One of my last excursions before going on holiday was to the area between Archivel and Campo de San Juan in the northwest of the region. I was exploring with some friends and trying to find a new walking route in an area that we had wanted to investigate for a while. It is a poorly populated area with large tracts of unspoilt countryside and some impressive mountain ranges. It was also a very cold day at the beginning of January during the cold freezing weather that had just come down from the north and east of Europe. Needless to say, we were all wrapped up with warm jackets, gloves and woolly hats, but at least we were walking with clear blue skies and good light enhanced the beauty of the landscape we were going through.
As often happens when exploring a new route, you inevitably come to a point in the track where you can’t continue and have to go off-piste. On this occasion it was a fortuitous detour through the pine woods because we inadvertently flushed a strange looking bird from the forest floor. It was a relatively large brown bird about the size of a Pigeon, but with a stocky body and a very long bill. It was a Woodcock (Chocha Perdíz) or sometimes known as the ‘Snipe of the woods’ as it is very similar in looks to this wader. In fact, it has all the appearance of a wader, but is a bird that breeds in moist woodlands interspersed with open glades or fields. It isn’t easy to spot as it is active mainly at dusk and stays hidden on the ground during daytime as its brown plumage provides perfect camouflage on the woodland floor.
The Woodcock is a resident breeding bird in the Pyrenees and Cantabrian Mountains (Galicia and eastwards) and many birds from northern Europe overwinter in the Iberian Peninsula, but very rarely do they come as far south as Murcia. In fact, this is the first one I have seen here and so feel fortunate to have got a glimpse as it quickly flew away from where we flushed it.
Unfortunately for them, Woodcocks are a popular game bird and it is thought that 75,000 birds are shot annually in Spain. They are also hunted in the rest of Europe and Russia at probably unsustainable levels. Although it is a difficult bird to monitor properly, the British Trust for Ornithology have estimated a 40% decline in their UK population. It is unknown if similar declines are happening elsewhere, but I suspect that hunting pressures are causing a general decline of this unusual bird.
“It now seems a million years ago since I saw the Woodcock on that cold January day, as although it is only a week later, I am now 9,000 kilometres away in Sri Lanka. The contrast is remarkable as I am now birding in hot humid jungles where everything is different; the weather, the green lush jungle, the people, culture, food and of course the birds. My staple diet is now rice and curry although it is difficult to convince my hosts that I really want my curries at local Sri Lankan strength and not the ‘Westerners’ strength’ that is normally served to Europeans. Our local bird guide, Athula, has promised me that he will convince them to serve me an authentic local curry. I hope that I pass the test!
“At the moment I feel like a novice bird watcher as nearly everything I see and hear is new to me. This lack of knowledge, coupled with the difficulty of spotting birds in the jungle, makes it essential to hire a local bird guide. We are fortunate that Athula is fantastic at finding birds, besides being able to manoeuvre the vehicle around oncoming tuk-tuks whilst keeping an eye out for roadside birds. He even beats my wife for having eyes in the back of his head!”
Many of the common and more easily seen birds are quite spectacular and it has given me plenty of opportunity to play with my newish camera. The day before our flight here I attended a 1-hour introductory course and learnt about all the different camera modes that are available. I think I should have done it 5 months ago when I got the camera, but being a typical male I just pressed all the buttons to learn how everything worked. Not for me, those technical instruction books! Imagine my surprise when I learnt that my camera has a birdwatching mode! You can judge for yourself in the adjoining photos of Sri Lankan birds if the birdwatching mode and some very patient birds have compensated for my lack of knowledge and skill with the camera!
A very colourful chap that is quite common in the jungle areas is the endemic (only found here) Sri Lanka Junglefowl; a truly wild species despite the fact that the male looks like a domestic cockerel. I have to say that every time I saw one I kept on wondering if it would taste just like chicken; not the most appropriate thought for a birdwatcher.
Another endemic bird is the delightful Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, a small bird that is not quite the size of a House Sparrow. They are colourful and enigmatic birds as they hang, often upside down, looking for the buds, flowers, seeds and fruit that they feed on. They are not always easy to spot as their natural colours blend in remarkably well with lush green jungle foliage.
The Sri Lanka Swallow is similar looking to the common Barn Swallows that we see in Europe, but is far more striking when seen close up, perched on trees or cables, as the red-chestnut colour of their chests is both attractive and quite distinctive. I thought we would be seeing a lot of them, but they appear to be completely outnumbered by over-wintering Barn Swallows.
Whilst in fairly thick jungle, our guide showed us a small Flycatcher (about Sparrow size) that was difficult to spot at first, but once seen it was fairly easy to observe. Like many, if not all members of the Flycatcher family, it would stay on a favourite perch waiting for flying insects to come close before flying out to catch them. Generally, it would either return to the same perch or one very nearby. This Flycatcher went by the name of Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher; not a particularly attractive name for such an attractive bird. The males are particularly so, with their deep blue plumage on the wings and back, contrasting with the beautiful orange/red tones of the throat and breast – a little gem.
Another striking bird is the White-Throated Kingfisher that is quite commonly seen perched on trees along the roadsides. Most of us in Europe assume that Kingfishers are birds of wetlands that dive into the water for fish, but this isn’t the case for quite a number of Kingfishers. This species is a Tree Kingfisher, often seen well away from wetlands as its food is more terrestrial such as small reptiles, birds and amphibians. It is nearly twice the size of our Common Kingfisher and shares with its European cousin the electric-blue colour of its wings, especially when seen in flight. The photo shows it perched with an Indian Pond Heron in the background. The other Kingfisher that caught my eye is the Pied Kingfisher which is a fishing member of the family and although black and white I thought it was just as striking as its more colourful family members.
The bird of prey that is common, especially in wetland areas, is the Brahminy Kite which survives by scavenging dead fish and catching crabs. In the Hindu religion it is a representation of Garuda, the sacred bird of Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu gods.
On travelling through more open countryside we have been delighted watching Little Green Bee-Eaters as they perch on low bushes before sallying out on short hunting trips to catch bees, wasps and other flying insects. If the sun catches their plumage the colours are very striking.
Finally, I will leave you with a photo of a male Purple-Rumped Sunbird, a tiny bird that like Hummingbirds feeds on nectar, using its long downward beak to probe into the centre of flowers. This particular bird I saw attacking a window of our hotel, an activity you may have witnessed at home with other birds like Robins or Chaffinches. It is territorial behaviour, generally displayed by males who see their reflection in the glass and think it is a rival encroaching on their territory. It must be incredibly frustrating to attack a supposed rival who will endlessly return the aggression with equal vigour!
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