Murcia has a superb coastline and it is probably one of the most important factors for many people in their decision to visit. However, my natural environment is inland surrounded by the mountains of the northwest of our region. It isn’t that I dislike the coast, but I do find it more tranquil here with a more authentic Spanish culture. However, I have been remiss in not exploring the beautiful coastal areas as much as I should have, especially bearing in mind that many of our best birding sites are along the shoreline.
I decided that I would make an effort and do a bit of sea-watching, a style of birding that I am not accustomed to. I am alright identifying Gulls and Terns that can be seen beach-side and close to shore, but I am a bit of a beginner when it comes to the more ocean-going birds such as Shearwaters and Petrels. There are birders who love sea-watching, spending many happy hours sat on some wind-swept cliff top with binoculars and telescopes glued to the sea, but it has never really rocked my boat.
Anyway, there is a first time for everything, so I decided to join in the monthly sea-bird census that has been carried out at Cabo de Palos for quite a number of years. This is just one of a number of monthly census points in a network that runs along the coasts of Spain and Portugal. This voluntary work helps enormously in providing a picture of sea-bird populations and their migration.
It turned out that I chose the quietest month of the year (July) for seabird activity! The very light or inexistent winds weren’t helpful as many sea-going birds are far more active when they can surf the winds and the waves. Maybe the decision was sub-conscious so as to give myself a less frenetic opportunity to learn the methodology and ID skills for the survey. After getting up at silly o’clock, I duly arrived at Cabo de Palos for the 7.30am start time and a three-hour sea watch.
In the first hour we were mainly seeing the local Gulls and Terns going about their morning rituals. Yellow-Legged Gulls (Gaviota Patiamarilla) were the most common, but it was good to see that Audouin’s Gulls (Gaviota de Audouin) were also around.
Yellow-Legged Gulls are the common large Gulls that you will always see here on the Mediterranean coast and are a very close relative to the UK’s Herring Gulls. In fact, not that many years ago they were thought to be a sub-species, but it is now accepted as being separate. Apart from their yellow leg colour (instead of flesh pink of the Herring Gull) they are practically identical.
In the late 1960’s the Audouin’s Gull was one of the world’s rarest, only occurring in the Mediterranean and with a population of about 1,000 pairs. It has subsequently expanded its breeding colonies along the Levante coastline and although still rare, the population has grown to about 10,000 pairs. It’s so nice to hear of an environmental success story!
Unlike most of our large Gulls that will happily scavenge for food, Audouin’s Gull is a specialist fish-eater which means that its habitat is strictly coastal and pelagic, avoiding inland areas and feeding out at sea. In terms of appearance, it is more elegant than the more thuggish looking large Gulls and a key identification feature is its dark red bill.
There were also quite a few Common Terns (Charran Común) (note the red beaks and black tip) feeding nearby and going back and forth past our viewing point. We were also seeing several larger Sandwich Terns (Charrán Patinegro) coming from the south and holding small fish in their beaks. We assumed that they (note the black beaks with yellow tips) were returning to nearby nesting sites to feed chicks.
After the survey we visited the nearby salt pans to see if our assumption, that the Sandwich Terns were taking fish to their offspring, was correct. Happily, this proved to be the case. There were also half a dozen Little Terns (Charrancito Común) present, which as their name implies, are quite a bit smaller than their larger cousins. They have distinctive yellow beaks with a black tip and white foreheads (good identification features). They are probably my favourite Terns and it is a pleasure to watch them as they swoop gracefully, then hover and dive down into the water to catch small fish or invertebrates.
For the uninitiated, Terns sort of look like Gulls, but are far more delicate and elegant. This has earned them the nickname of ‘swallows of the sea’.
During the second half of the sea-watch we started to see Shearwaters further out. There was a group of five that were skimming the waves on their long, (78-90cms), straight and fairly narrow wings as they went back and forth during quite a long time. We assumed they were feeding in a largish area opposite our observation point, as they repeatedly glided south-west and a bit later back towards the north-east.
Whenever I see Shearwaters I always think of them as the ‘Albatrosses’ of the Northern Hemisphere as they look and live in a similar fashion, gliding effortlessly just above the waves searching for fish. The ones we saw were Balearic Shearwaters (Pardela Balear) which is an endemic species that breeds in caves and burrows on some of the smaller Balearic Islands. They are true maritime birds living out at sea most of the year and only appear on land to nest. During the breeding season they will only approach their nests during night time as it would be too dangerous to return during daylight hours as they would be attacked by larger gulls. They spend their lives out at sea, mainly in the Mediterranean, but some birds will move out into the Atlantic Ocean around the Moroccan coast or north into the Bay of Biscay. Occasionally they are seen in UK coastal waters.
Other noteworthy sightings were of 3 Shags (Cormorán Moñudo), an unfortunate name that has delighted many a schoolboy over the years! They are a smaller cousin of the Cormorant and indeed look very similar. Cormorants are winter visitors in our region, so if you see a similar-looking bird in the summer it is almost certainly a Shag. They are also true seabirds that stay close to coastal areas with cliffs and never venture inland. They are a resident and scarce-breeding bird in Murcia with some pairs breeding on Grosa Island opposite La Manga and more recently have started nesting on the Island of Escombreras. It is also thought that some pairs may be breeding on isolated cliffs elsewhere in the region, but that’s very difficult to verify without physically climbing down to find them.
Besides seabirds, we were also keeping a look out for whales, particularly Fin Whales (up to 25m long) and Sperm Whales (up to 15 m) which had had been sighted a few days previously off the coast of Torrevieja. We were unlucky, but sightings are not uncommon here in Murcia.
So after my first proper sea-watch, the question remains, “Am I hooked?” I certainly enjoyed the experience immensely and without a shadow of a doubt I will do it again. However, I don’t think it will drag me away every week from my beloved mountains of the north-west.
Finally, an update from last month when I wrote about one of Murcia’s rarest breeding birds, the Rufous Bush Robin (Alzacola Rojiza). At the time of writing, ANSE (Association of Naturalists for the South East), was undertaking a population survey of the species and have just released their findings. It shows that there are nearly 50 territories (and presumably breeding pairs) in the region; more than originally thought. About 90% of these are in the coastal strip between Águilas and Mazarrón.
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