Another year has gone and how quickly they seem to be flying! I will take the opportunity to wish everybody a Happy New Year and I hope that 2020 brings you good health, happiness and perhaps a bit of birding.
I’ll be pleased to begin the New Year, as 2019 proved to be a bit disjointed for me because my mum had a few health setbacks, which resulted in some extended stays in the UK. Therefore, I am resolving to get out and about a bit more with my binoculars and camera this year. I also thought the New Year was a good time to admit to a little white lie and own up to my real name, which is Martin O’Hanlon. However, I will be a little bit sad to say goodbye to my pseudonym of Antrim Loonah (an anagram cleverly devised by the magazine’s proprietors) that I have used for the last 2½ years.
Well, back to business. I will tell you a bit about a birding trip to Pétrola in Albacete Province. However, before this I had previously ventured out to the mountains around Caravaca and Moratalla to look for wintering Thrushes. In the same area I thought there might be an opportunity to find a Nuthatch, a fairly common bird in the UK, but it would be a first for me in Murcia. It is a scarce resident here and can only be found in the higher woodlands of the Northwest where there are mature trees and plenty of dead wood in which to excavate its nest cavities.
Nuthatches (Trepador Azul) are a little bit smaller than a House Sparrow and are strange looking birds with large heads, short tails and powerful beaks and feet. They are omnivorous (eat insects, nuts and seeds), but mainly eat insects and search for them in or under tree bark. They will often walk down the trunk, which is a bit unusual. Now, if I see a small bird walking down a tree trunk I immediately think it is a Nuthatch, whilst a small bird walking up a tree trunk is probably a Treecreeper or a Woodpecker. It isn’t always true, but it is a good indicator.
Anyway, I headed up country visiting sites around Barranda, Archivel and Bajíl; great areas for walking, but this time they were not very good for birds. Everywhere seemed fairly quiet apart from the tk-tk-tk calls of Black Redstarts (Colirrojo Tizón) and the occasional Stonechat. At this time of year Black Redstarts are extremely common and with their continuous tail flicking they are fairly easy to identify. The females look a bit dull, but the males are more striking with their all black plumage, rufous tails and small white patches in the wings.
Stonechats (Tarabilla Común) are also fairly common and the males have very attractive plumage and they know it! They always want to pose in the most obvious places on top of rocks, fence-posts or bushes and if you don’t stop to admire them, they will probably call to grab your attention. They are resident birds in Murcia, but their population increases in winter, as companions that abandon their cooler mountain habitats will often join them here.
Continuing my meanderings in the Northwest I saw a few Song Thrushes flying nervously away, but no sign of the other species I was looking for, such as Redwings and Fieldfares, nor the elusive Nuthatch. Never mind, I will return to my quest in the coming weeks and maybe with colder weather more of these birds will come to our warmer climes.
Anyway, back to my Pétrola trip, which came about because some UK friends had arrived and being ‘birders’ they wanted to spend a day looking for Great Bustards and other birds of the steppes. Pétrola is one of the best sites for these birds.
The day we went, temperatures were down at 3 degrees, but with the wind chill factor it felt like 5 or 10 below freezing. The plains have their own special beauty about them, but they are barren and in winter the cold winds make them very inhospitable. This is a place I love to visit in whatever season, but there is no way I would choose to live there.
In these vast areas it is never guaranteed that you will find what you are looking for, but I am becoming fairly familiar with the zone so it wasn’t long before we came across a flock of these magnificent birds, Great Bustards (Avutarda Común). Although they are over 1m high and can weigh up to 18kgs they are incredibly difficult to spot at times, so we were very pleased to have an opportunity to watch a group of 17 birds strolling elegantly over the plains and especially so early into our trip.
As we left the Bustards behind and continued driving slowly along the dirt roads, I spotted a group of smaller birds feeding on adjoining grassland. At first sight and in profile, they looked like a small flock of Golden Plovers, but on looking closely with the binoculars they turned out to be Dotterels (Chorlito Carambolo). Wow, a bimbo! (Bimbo is a strange word that Spanish birders use to describe a bird that you have never seen before – in English ‘Lifer’). I was absolutely delighted as it was a bird I have wanted to find for some time. They are very scarce passage migrants that are seen regularly, but fleetingly, most years. After breeding in the arctic and high mountain tops such as the Cairngorms they disperse to their wintering grounds in North Africa and across to Iran. They will make brief stops to rest and re-fuel on their journey and this is when you have a small chance of finding them. However, they tend to hang around only for a few days or overnight, so being a lucky birder is essential. The birds I saw had already moulted into their winter plumage, but it was not surprising as it was late November and far later than one would expect to see them. Their breeding plumage is a lot brighter and more attractive, but it would be remiss of me to complain about this.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the only nice surprise as later in the day a Red Kite slowly drifted above our heads as we were at the side of the large salt lagoon by the town of Pétrola. Red Kites are very common in some parts of Spain and when I was in Salamanca recently they were all over the place, flying quite low alongside the roads and motorway. However, they are certainly not common here in Murcia, although occasionally a wandering bird might be seen in the region. It is a red-letter day if you spot one. If the light is good, the plumage of this bird of prey is beautiful with its contrasting and various shades of reds, greys and white. As raptors go, it is quite an easy one to identify with its noticeable colouration, long wings, long forked tail and buoyant elegant flight. It is larger than a Buzzard and has a wingspan of 1.4 to 1.65 m.
We saw a total of 48 different species during our day, which was pretty good going, but we failed to find either species of Sand Grouse or the elusive Stone Curlew. However, we enjoyed what we saw and two of the commonest birds gave us as much pleasure as watching some of the special birds of the plains. The first of these two were Lapwings. Also known as Green Plovers and Peewit, the latter of which is the name I was familiar with in my childhood. It got this name because of its call, which sounds similar. I was lucky enough to get a photo of one of them just as a bit of sunlight illuminated it enough to pick up the green colouration of its wings. So often they appear to be just black and white birds. I nearly always see them in Pétrola, but I have yet to add it to my Murcia list, as it is fairly scarce here with just the odd bird seen from time to time in the region.
The other common bird we enjoyed watching was the Red-Legged Partridge, which is strikingly marked. We had the pleasure of watching a covey of 14 birds wandering along the side of the track nervously looking out for predators (human, avian and animal) as they comically ran along keeping up with the rest of their group. These birds are also common residents in Murcia and each year the hunting industry releases quite a number into the wild to provide sporting (?) opportunities. I also find it very sad to see some hunters keeping decoy Partridges in small cages where the poor birds hardly have the space to turn around. I don’t suppose this practice is going to die out very easily in our locality, but I live in hope that we can all learn to live and let live.
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