Like everybody else I have been confined to our local municipality for quite a number of weeks. Ours is a rural area with few amenities, but regular visits to the dentist with an official ‘justificante’ allowed me to go out once a week to a nearby town. This gave me an opportunity to do some shopping at the supermarket opposite. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve looked forward to seeing the dentist! However, it has meant that my birding experiences have been very limited to just a few walks in our local mountain range and carrying out the annual winter bird surveys organised by SEO/Birdlife (Spanish Ornithological Society). SEO/Birdlife are always looking for more volunteers to survey their local areas and you don’t have to be an expert to do them successfully. You just need a reasonable knowledge of the local common birds you are likely to encounter and the commitment to carry out the survey each year. If you fancy a go, get in touch with me and I can give you a bit more information about what is involved.
My winter survey area involves a two-hour walk through the local almond and olive fields and then uphill through areas of scrub and pine-covered hillside. It takes in several different habitats and the greater the habitat variation the more species you are likely to see. On average I record somewhere in the region of 25-30 species during this survey. Generally, there is nothing remarkable that turns up and it is mainly the commoner farm and woodland birds that I tend to see. As I did it in the latter half of November, all our summer birds had long gone and I was witnessing the ‘changing of the guard’ with new winter arrivals showing well.
Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus Ochrusus) were very obvious as they noisily disputed the boundaries of their smallish winter territories. They seemed to be spaced out every 50m along my route and were advertising their presence with loud ‘tk-tk-tk’ calls emitted from their perches on posts, fences or almond trees. They are not shy birds and like you to know they are around. The males are very handsome with their charcoal grey plumage and bold white wing patches, whereas the females are a dull grey brown. Both males and females display the characteristic habit of vibrating their rusty-red tails, so with this habit, the ‘tk-tk-tk’ call and their fondness for noticeable perches, you should be able to spot them without too much difficulty.
Besides the calls of the Black Redstarts, there was an occasional one that was different, but very similar, with a ‘tick-ick-ick-ick-ick’; a quite long and rapid call. The owner was keeping out of sight, which isn’t unusual for this winter visitor, as here it reverts to its roots as a shy woodland bird. If you are from Northern Europe you will be surprised to know that the bird in question was a Robin (Erithacus Rubecola). Those that we see in the UK are very confiding and choose to be in close contact with humans. However, most of the Robins who spend the winter with us here are more often heard rather than seen, especially in the valley where I live. I suspect that they may have come from the forests and woodlands of the far north, where their human contact is less (that’s a guess!).
Some other winter visitors I was noting were Meadow Pipits (Anthus Pratensis). They are small brownish birds about the size of a slim Sparrow, so can be difficult to see as they feed on the ground looking for insects and seeds and their cryptic (camouflaged) plumage allows them to blend in perfectly. The first hint they are around, more often than not, is hearing their simple and short repetitive call, which to me sounds like ‘bis-bis-bis’. It reminds me of the first part of their Spanish name, Bisbita.
As I progressed, there was a very tiny bird hyperactively flitting around in the adjoining trees and shrubs. It was probably a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus Collybita), but to be totally sure, I wanted to see it for confirmation. These tiny Warblers over-winter here in their thousands. They get everywhere and are especially common around areas of water and reed beds. They are very similar in appearance to their close relatives the Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus Trochilis) and Iberian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus Collybita Tristis), so you might be wondering how you tell them apart. Unfortunately, there isn’t any easy and simple way of doing this, but I can give you a few pointers based on the likelihood of coming across each of the species and other clues to successful identification. Considering the probabilities is often a good clue to identifying some birds.
The most unlikely one to come across is the Iberian Chiffchaff, which is strange bearing in mind its name. It is officially classified as a very scarce migrant to the region, which is birders code for; “You will probably never see one”! It is almost impossible to identify it by sight out in the field and the most reliable way is by recognising its song. Unless you are a very keen birder who is really clued up on birdsong, I wouldn’t get too wound up about this one.
Chiffchaffs are extremely common from October through to April as they over-winter here en-masse. The Willow Warbler is a common migrant that is only seen here on passage and then more likely to be found nearer the coastal areas (but is also recorded at inland sites). This all means that in the depths of winter, the small similar looking Warbler is almost certainly a Chiffchaff. However, in spring passage during March and April it could be either and again in autumn, in late August and September, you have the same dilemma.
If they are singing, the two species have very different songs. For example, the Willow Warbler has a sweet voice and slightly descending notes. The Chiffchaff just repeats it name ‘chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff’. If it is not the season for singing then you have to get good views (a photo is always good). Firstly, look for the leg colour, then around the eye and then the length of the primary wing feathers. Generally Willow Warblers will have pale orangey legs and Chiffchaffs black legs, so that’s not too difficult. Chiffchaffs also have a darkish line running from the base of the beak through the line of the eye and it appears to cut through their white eye-ring.
The primary wing feathers are the longest flight feathers on the part of the wing furthest away from the body. On the folded wing they will be the feathers that make up the wing tips. In Willow Warblers, these primary feathers extend further than in Chiffchaff, making it look longer winged and shorter tailed. There are other more subtle visual differences, but I have already been a bit too serious so I will leave you with just one extra thought on this difficult ID challenge. Chiffchaffs habitually dip their tail downwards when on the move and it is quite noticeable, but Willow Warblers don’t have this habit.
At the moment there are no worries about what the small Warbler is, but in spring and autumn you will have to work a bit harder in identifying these two delightful little birds.
As I continued uphill into the shrubby and pine-covered hillside, another shy winter visitor was very evident, mostly when flying rapidly away from me! They were Song Thrushes (Turdus Philomelos) that I see at this particular place every winter. It is a very quiet spot with a small pool, dense cover and lots of berries and grubs for the birds to feed on. I just wish they weren’t so shy. They seem to see me as a threat to get away from as soon as possible. They are probably being very sensible, as hunters will shoot them if they can. It is legal in Murcia, but why?
Their close cousins the Mistle Thrush (Turdus Viscivorus) were also visible, but a bit further on in the more open areas of the almond fields. They are some 6-7cm larger than the Song Thrush, are more upright in their stance and have a more robust appearance. At this time of the year Mistle Thrushes like to associate in small family groups and can be quite noisy with their flight calls as they all keep in touch with each other. It is a very distinctive loud ‘rattle’ that once learnt is easily recognised.
I finished the survey with another winter visitor that previously I have only seen a couple of times in my 17 years here. So what was this rarity? It was another LBJ (little brown job) that is easy to miss as it inadvertently scurries about in the wooded undergrowth. It was a Dunnock, Hedge Sparrow or Accentor whichever name you prefer. It is very common garden bird in the UK and I guess most of Northern Europe, but it was great to see one again on my local patch.
A quick thank you is in order to John Thompson for once again allowing me to use one of his excellent photos. This time it is the Meadow Pipit.
Finally, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year and here’s hoping that it will soon become a normal one where we can socialise and travel as much as we like.
If anybody wishes to comment or has a query, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org