I was chatting with a Spanish friend the other day about his recent holiday in the UK and as normally happens in this type of conversation we talked about the British weather, food and the tourist sites he’d visited. It was all fairly routine until he mentioned his visit to a garden centre. I immediately thought of all the beautiful flowering plants that were maybe unfamiliar to him in Murcia, but to my surprise he told me about the pet and wildlife section. It had obviously been a very thought-provoking excursion as he questioned me at great length about the number of bird feeders, nest boxes and the variety of bird food on display. He was fascinated by the fact that it was such a big business and why it was so popular to feed garden birds; something unheard of in Murcia.
I had never really thought about it very much, but it clearly had a big impact on my friend. I’m not sure whether he admired this British eccentricity, or thought we were all raving mad! However, it did make me think about his comments and wonder why it is so popular to feed birds. What is it that makes so many people, many of whom only have a passing interest in birds, spend so much money feeding and attracting wild birds into their gardens? I’m not sure if I have an answer to this, but I know that when I am out walking, listening to the sounds of the countryside and observing the birds, flowers, butterflies and insects, I feel relaxed. I enjoy the peace and tranquillity and find it therapeutic. It doesn’t worry me if I am only seeing the common sights and species, but I love observing the daily life of the wildlife that I bump into and invariably will always find something that I haven’t seen before. These companions don’t make any demands on me; they just want to get on with their lives. Maybe, sitting and watching the birds in the garden has the same relaxing, non-demanding and therapeutic affect on the army of people who feed them.
Another more profound thought is that humans have spent 99.999% of their evolutionary lifespan living closely with nature as hunter/gatherers and farmers. Just maybe we are wired to live our lives at nature’s pace, interacting with the wildlife that surrounds us, instead of the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. Our bird feeding habits might be a way of connecting with the natural world that our ancestors were immersed in?
Anyway, moving on from my very amateur philosophising; I went for a walk the other morning in my local area in the Campo de Ricote; nowhere particularly special, just around the fields and local pine woods, but what a delight to see so much activity wherever I walked. It wasn’t too long before the sound of a Cuckoo (Cuco Común) was accompanying me as I walked along the almond fields and within a short time I saw the male flying to perch on a nearby electric cable. The males are quite handsome birds with their blue-grey backs, head and wings all complemented by the light barring on their creamy white chests. Although easy to hear and identify if they are around, not many people actually see them, but they are very similar in flight to our common small falcon, the Kestrel (Cernícalo Vulgar).
A short distance further on I heard the happy sound of Bee-Eaters flying overhead, but I was soon distracted by other songs and calls.
As I continued through the almonds there were lots of Chaffinches (Pinzón Vulgar) singing and then I heard a soft churring sound coming from a nearby garden. I was pleased to hear it, as it was a Turtle Dove (Tórtola Europea), a bird I’ve neither seen nor heard previously in this particular location. They are receiving a lot of publicity at the moment as their populations across the whole of Europe are suffering a catastrophic decline due to agricultural industrialisation, pesticide use and over-hunting. I make no excuse for mentioning once again, that according to official figures, 700,000 are shot each year in Spain. Although there is a Europe-wide ban introduced on future hunting, it is still to be introduced in many regions of Spain, including ours!
I soon started to leave the fields behind and went along narrow paths into the pine woods. The accompanying bird song seemed to have stopped as I progressed silently along an old stream bed, around the hill and towards the olive groves. As I started to come out of the pine woods I had that eerie sensation that somebody or something was watching me. I stopped on a promontory overlooking the fields and patiently looked to my left, down to the right and then a little way to the front I noticed a very slight movement between the Lentisco bushes opposite. There was an animal staring at me! It had obviously heard me approaching and was waiting to see what would appear. We spent a few minutes observing each other at a safe distance and it obligingly stayed while I took a photo. It turned out to be a young, very cute and obviously curious Fox (Zorro). It was an absolute pleasure to share those precious minutes observing each other so calmly, until it became bored watching that strange old fellow on the woodland edge and slipped out of sight!
Continuing on from the woods, the bird song became more active and I started to hear Great Tits (Carbonero Común) calling and answering each other with their metallic sounding voices. Although being drowned out a bit, there was another bird calling that I recognised instantly; a Blue Tit (Herrerillo Común). This was a real surprise as they are very uncommon in my locality. After a few minutes I finally saw it actively flitting around in several almond trees searching for aphids and small grubs. I have suspected for a few years now that there is a small breeding population nearby and this sighting at the end of May is a little bit more evidence, although not conclusive.
Ahead of me there were some old ruined buildings which is always a good place to have a scan with the binoculars. On this occasion I was in luck as a Chough (Chova Piquirroja) was sitting on a window ledge. They are birds with shiny black plumage, a long red down-curved beak and red legs; quite unmistakeable if seen well. In winter there are quite large flocks in the fields nearby of maybe up to 100 birds feeding on insects, but in the breeding season they disperse as pairs look for nest sites in caves, crevices and rock ledges. In our area they are particularly fond of finding open windows of abandoned buildings in order to nest inside, which I suppose are just like caves!
As I moved on, a Jackdaw (Grajilla) came out of a hole in a concrete electric pole and perched on the roof near the Chough. They obviously get on quite well as they were happy together in reasonably close proximity; well they are cousins and both members of the Crow family. Jackdaws are intelligent birds and this one had been quite innovative in finding a nest cavity which it didn’t have to spend a lot of time constructing.
My walk back to the car from the ruins was relatively uneventful, but I was accompanied along the way by Thekla Larks (Cogujada Montesina) going about their day-to-day business and on two occasions I was lucky to hear the beautiful song of a Woodlark (Alondra Totavía). It is sometimes described as a soft whistling yodel, which often falls in pitch and becomes louder. Once identified it is not only beautiful, but very memorable.
I hope you enjoyed joining me on my walk through the countryside. It may appear that I was very fortunate to witness so much activity, but it is fairly normal. However, if you want to see things, go in the morning or later in the evening when our wildlife is more active and train yourself to open your ears as well as your eyes. Several people have commented to me over the years that in their area there aren’t many birds, but when I’ve visited there have been plenty; they just haven’t been noticed. You just have to listen, look and attune yourself to the sounds of the natural world (song, calls and movement). These are the first and most important clues. Secondly, be aware of your surroundings and look for movement in the sky, the ground and your peripheral vision and soon you will be seeing a lot more on your walks in the countryside.
Many thanks to my good friend Juan Lopéz García for allowing me to use his photo of a Turtle Dove.
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