothers and sisters whilst there is enough food to go around. If not, they will monopolise the food that is available which means its nest-mates will probably die of starvation. However, the Common Cuckoo is a different kettle of fish as it will immediately evict any eggs or siblings from the nest so that it can obtain all the food delivered by its foster parents.
Nature is very cruel at times, but this strategy is essential as the smaller fosterers would not be able to feed more than their adopted offspring. It always surprises me to see the size disparity between Cuckoos and their foster parents and to illustrate this point I have included an amazing photo recently taken by a Spanish birder and photographer here in Murcia. I am very grateful to Gabino Cortés Sánchez for allowing me to reproduce his photo of a young Cuckoo with its foster dad, a Sardinian Warbler. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ and in this case it is very true. Once again, many thanks Gabino.
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