After being in the UK on family business for nearly a month I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself with the local birdlife when I arrived back at the end of October. I decided to delay many of the tasks that normally await me on my return, although with a little bit of guilt about leaving the weeding for later in the week. I couldn’t believe how much everything had grown, but clearly there has been a lot of rain this autumn.
I had read on a whatsapp group that one of my favourite winter visitors, the Bluethroat (Ruiseñor Pechiazul), had recently been seen at the water treatment plant at Campotéjer, so that seemed as good a place as anywhere to start my re-introduction to Birding in Murcia.
However, I couldn’t avoid the temptation of stopping at the ‘Mirador de Los Forestales’ (near Ulea) on the way. I wanted to see if I could get a photo of a Black Wheatear (Collalba Negra) as they are normally somewhere close to the abandoned buildings by the parking area. Sure enough, the resident pair was on guard duty with each one perched on the opposite ends of the main building. They weren’t in the ideal place in terms of lighting, but I did manage to get a couple of reasonable shots.
Black Wheatears are resident insectivorous birds that live in barren rocky places in the mountains and in the right habitat they are relatively common and widespread. In my experience they tend to remain faithful to their territories all year round and not just in the breeding season, so once you know where they are, it is not too difficult to find them. They also are very fond of living around abandoned buildings and in 2003 there was a pair that roosted (and had previously nested) in the abandoned building my wife and I had just bought. It is now our home and I’ve always felt a tinge of guilt that these squatters had to move out when we renovated the building. Fortunately, they were able to re-locate to another ruin very close to our house.
My photos show both the female (dull brown plumage) and the male which is similar looking, but with jet-black plumage instead of brown. Both sexes have a distinctive white rump that is very noticeable when you see them in flight.
Whilst I was busy photographing the Wheatears I heard an unfamiliar call. I managed to recognise it after a while and scanning around I found the vocalists. It was a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes (Roquero Solitario) perched on the rocky outcrop just above me. These birds are scarce residents, but quite widely distributed in the region. As their name suggests they are birds of the mountains that favour open rocky habitat. They are Thrushes and closely related to the Blackbird, but are slimmer and have a slightly different profile. The males are a dull blue-grey that is very attractive if the light catches them well, but can often look quite dull when seen from a distance. The females, as with many species, are duller and a dark brown colour. (I suspect that my photo is probably a juvenile male). In winter they are quite mobile and sometimes seen in unlikely places such as towns or urbanisations, so keep an eye out for them, just in case.
After this very pleasant and successful stop at the mirador I eventually got to Campotéjer to see what was about, but principally to look for Bluethroats (Ruiseñor Pechiazul). They are extremely attractive birds with blue bibs on their chests. They remind me a bit of a Robin as they are a similar size, but as their name suggests, they have a different coloured chest. There are two types of Bluethroats; the one has a red spot within its blue bib and the other a white spot. The ones seen at Campotéjer are always of the white-spotted race; well at least all the ones I’ve seen so far. They are birds that like to be close to water in their winter habitats and tend to favour dense scrubby vegetation, which doesn’t always make it easy to see them. However, at Campotéjer there is a great place to see them as they flit out from the dense reeds to feed on small insects. It is a passageway (with prohibited entry) located between the second and third lagoons at the southern end. If you wait quietly and at a respectful distance, you should get reasonably good views of them as they flit from the surrounding reeds into the more open tarmac areas.
From my lookout at the end of the passageway I could hear several short calls and see movements on the edges of the reeds, but the birds were being extremely elusive. The only answer was lots of patience, as I waited with camera in hand at a respectful distance listening to the sounds of Cetti’s Warblers off to my right and behind me. It was if these little skulking Warblers were chatting amongst themselves about the strange fellow who had just turned into a statue in front of them. It was nice to have some company on my longish wait for some Bluethroats to emerge and entertain me. Eventually my wish was granted as one or two of them briefly came out into the open to feed, but mainly with their backs to me! They say that patience is a virtue and on this occasion I finally got my reward as they started to feed out in the open and were totally unconcerned by my presence. I was delighted with the photos I managed to get.
Whilst I was primarily there to see the newly arrived winter visitors, it was also good to see some late-staying summer visitors. I was pleasantly surprised to see and hear a small number of Reed Warblers (Carricero Común). They are common summer visitors and you will find them along riverbanks and wetland sites. I suppose they are a typical LBJ (little brown job) that to the uninitiated look like any other small brown bird. As their name suggests, they are seen in and around reed beds and you will probably hear them first as they are normally quite vocal. Luckily they can also be quite bold and inquisitive as they nimbly climb along reed stems. The photo is one I took in the UK during the summer and shows two recently fledged youngsters being fed by one of the parents. As you can see I am still learning to take photos that include all the family!
After a couple of days of birding I had to get on with the tasks I had decided to neglect at home and the first priority was all those weeds in the garden and veg patch. Just to encourage me, my wife had kindly bought 50 onion plugs and 20 plants of cabbages and cauliflowers, so no pressure there to clear all the weeds and get the planting done before the plants started to deteriorate! She knows how to spoil me!
As I spent the morning on hands and knees clearing the weeds I was constantly hearing the calls of Robins and Black Redstarts that had recently arrived from more northerly climes to spend the winter with us here in Murcia. If I had been in the UK it wouldn’t have taken very long for a Robin (Petirrojo Europeo) to land close by, waiting for me to uncover some tasty morsel. However, our visitors are far more wary and are quite happy to stay hidden away in nearby bushes. This behaviour is far more typical of what should naturally be a bird of wild woodlands rather than the semi-domesticated garden birds we are familiar with. I don’t know where our winter Robins arrive from, but by their shy behaviour I’m pretty sure that it isn’t the UK.
I was also hearing some loud, intense, hoarse screams from below me in the almond fields. This distinctive and scary call is easily recognisable. It was one of our local Jays (Arrendajo) keeping in touch with its family members, or maybe warning them of some approaching threat. It is strange that such a beautiful and colourful bird has such an ugly call! They are very common residents in central, North and Northwest Murcia where they can be seen in the pine woodlands and foraging in surrounding fields. I suspect that they were searching for almonds that had not been picked in the September harvest.
After finishing the weeding and planting I am hoping I have earned enough brownie points to be allowed another birding excursion in the next few days.
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