The last month has been quite frustrating from a birding point of view because I have not been able to get out and about very much. I had to go back to the UK for family reasons and this severely curtailed my excursions at a really interesting time of the year. It is an active period with spring migration underway and old friends coming back to the area plus the occasional rarity passing through.
At the time of writing, in early April, the undoubted star has been a relatively long-staying passage migrant called the Spotted Crake (Polluela Pintoja). It is normally a very shy, skulking bird of fresh water marshland that hides away in reed-beds and is very difficult to see. It would normally stay for just a few days or overnight before setting off again to its breeding grounds, but on this occasion it has been at the Campotéjar water treatment plant and nature reserve (near Molina Segura) for several weeks. There must be a plentiful food supply for it to continue so long. Not only that, but it has been relatively easy to see and photograph as it has been feeding in the passageway between 2 of the lagoons. It has been very popular with the local birding community and many have travelled from around the region to see and photograph it. I had the very good fortune of seeing one last year in the UK, but so far I haven’t had an opportunity to go to Campotéjar. It’s all a bit galling as it is one of my local and favourite birding sites!
After saying all that, I had better fill you in about what sort of bird a Spotted Crake is, as I imagine a lot of people won’t have a clue. It belongs to the family of Rails and Crakes that also includes the commoner and more visible Moorhens and Coots. It is about the size of a Starling, but is a completely different shape, with a rounded rear body, flattish breast, long neck and long greenish legs. It is normally very skulking and walks amongst the reed beds and vegetation looking for the small fish, invertebrates and plant material that it feeds on. There have been some reports of it breeding in Spain, but it is such a secretive bird that nobody really knows its true status in this country. It overwinters in Sub-Saharan Africa and returns to its main breeding grounds in Sweden and Eastern Europe, but there are scattered populations breeding in Western Europe in France, Holland and neighbouring countries. I’m not sure where it will end up spending the summer, but I hope it has a safe onward journey.
One of the few opportunities I had to do a bit of birding in Murcia was when I joined an excursion organised by the voluntary association, Caramucel. It was a trip to see some prehistoric cave paintings discovered in 2009 in a small cave called ‘El abrigo de Riquelme’ near Sierra de La Pila. The route there wasn’t easy and included a scramble with the help of a rope to get up into the small cave that was only 10 square metres. The cave art wasn’t particularly striking at first sight, but with our guide’s explanations it became clearer and more relevant. However, the sheer antiquity of the paintings is impressive and if I remember correctly they date back to between 3,000-4,000 years BC.
After the cave trip we continued our excursion with a walk to ‘La Puerta de Jaime’ a small gorge named after a bandit who used to ambush passing travellers at this point in the route. After passing through the gorge we came out on to flattish scrubland adjoining a rambla (dry river bed) and were accompanied by some joyous birdsong that puzzled me a bit. It sounded like a Lark, but didn’t quite match up. It took me quite a while to find the songster, but I eventually identified a small bird sitting atop a rosemary bush. It didn’t seem big enough to produce the continuous bursts of song that I was hearing. It was a summer visitor to our region, a Spectacled Warbler (Curruca Tomillera), which is a characteristic bird of Mediterranean lowland scrub habitats. Its European stronghold is Spain especially in our southeast corner of the peninsula. I have previously seen them in the area of the Saladares de Guadalentín between Alhama and Mazarrón.
In summer it can be found around the Mediterranean coastal fringes along Spain, Southern France and Italy. As it is insectivorous it normally spends the winter in Northern Africa where food supplies are more plentiful, although there are some birds that have been recorded over-wintering in Murcia. They are small birds, a little bit smaller than a House Sparrow and like many Warblers will flit around in bushes and other vegetation looking for insects, so seeing them is not always that easy. It is much easier to find them in spring when the males are establishing territories and will sing from prominent perches and fly upwards in short display flights. As is the case in many bird species, the male with its pure grey head and rufous coloured wings is more striking than the female. It has very noticeable white eye rings which gives it its name of Spectacled Warbler.
Whilst in the UK I managed to get away briefly from my family responsibilities to visit Sculthorpe Moor in Norfolk, a nature reserve run by the Hawk and Owl Trust. As I have a particular interest in birds of prey I have been a member of the Trust for a number of years, but never before visited any of their reserves. The day didn’t start well as the car broke down on the way! However, 3 hours later and £90 lighter, I arrived at the reserve with a new car battery; not the best start! Hopefully, the birding would be better.
I started my walk accompanied by a pair of Red Kites (Milano Real) flying overhead as I joined the woodland trail. These spectacular raptors that were close to extinction in the UK 40 years ago can now be seen in many parts of the country after a very successful re-introduction project. In Spain they are resident in the western half of the Iberian Peninsula in Andalucia, Extremadura and Castilla Leon, but outside the breeding season occasional birds are seen in Murcia. A few years ago I was fortunate to see a small group of 4 birds over the plains of Cagitán in the north west of our region.
As I continued around the reserve I enjoyed good views of our commoner woodland birds that were coming very close to the hides to feed on the well-stocked bird feeders. I was delighted to get some photos of Long-Tailed Tits (Mito) that in complete contrast to their hyper-activity in our local pine woods were taking their time and posing quite happily. It is a common bird in our Murcian woodlands, but the Iberian race is very slightly different from our British birds with the sides of the head being more dusky coloured.
I will leave you with a photo of a Brambling (Pinzón Real) that was feeding with the rest of the birds near one of the hides. It is a close relative of the Chaffinch that breeds in the birch forests to the north of Europe in Fenno-Scandia, but spends the winter further south in the UK, Central Europe and down into Spain. It is very uncommon here in Murcia, but occasional birds can be seen from time to time in some winters. Fingers crossed that I will bump into one or more next winter.
PS. Just before the publication deadline I visited Campotéjar and was lucky enough to see the long-staying Spotted Crake as it fed in the narrow passageway between two of the lagoons. I managed to get a couple of photos, but nothing good enough to publish. However, I got quite a good picture of a Black-Necked Grebe in its spectacular breeding plumage. It is interesting to note that both male and female Grebes have identical plumage.
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