We are now well into winter and our local bird populations have been augmented with visitors from Northern Europe wishing to avoid the cold weather further north. Clearly, if one’s main diet consists of insects, there is a very good reason to move down to Murcia, but it isn’t just insectivorous birds that decide to join us, as there are also seed eaters and even birds of prey that spend the winter here.
Around the house I have been seeing quite a number of our commoner winter visitors, especially Black Redstarts, Robins, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Meadow Pipits. The Mediterranean Basin has been a traditional wintering ground for many years, but ringing studies have shown that the pattern has been changing. Nowadays there are fewer birds making these long journeys south as they choose to remain in the north, or partially migrate from the extreme north to intermediate and warmer parts.
It appears that climate change is allowing these birds to avoid long journeys and just stay where they are, or make shorter journeys to zones that aren’t so harsh. Also, it is thought that an increase in local food supplies is influencing behaviour and the increase in garden bird feeders in countries like the UK is having an impact in this respect. Blackcaps that traditionally migrate south are now staying and spending the winters in and around UK gardens and there is growing evidence to suggest that German and Eastern populations, instead of going south, are migrating west to British shores. All very curious!
On the subject of bird feeding I thought I would adopt the same habits as my fellow countrymen and recently erected a bird feeder. Unfortunately, our resident birds haven’t got a clue what it is! They have completely ignored it and the seed level is exactly the same as when I filled it. There isn’t a habit of feeding garden birds in my part of Murcia, but I will persevere and see if any of the local birds are bright enough to take advantage of a free lunch in future.
A winter visitor that I am regularly seeing at the moment are Chiffchaffs (Mosquitero Común). For those of you unfamiliar with these birds, they are a small, very active Warbler that are a dull brownish or olive green colour above with a yellowish buff tinge on the lighter coloured throat and breast. It is significantly smaller than a Sparrow at about 4 inches from tip to tail. It is often seen feeding around the tops of trees and bushes as it very actively searches for insects. A good tip for identifying this small bird is its distinctive habit of dipping its tail downwards as it moves around. It is very similar looking to its close cousin the Willow Warbler, but here isn’t the place to talk about the difficulty of identifying these two species! Needless to say, if you see a bird that looks like a Chiffchaff in winter, it will almost certainly be one as its close cousin is only a passage migrant. It also has another close family member called the Iberian Chiffchaff (infrequently seen in our region).
Another wintering Warbler is the Blackcap (Curruca Capirotada) which, as its name suggests, has a distinguishing feature; a black cap. What a surprise! However, it is only the male that has a cap this colour as the female cap is brown, but both sexes are very easy to identify as long as you see the head clearly. It is just a little bit smaller than a Sparrow and during this time of the year will feed on berries and fruit and is particularly fond of pomegranates. It is relatively common at the moment, so keep an eye out for this warbler in the garden.
Another small winter visitor (about 6 inches in length) that I am seeing quite frequently in the fields around my house are Meadow Pipits (Bisbita Pratense), a small brown job that may test your identification skills. It is generally a ground feeder where it searches for insects on open ground with sparse and low vegetation, but it will also perch quite obligingly at times on low fences or branches. Although it looks quite drab from a distance, it is quite an attractive bird with its olive-tinged, brownish plumage and creamy coloured chest with brown streaks. It is slim and long tailed like its relatives the Wagtails and like all insect eaters has a slender beak. You are more likely to notice them by hearing their flight calls which is a thinnish “bis-bis” sound.
Another very common winter visitor that is easy to see at the moment is the Black Redstart (Colirrojo Tizón). This is a bird that perches very obligingly in noticeable spots and calls frequently with a “tk-tk-tk” sound to attract your attention. It also has a bit of a nervous tick as it is continuously flicking its rufous tail up and down in a very distinctive manner. They are quite bold birds and are reasonably happy to be quite close to people. In fact, a friend of mine has managed to attract several of his local birds on to his roof terrace for free handouts of the mealworms which are irresistible to them.
Nowadays the use of social media by birders is an essential tool for knowing what is around and the two Whatsapp groups I belong to are an invaluable source of information and learning. At the beginning of December there were quite a few reports of Common Cranes (Grulla Común) that had been seen flying over areas of the region, which is something quite unusual.
On a trip to Calasparra across the plains of Cagitán, I was watching the countryside keeping an eye out for anything interesting whilst my wife was behind the wheel. Suddenly, I shouted “Quick, stop the car!” as I spotted a group of large greyish birds in the cereal fields alongside. My wife’s reactions to my request were slow, as she didn’t want to stop to look at a flock of grey Woodpigeons and obviously thought I was losing the plot. However, something in the tone of my voice and my raised anxiety levels made her stop. A quick scan with binoculars soon confirmed my initial thought that the birds were Cranes; a flock of 47 feeding quietly on the seeds in the cereal fields. It was an amazing sight for Murcia, but unfortunately they had moved on elsewhere when we returned later that day.
Cranes are large birds that stand up to four feet high and have a wing span of up to eight feet and are predominantly grey in colour with long black and white necks and a red cap. They breed in northern Scandinavian countries and northern Russia and mostly in wooded swamps, bogs and wetlands. They require quiet, peaceful areas, with a lot of space (1-5 pairs per 100 km2) far away from people. In winter they form large flocks of family groups and migrate south and huge numbers overwinter in the Iberian Peninsula, but they don’t normally come as far as Murcia. I have previously seen family groups near Pétrola in Albacete, but the majority stay in Extremadura, which is their most important wintering area with sometimes up to 70,000 birds staying there. It is a genuine spectacle to see and hear thousands of cranes flying between their winter roosting and feeding sites in this area.
Cranes used to breed in the UK, but became extinct in the 16th Century. However, in 1979, a pair attempted to breed again in the Norfolk Broads and continued breeding attempts were made from then on with mixed success each year. There is now a small population in the Norfolk and Suffolk areas and they are breeding at Lakenheath RSPB reserve in Suffolk. Also, the great Crane Project, started in 2009 in the west of the country, has been rearing young Cranes to release into the wild in the Somerset Levels. This project has been quite successful and has resulted in a small population becoming established in Somerset; a good example of ‘rewilding’.
Thanks to Juan Lopéz García for his photographs of Robin, Meadow Pipit, Blackcaps and Black Redstart.
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