In last month’s article I was intending to describe my visit to Valdeinfierno or in English, “The Valley of Hell”, but ran out of space. As I promised to tell you about it this month, here goes.
It is located (in the municipal area of Lorca) very close to the border of Andalucia,at the extreme West of our region and quite a bit North of the city of Lorca. It is in the middle of nowhere, or as older Spaniards might say, “está en el quinto pino”. To arrive there, I drove to the small town of Zarcilla de Ramos then continued on poorly maintained, single-track roads West, in to the desolate and lonely plains in front of me. The road started to twist and ascend towards the mountain ranges of Gigante and Culebrina.
I didn’t see another living soul, neither human nor animal. As I headed to this lonely place there was just the occasional heavy-goods vehicle driving from a distant marble quarry. It wasn’t the best track to meet another vehicle, never mind a large lorry! I finally crept up to the saddle of the hill I had been travelling towards, and started to descend down the other side into a vast uninhabited valley or high plain. As I got closer, I realised that the plain was actually the bed of a large reservoir that had dried out.
It was now filled with silt and had been invaded by thousands of Tamarisk shrubs. I drove on to the dam (constructed at the end of the 18th century) that held no water, parked and started to explore on foot. On the other side of the dam, you could peer down to the deep and impressive gorge of the River Luchena. And not a spot of water around! It was an eerie and strange landscape that gave you a feeling of loneliness. I admit to feeling quite uncomfortable there.
However, I was shaken out of foreboding thoughts by a male Ring Ouzel that flew straight past me. That cheered me up and put me in birding mode!
Ring Ouzels are scarce, but regular Winter visitors to Murcia and are found in the more remote spots of the region at high altitude. As you will see in the photo these birds are closely related to our resident and common Blackbirds, but they have a white crescent on their chests that distinguishes them from their common cousins.
As I walked around the area it seemed strange that there was either no, or very little bird sound, which added to my uncomfortable feelings about the place. However, it wasn’t long before Crested Tits and Song Thrush were added to my bird list.
However, the point of this visit was to look for vultures, as there is a large colony of Griffon Vultures that nest on the cliffs within the gorge. The area is also home to the first pair of Black Vultures that have bred in our region for over a century. They are solitary nesters that breed away from the crowded colony.
Above the ridge of the adjoining mountains a few large soaring birds started to appear and I was able to spend plenty of time watching more than twenty Griffons soaring effortlessly on the winds along the mountain ridge. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a Black Vulture, but seeing the more common Griffons it became mission accomplished. It was now time to leave the “Valley of Hell”, and I have to admit I was glad to go.
My next avian adventure was much more relaxing, as it was to attend a book presentations at Los Alcázares Town Hall. The first presentation, by lead author Gustavo Ballesteros, was a study and analysis of the aquatic birds of the Mar Menor. It was undertaken by a team of local, well-known birders. It is an excellent work and if you can read Spanish, I thoroughly recommend it.
The next book, that is nationally and probably internationally, important was “the Red book of the birds of Spain” (El libro rojo). This is a mammoth study of the state of conservation of Spanish bird species. It analyses the population trends for species during the last 20 years and also the current threats to them. The Executive Director of SEO/Birdlife (Spanish Ornithological Society) Asunción Ruiz, presented the book to the audience. The book can be downloaded for free, all 1,015 pages, but unfortunately it is also only available in Spanish.
It is quite an academic analysis of bird populations and compares the current situation with the historical study published in 2004. As you would imagine there are winners and losers since then, but unfortunately the losers (85 species) far outweigh the winners (34 species). In ornithological terms Spain is probably one of the most important European countries for birds (with 572 species naturally occurring), 40 of which have their major European populations in this country. So, any loss of birdlife here is a major blow at both national and international levels.
It is a book that makes for depressing reading as it identifies that 50% of our bird species are suffering from declining populations, some of which are extremely serious. The major problems relate to agricultural intensification, pesticide usage, habitat deterioration and contamination of land and marine environments. Unless change for the better is forthcoming, the situation will inevitably worsen and our grandchildren will be condemned to living in a world without birdsong – another “Silent Spring” (for those who remember the book of this title about pesticide usage, especially DDT).
Anyway, I’d had enough of the depressing news and my evening brightened considerably as many of the panel and audience retired to the nearby hotel bar for a few beers and lively debate after the formal presentations.
The following morning, I took advantage of my overnight stay on the coast to visit the salt pans of San Pedro del Pinatar, one of my favourite birding sites. On arrival I thought I would spend half an hour exploring the garden around the Visitor Centre. It is mainly planted with native trees and shrubs and has 2 artificial ponds and a couple of bird hides. It was clearly designed to be attractive to both the local wildlife and nature lovers.
The gardens were alive with bird song and small birds hyper-actively flitting in and out of the shrubs as they looked for tasty titbits. It was amazing the number of over-wintering Chiffchaffs that were everywhere you looked. Some of them were so intent on catching their breakfast or almuerzo that they were coming extremely close. It was as if I had become invisible. If only they would have stayed still for a photo for more than a split second! By the time you read this most of them will be undertaking their long journeys North to their breeding grounds.
A couple of Sardinian Warblers were also making their presence known by calling loudly with their rattle calls, consisting of single notes repeated at rapid speed. A friendly male bird was obviously curious about me as he came out of the thick undergrowth just long enough for me to take a photo. He soon decided that I wasn’t very interesting after all.
After these pleasant distractions I moved to one of the bird hides overlooking the 2 pools. As I settled myself down it seemed that there was nothing there at all. I am not as patient as I ought to be and I was starting to fidget a bit after 10 minutes as I was getting bored. Then a small group of Monk Parakeets entertained me briefly as they flew quickly and very noisily overhead. They are an invasive species that comes from Argentina, but escaped cage birds are now established in several of our coastal areas. They are quite cute, but I wouldn’t like to live near a colony of these birds as they are noisy blighters!
After that small break in the boredom, I scanned the area again with my binoculars and lo and behold there was a small wader motionless on the island, it was a Little Ringed Plover. As I watched it, I began to notice more movements on the island and in fact there were 4 birds present. They look more or less identical to their very slightly bigger cousin, the Ringed Plover. Both species appear in the region and it can be difficult to tell them apart, but as they come into breeding plumage in spring you can identify the Little Ringed Plover by its dark beak and the beautiful and quite noticeable, gold eye ring.
As I watched the Plovers one of them walked in front of what looked like a largish stone, but I’ve never seen a stone with a yellow eye! Looking more intently at the stone, it suddenly transformed itself into a well camouflaged Stone Curlew sitting stock still, to blend in with its surroundings. A more careful search produced another well-camouflaged Stone Curlew on the island. That reminded me that patience is a virtue! It was certainly a pleasant and surprising end to my short trip to the Visitor Centre garden.
My thanks to my good friend Juan García López for allowing me to use his photo of a Crested Tit and John Thompson for permission to use his great shot of a group of Monk Parakeets.
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