I was walking along with my camera hoping for an opportunity to take some bird photos when I saw a very small brown bird fly down into a clump of reeds and grasses. How often does that happen? They can be very frustrating these LBJ’s (little brown jobs)! Why can’t they just land on a post and sit quietly whilst I move around to get the light just right, then compose a nice shot that would be a testament to my photographic skills (or lack of them)? On this occasion the small bird did help a little bit by starting to preen itself as I tried to get the zoom lens to focus on it. Fortunately it helped by staying there quite a long time, but it would have been more helpful if the leaf that was slightly in the way of a clear shot had moved. Well, you can’t have everything! I should count myself lucky as the subject matter was a Zitting Cisticola (Cistícola Buitrón), a small insignificant looking bird that is continuously on the move and which will happily hide from birders in any nearby foliage. 

Zitting Cisticola
Zitting Cisticola

This bird used to be called ‘Fan-Tailed Warbler’ (far more sensible to me), but it now has this very strange name of Zitting Cisticola which, unless you are a birder, you have probably never heard of it. Evidently, ‘cisticola’ comes from ancient Greek and probably relates to the low shrubby or herbaceous habitat it favours and the ‘zitting’ part is the sound the male makes during its zig-zagging courtship flights. If you see a little brown bird ‘zitting’ around in spring and summer you can impress your friends by pointing out to them a Zitting Cisticola! The best places to see them are areas of dense low herbaceous growth, especially in and around wetlands and coastal areas where it is a relatively common resident. Although I have described it as an ‘LBJ’, it is quite striking when seen well, as the varying shades of browns and russets in its plumage can appear quite golden at times if the sunlight catches it at just the right angle. However, seeing it did get me thinking about strange English bird names and their Spanish equivalents. Spanish names are often far more informative and useful because they tend to give you a clue about what you are looking at; but not always.

Male Sardinian Warbler
Male Sardinian Warbler

One of our commonest small birds is the Sardinian Warbler which you can often see flitting from bush to bush on its incessant search for insects, although it occasionally gets tempted by fruits such as ripe figs or grapes when in season. Our English name really doesn’t tell you much about the bird, apart from the fact that you should be able to see it in Sardinia! However, the Spanish name, Curruca Cabecinegra, does give you a bit of a clue, as you immediately know that it is a ‘Curruca’, (a member of the small group of Sylvia Warblers), so that narrows it down a bit! Its second name, ‘Cabecinegra’, tells you that it has a black head, which also helps quite a lot. Unfortunately, the female has a brown head, so the descriptive name is not totally fool proof, but certainly a lot more useful than knowing you might be able to see them in Sardinia! 

Black-Headed Gull
Black-Headed Gull

Another name, Black-Headed Gull, should help you to identify it, as it is clearly a seagull with a black head. Well, that’s easy! Unfortunately not, as our Black-Headed Gull actually has a brown head and a similar sized gull with a black head is actually called a Mediterranean Gull. Well, that’s as clear as mud! These two gulls only have their brown and black heads as adults in breeding plumage and the rest of the year have white heads with a couple of dark smudges. They are both small to medium sized gulls; about the size of a Wood Pigeon, but not quite as fat.  

Mediterranean Gull
Mediterranean Gull

The photos show both gulls in their full summer plumage and you probably think they look fairly similar, but the head colour is quite markedly different. In flight the Black-Headed Gull has noticeable black edges to the wing tips in contrast to the all white wing tips of the Mediterranean Gull.

Mediterranean Gull-In Flight
Mediterranean Gull-In Flight

Also, the Black-Headed Gull is far more common on both our coastline and inland wetlands so it is the one you are most likely to see. The Mediterranean Gull is a scarce resident and passage migrant that is unlikely to be seen away from the Mar Menor coastal wetlands.

Short-Toed Snake Eagle
Short-Toed Snake Eagle

Keeping with this theme, there is a bird of prey called the Short-Toed Eagle that is a relatively common summer visitor to our woodland areas, especially in the sierras in the central and north-western parts of the region. I have seen them loads of times soaring and sometimes hovering just like a Kestrel in search of reptilian prey of snakes and lizards, but I have never seen their toes however hard I’ve looked! Evidently, it does have relatively short toes, but the name isn’t very useful for identification purposes, although it is sometimes known as the Short-Toed Snake Eagle thereby giving a bit of a clue to its preferred dietary requirements. The Spanish name is Culebrera Europea and for those of you with a knowledge of Spanish, you will know that a Culebra is a snake and hence the name. It makes far more sense to me. On several occasions I have had the good fortune of watching these Eagles hunting near where I live. They frequently hover as they locate their prey and then rapidly dive down to catch an unseen reptile. On the times I have seen successful dives, they have then flown upwards with a snake dangling in their talons before returning to a nest or favourite feeding area. I could quote other strange names, but another thought has come to the forefront so I’ll move on to something else before it goes out of my mind, never to return! 

This new thought was triggered by a lovely birding experience whilst I was in the Straits of Gibraltar recently which is:

Do birds enjoy playing?

I can’t think I’ve ever seen common small birds engaging in something I would call play. Anyway I will tell you what triggered the thought. 

Griffon Vulture
Griffon Vulture

I was at an area with a colony of cliff nesting Griffon Vultures and was enjoying a really peaceful experience watching these magnificent masters of the sky soar slowly above our heads and along the cliff sides. Once they pick up the thermals their flight appears to be totally effortless as they glide and soar, riding the air currents. Then just above them, two more birds of prey appeared that were clearly not quite the same size. They were juvenile Bonelli’s Eagles. This is a species that is considered to be in danger of extinction in Spain and although they can be seen in Murcia, there are only about 25 breeding pairs. The pair started to dive from height at each other in behaviour that can only be described as ‘play fighting’. I was really enjoying the spectacle when, lo and behold, another slightly bigger Eagle turned up and joined in this ‘play fighting’. I couldn’t believe my luck when the new arrival, an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle, continued this game of aerial combat with the 2 young Bonelli’s for a further 20 to 25 minutes. One of the Bonelli’s tried the same game with a passing adult Griffon Vulture and practically landed on its back! The grumpy Griffon wasn’t at all amused and it went back to join its previous playmates. It was a unique experience to share with these birds and one of those ‘memories of a lifetime’ moments.

Back to my original question; Do birds play?

Adult Bonelli's Eagle
Adult Bonelli’s Eagle

Well, I am under no illusion that these young Eagles were playing and honing their crucial hunting skills that are so important for their survival. I am equally sure that they enjoyed the experience as much as I did. 

As a footnote, Spanish Imperial Eagles are unlikely to be seen in our region, but if you are really lucky you might see one across our northern border in the province of Albacete.

If anybody wishes to comment or has a query, please contact me on antrimbirder@gmail.com