I am enjoying my time back in Murcia after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to the UK and beyond in recent months. It has been good to visit some of my old haunts and I have had some particularly good trips to Campotéjar Nature Reserve and water treatment lakes. There has been a lot to see because as well as the normal residents, many summer visitors have returned and a few passage migrants have added to the interest. There has also been a lot of activity as birds are pairing up, looking for suitable nesting sites and starting their annual rush to raise their families.
On my last visit to the site I was pleased to see a pair of Yellow Wagtails actively feeding around the pathways along the water’s edge. There are 10 or 11 different races of this particular species and some birders do get excited about identifying them all. Their plumage differences can be very subtle, especially when you add inter-racial hybrids in to the mix, but unless you are into this, just relax and enjoy these very attractive looking birds when you see them. The ones I photographed at Campotéjar are the blue-headed race commonly seen in north and central Europe. They are different from UK birds as the males have a bluey-grey head and white stripe above the eye (instead of yellow green on the top of the head and bright yellow on the rest).
As Yellow Wagtails prefer open habitats in the form of wet meadows, saltpans, fresh and saltwater marshes, I am assuming that the birds I saw were just passing through on their migration to more northern climes. In Murcia their preferred habitat type means that they are more likely to be found in areas around the Mar Menor than inland. Before I leave the subject of wagtails, I should mention that people sometimes confuse Grey Wagtails and Yellow Wagtails as they do have some similarities in plumage colour. However, Grey Wagtails have an all grey head, back and wings instead of the yellow-green back and wings of Yellow Wagtails. They also have longer tails and are a bit more hyperactive. You are more likely to see them in the north-west of our region as they prefer fast-flowing rivers and streams; a habitat which is in very short supply near the coast.
Campotéjar has been designated a site of special ornithological importance because of the breeding White-Headed Ducks which are now extinct in other Western European countries. This means that the remaining populations in southern Spain and Morocco are vitally important for the future survival of this species.
Therefore, on a recent visit it was great to see a female with 6 ducklings in one of the lagoons. Unfortunately, a few days later only 2 ducklings remained. When other birds, animals and even some fish see the youngsters as a tasty meal, it shows how difficult it is for them to survive to adulthood. Nature can be very cruel at times and only the strongest and luckiest survive.
A pair of Great Crested Grebes also caught my attention and luckily my camera managed to record them showing some courtship behaviour. These Grebes are handsome birds that come face to face to perform amazing courtship dances, flicking their heads from side to side or sliding towards each other low in the water.
They sometimes perform a different dance raising themselves upwards chest to chest whilst holding plant material in their beaks. My photo shows the pair just after finishing a short bout of head flicking.
Other birds that I was pleased to see on my visits were a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. The majority of the European population over-winters in sub-Saharan Africa. However, some of them avoid this long journey and stay along the coast around the Mar Menor. In summer they can be found in all the regions of inland Spain if there is suitable habitat available, but always at relatively low densities. By a couple of cms, this small wader is just a little bit bigger than a Sparrow and is quite strikingly marked when sporting its shiny new summer breeding plumage. It is also remarkably similar in appearance to its very close cousin the Common Ringed Plover. The differences between the 2 species are very subtle with slight variations in the colour of the legs, beak and around the head. If you get a good close view in summer the Little Ringed Plover has a golden eye ring that is a big help for identification (see photo). They breed on bare or stony ground near fresh water such as on river banks and lake sides. The pair I was observing were on a very gravelly area near one of the lakes, so I was surmising that they could be breeding, but the last time I was there they seemed to have moved on. The area is next to a main path so probably there was too much disturbance from people and dogs for them to remain safely.
Besides my visits to Campotéjar, I have been intrigued by some recent sightings of Montagu’s Harriers on the nearby plains of Cagitán. The plains have been changing quite dramatically since I came here as it used to be a vast area of open countryside used by several large goatherds and principally for cereal growing. However, in recent years vast acres have been planted with almond trees and this is very quickly changing the habitat for the local wildlife. When dramatic change happens there are always winners and losers. Personally, I find it quite sad that this rare landscape is gradually changing into yet another almond growing area and pushing out the unique and vulnerable wildlife that is adapted to these steppe type conditions.
Montagu’s Harriers are migratory birds and spend the winter in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the Niger Basin. They favour plains where they nest on the ground, often within cereal crops. Unfortunately, due to habitat change in recent years I have been seeing these beautiful birds of prey infrequently on Cagitán. However, with recent sightings of both a male and a female I am keeping my fingers crossed that it may be a breeding pair.
With their pale grey plumage with black wing tips and black bands on both the top and underside of the wings, the males are particularly striking. The females are brown with barring on their wings and breasts and both males and females have a white rump patch. They have slim bodies with relatively long wings and tail and hunt their prey of small birds, rodents, reptiles and large insects by flying low over the fields. It is always a pleasure to watch these graceful birds of prey slowly and patiently quartering the fields before dropping suddenly on some unsuspecting and unfortunate creature. I will keep my fingers crossed that in future articles I will be able to report that a healthy family has been raised on the plains, but I suspect that they may move on to new pastures where there are fewer almond trees.
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