By now many of our summer birds will have left us on their long and perilous journeys to winter in warmer climes to the south. It is always a bit sad to notice that your familiar birds are suddenly not around, as they quietly leave without any fuss. It is now known that many of our smaller birds leave at night and fly in the dark, so maybe that’s why I haven’t noticed. It makes me feel a bit sad for several reasons; firstly it is the thought of winter around the corner and then wondering where the time has gone since the spring migration. I had been intending to spend a bit more time looking for two summer visitors that I find intriguing. However, with COVID-19, a visit to the UK and post-breeding migration almost finished, the opportunity seems to have passed me by.
The first of those summer visitors, the Roller (Coracius Garrulus) is one of our most colourful birds. This pigeon-sized bird is particularly eye-catching as it is pale blue with green tinges and almost purple on the back and part of the wings. If the sun catches its plumage then the colours will stand out even more. It was recently estimated that there are about 250 pairs in Murcia, so we are fortunate that there is still a relatively healthy population here. However, it tends to be quite localised and fairly scattered across our territory. Rollers favour dry, open countryside with scattered trees and plenty of ground-dwelling insects such as beetles and grasshoppers to feed on. They are long distance-migrants and Spanish birds will travel 10,000km to over-winter in Angola and Namibia after resting and replenishing their energy in the Sahel. Our local birds, instead of going to the narrowest crossing point, probably take a fairly direct route and fly the 250km across the Mediterranean to Northern Africa.
In contrast, the second species I was hoping to find is very different from the colourful Roller as its cryptic plumage is for camouflage. It is nocturnal and spends the day hiding among the leaf litter under trees and shrubs before coming out at dusk to feed on moths. If you are lucky to see one during the day, they will sit very still and not move, even allowing you to come within a metre of their hiding place. They will stay put, close their eyes and rely on their camouflage to protect them; probably working on the theory that if they can’t see us then we can’t see them! Their nocturnal lifestyle means that the Red-Necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus Europaeus) goes largely unnoticed, but it can sometimes be seen resting on roads and footpaths during darkness. They migrate later than many species, so it is still possible to see the odd individual in October. It is thought that the majority will fly along the coast before crossing the Mediterranean at its narrowest point around Gibraltar and Tarifa. Unlike the Rollers their migration is much shorter as they winter in and around Central West Africa in Mauritania and adjoining countries.
During migration time it is a good opportunity to see many large soaring birds, (Storks and Birds Of Prey), waders and songbirds from Northern Europe that will pass through our region to their wintering sites. Some will stop to rest and re-fuel for a while and others will just pass through fairly quickly. Soaring birds move parallel to the coastline and make their way to the Gibraltar area to take the shortest possible sea crossing down to Africa. Others that don’t rely on soaring flight may cross directly from Murcia or other parts of Andalucía.
Some species can often be seen easier during this passage time and can pop up quite randomly as they travel through. Black-Eared Wheatears (Oenanthe Hispanica) spring to mind, along with their close relative the Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe Oenanthe). These smallish birds are slightly larger than a Robin. The family of Wheatears are categorised by their striking white rumps when seen in flight and are colloquially known by their appropriate but impolite name of ‘White Arses’! The photo is of a female Black-Eared Wheatear that I came across a few weeks ago. It is not so striking as the male, but I think the pastel tones of its plumage make it look very attractive.
Although it is a breeding bird of the region’s wetlands another Passerine (song bird) species that is more easily seen on passage is the Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla Flava). It is a bird which has a large number of sub-species, five of which are possible to see in Murcia during migration. They all look very similar in general shape and colouration, but have slightly different head and facial markings. The bird in the photo is probably the sub-species ‘Flava’ that breeds in Central Europe and not ‘Iberiae’, our summer visitor.
Waders also use our wetland sites, especially around the Mar Menor, to rest and feed-up before continuing their migration flights. It is a very good time to try and see some of the scarcer species such as Wood Sandpipers (Tringa Glareola). They are passage migrants, but are seen regularly at this time of year. The rather sleepy looking bird in the photo actually landed three metres away from me and obviously exhausted, continued to have a doze completely unbothered by my presence. Another Wader to try and catch on passage is the less scarce Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris Ferruginea). Although not in any great numbers, there is a good chance of seeing them at this time of year. If seen in August there will probably be a few birds still wearing their breeding finery, but the bird in my photo had already moulted into its autumn and winter ‘clothes’ as the photo was taken in the first week of September.
As is my recent custom I accompanied the passing Birds Of Prey on their journey from Murcia to the Straits of Gibraltar at the beginning of September. It was spectacular to see the huge numbers of White Storks (Ciconia Ciconia), Black Kites (Milvus Migrans), Honey Buzzards (Pernis Apivorus) and Booted Eagles (Aquila Pennata). Also, good numbers of Short-Toed Eagles (Circaetus Gallicus), Montagu’s Harriers (Circus Pygargus)and Egyptian Vultures (Neophron Percnopterus) plus the occasional Osprey (Pandion Haliaetus).
It really is stunning to see the thousands of Storks and Raptors riding the thermals as they gain height before risking the sea crossing. If they judge the wind direction wrongly, they can easily tire and be forced to land on the sea. If this happens there is no chance of taking off again, as they will slowly become waterlogged and eventually drown. It’s a mistake they will make only once!
My visit this year was slightly different because I took the opportunity to do a boat trip into the Atlantic, eleven miles into the Bay of Cádiz to the edge of the Continental Shelf. It is where the fishing fleets go, which means plenty of fish and good feeding for Pelagic (ocean going) birds. The trip was organised by Birding the Strait, a small bird guiding company run by two excellent birders, Yeray and Javi (both bilingual). As an aside, I have used their guiding services for several years and it is well worth booking a day or more with them if you intend to visit the area (www.birdingthestrait.com). You will both see and learn a lot more than doing it independently.
Anyway, back to the boat trip. After a hearty breakfast of Tostado con tomate and anti-sea-sickness tablets, our party of eight masked mariners plus skipper set off for six hours of riding the ocean waves.
Seabirds and migration don’t naturally spring to my mind, but actually most ocean-going birds travel thousands of kilometres on their journeys outside of the breeding season. It was a fascinating trip and we were able to watch a variety of species that I am personally not very familiar with: Storm (Hydrobates Pelagicus) and Wilson’s Petrels (Oceanites Oceanicus); Balearic (Puffinus Mauretanicus) and Cory’s Shearwaters (Colonectris Diomedea Borealis); plus groups of Black Terns (Chlidonias Niger), Gannets (Morus Bassanus) and various Gulls. However, the star of the show was a Great Shearwater (Puffinus Gravis) a ‘lifer’ for me (a bird seen for your first time) or ‘bimbo’ in Spanish. These birds breed on the islands of Gough, Nightingale, Inaccessible and Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. They are quite large birds with a wingspan up to 1.2mt and spend their lives at sea feeding on fish and squid. Not a bad diet! They are one of the few birds that do a reverse migration from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere. After breeding they will fly to the eastern seaboard of South America, then make their way up the Atlantic to North America. They will then cross back over towards Europe before returning south down the west coast of Africa to their breeding islands. An incredible journey of probably 30,000km plus. It makes you tired just thinking about it!
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