I have just read the editorial of an authoritative nature magazine (Quercus) that described the loss of biodiversity in many rural areas of Europe. It left me feeling quite sad and a little bit angry. Annual scientific surveys undertaken by the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/Birdlife) demonstrate that the bird species associated with agricultural land suffered a 55% decline between 1980 and 2015. This is a very significant loss in quite a short time span. Secondly, other studies show there has been a quite incredible 76% decline in insects in Germany during the last 30 years. If this part of the food chain disappears, all those species that depend on this food source and higher up the chain will inevitably disappear as well. They are just two examples of a European-wide decline in biodiversity.
These shocking statistics have encouraged more than 2,500 scientists to write to the European Parliament asking for a radical change in the Common Agricultural Policy which is deemed to be the principal cause of this loss of biodiversity. The annual cost to European taxpayers of the subsidy is 60,000 million euros; 36% of the Community’s entire budget. The bulk of the money doesn’t go to small independent farmers and growers, but instead goes to very large landowners and businesses that practice industrial-scale agriculture with intensive land use and extensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This type of agricultural practice is the root cause of the loss, causing habitat deterioration, poisoning the land and our water supplies. Without a radical change in policy to a system that rewards less intensive agriculture and good environmental standards, the future for nature looks bleak indeed.
It is ironic that a European Union on one hand has introduced so much good legislation and protection for Europe’s wildlife and habitats, is on the other hand undermining all its own work with an agricultural policy that is contradictory and rewards the destruction of our ever-shrinking natural resources.
I suspect that the agricultural lobby, as so often happens, will ensure that scientific evidence will be vilified and diluted in any future debate on this topic. Something similar also appears to be happening close to home with the debate about the Mar Menor. Already the proposals to solve this environmental disaster have been diluted significantly by local politicians, presumably influenced by powerful lobby groups who dismiss much of the scientific evidence.
I will now get off my soapbox and talk about something far more agreeable; a birding trip to one of the most important wetland reserves in our South-east corner of Spain. I have to admit that it isn’t in Murcia, but it is reasonably close. The nature reserve in question is between Catral and Santa Pola in Alicante province and is called ‘El Hondo’, or as some of the nearby signs say ‘El Fondo’ (maybe it’s Valenciano!).
Historically, the reserve and surrounding agricultural land was a huge lagoon until the 18th century, but as a result of natural silting and drainage work, it dried out. As later there was a need for fresh water, the large reservoirs, which are part of the reserve, were constructed. The engineering works also created adjacent low-lying land that nowadays provides additional marshland habitat. The main part of the reserve can only be visited on Saturdays by prior arrangement with the reserve staff. However, don’t let this put you off visiting on other days as there is a manned information centre that is open each day from 9am-2pm. There are a number of walks and nature trails close to the centre that afford excellent viewing of the birds and wildlife. It has a choice of short and medium routes with several bird hides to visit as you explore the area close to the visitor centre. Driving a bit further away, there are a further 4 public hides that look over the main reservoirs. These can be accessed from a footpath on the southern boundary that runs along the CV-861 (Carretera al Hondo del Contador). The hides are marked by fingerposts placed along the footpath that runs parallel with the main road.
The El Hondo reserve has an amazing bird list and according to the eBirds database it currently stands at 210 different species; something quite spectacular. On this recent occasion I managed to see 45 species and was reasonably pleased, even though it felt like a comparatively quiet day compared to previous visits.
The reserve is well known for a number of special birds which include the rare Marbled Duck and Red-Knobbed Coot. The Marbled Duck is very rare in Western Europe with the only breeding populations being in Coto Doñana (Andalucia) and of course El Hondo. It has been recently recorded as breeding in a few other isolated wetlands, but with very few pairs. The 2018 census estimated the total Spanish breeding population as being between 68 and 70 pairs. This is the total population in the whole of Western Europe, so it is no surprise that the Marbled Duck is classified as in critical danger of extinction. 100 years ago it was very common, but a loss of shallow wetland habitat and over-hunting has reduced the population considerably, hence the importance of reserves like El Hondo.
The Marbled Duck is quite a small duck and just a little bit larger than their close, common and more colourful cousin the Eurasian Teal. They favour wetlands with relatively shallow water as they are ‘dabbling ducks’ that feed on seeds, plant material and insects on or close to the surface. They are the ones seen with their behinds in the air and their heads grazing below water. (Ducks are generally classified as ‘dabbling’ or ‘diving ducks’. Diving ducks require deeper water as they dive down for their food, either vegetable or animal or both).
In recent years there has been a captive breeding programme at El Hondo to release young Marbled Ducks back into the wild and help the population to recover. Breeding success has been very good, but the final results of the project are poor because several released birds have been shot by hunters. Unfortunately, much of the land surrounding the reserve is used by hunters and whether deliberately or by error, some birds are shot after a few short months of life. The staff involved in this recovery project must feel like they are pushing water uphill! Hopefully, somebody will find a solution to this perverse situation.
Whilst at the visitor centre you will have a good opportunity to see this rare duck, as they are often seen in the pool area directly alongside and behind the building. In the same location you will probably be able to see the rare Red-Knobbed Coot that looks exactly like the ubiquitous Common Coot, except for 2 strange looking red pimples on top of its forehead. This bird has also been subject to a captive breeding programme to augment the population.
The other bird to look out for in the same area is the Purple Swamphen which looks like a Moorhen on steroids, as it is nearly twice the size. At a distance its plumage is a uniform, dull black colour, but seen closely with good sunlight it is transformed as its shiny, shimmering, blue and purple colouration shows it to be so much more attractive. It also has a whopping bright red bill, long red legs and a white bum; all-in-all a strange looking bird to see as it walks slowly through and up the reeds looking for the tender shoots and other plant material that form its staple diet.
As I ventured further into the reserve I was pleased to see a healthy population of birds of prey that could be seen flying overhead from time to time. The stars for me were two Ospreys, but I also enjoyed some pretty good views of Booted Eagles and Marsh Harriers.
I always enjoy watching large raptors and this site is particularly good for the two latter named birds.
Another bird that caught my eye as I was wandering on the paths, was an Iberian Grey Shrike that was perched on some overhead cables, patiently looking for a suitable large insect, small bird, animal or reptile to come into range.
It didn’t appear to be very hungry, but was certainly looking to make use of any opportunity to catch its next meal. They always appear very rakish with the highwayman’s mask covering their eyes!
Finally, I was pleased to see some Reed Buntings flying to and fro between the reed beds. They are a scarce and declining breeding bird in the Iberian Peninsular. They are winter visitors here and the majority are probably birds from Northern Europe. The males are strikingly marked and quite easy to identify, but the females are LBJ’s (little brown jobs) and pose more of an identification challenge! If you wish to see them in Murcia the most likely places to find them are sites with suitable habitat; i.e. around the Mar Menor, Campotéjar, Los Saladares de Guadalentín and a few places along the River Segura.
Well, that’s all for now and maybe next month I will be able to show you some photos of birds from a more exotic location. I am shortly off on a foreign birding trip and by the time you are reading this I will have just returned.
If you like the photos you can see more on my new Instagram account ‘Murciabirding’.
If anybody wishes to comment or has a query, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org