I read an interesting article in an online version of a UK newspaper recently. In fact you might have seen it yourself. It was about a wading bird that had undertaken a long distance flight that is now the current world record for non-stop migration. The bird was a Bar-Tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica) that had been caught on its breeding grounds in Alaska and fitted with a satellite tag. It started its journey on 16th September and flew without stopping, across the North and South Pacific Oceans to arrive on the coast near Auckland, New Zealand on 27th September. It flew at speeds of up to 55km/hr on its journey of 12,200km. It is an absolutely staggering achievement and it is difficult to comprehend how any living thing can undertake an 11- day marathon without stopping to feed or rest. It makes me tired just thinking about it!
Bar-Tailed Godwits are large wading birds, which are 37-41cm from bill to tail and have a wingspan of 70-80cm. They have very long beaks and feed in muddy areas on worms and molluscs. They breed in the Arctic from Scandinavia, round to Alaska and migrate south for the winter. Their wintering grounds vary greatly from New Zealand and Australia in the Southern Hemisphere to the coasts of India and South-East Asia and also here in Europe. It is a mystery to me why some birds travel huge distances whilst others of the same species do shorter trips to the UK and other parts of Europe. In this case it may be that different races of the same species have historical routes that they are genetically programmed to follow, but please don’t quote me on that, as it is only my best guess.
If you wish to see a Bar-Tailed Godwit you will be relieved to know that you don’t need to travel far, as they can be seen in Murcia most winters at the saltpans of San Pedro del Pinatar and coastal areas of the Mar Menor. However, their very similar-looking cousin, the Black- Tailed Godwit (Limosa Limosa) is more common and it is easy to confuse the two species. In flight the identification is fairly straightforward because, as their names suggest, one has a tail that is barred, whilst the other has a black tail that contrasts with a white rump. However, seeing them resting or feeding is a different story as they are more or less the same size, shape and have a similar posture. You don’t need to worry too much about confusing them with other common species of waders you are likely to see here, as they will be larger than the rest and have long straight-ish beaks.
How do you tell the two species apart, especially in their winter plumage? It helps to see them fairly close together so you can distinguish the subtle differences. The Black-Tailed Godwit has slightly longer legs, the beak appears very straight and its winter plumage is a uniform plain brown-grey. The Bar-Tailed Godwit has shorter legs and its plumage is brown and streaked rather than plain. If you look carefully at the beak it is more noticeably up-curved. If you can remember all that, have a second look at any large waders on your next visit to the coast and see if you can spot either of these Godwits.
I have to say that Godwit is a very strange name for a bird. I’ve read that it is derived from an old English word for good, in reference to a time when they were acclaimed as a tasty or good meal, but in truth, that is probably another guess by somebody.
At the moment as I sit writing at the computer, I am reflecting on some of my birding trips of the last few weeks prior to being confined to our rural municipality. As we don’t have a supermarket within our municipal boundaries I am hoping that our food supplies last before having to resort to foraging around the countryside.
I enjoyed several trips around and about and particularly enjoyed exploring the Saladares del Guadalentín. It is located to the south of Totana and Alhama de Murcia and is officially a Special Protection Area For Birds. It is a lowland plain that’s split in half by the River Guadalentín. All in all, with the surrounding agricultural areas it is about 75 square kilometres. The area has a myriad of farm tracks and it is amazingly easy to get lost, which makes a visit even more fun. However, before you set out, check the forecast as the tracks become treacherous after rain, even in a 4WD vehicle. It is an area that attracts a wide range of species and according to the database of eBird, 171 species have been recorded here in recent years.
If you haven’t heard of eBird, it is a really useful site that anybody can join and store their personal bird-watching records. The information is also available to scientists and researchers and is an excellent example of citizen science in practice. In Spain it is being adopted as the database for Spanish birders, but it has lots of good information that you can search once you have registered. I would certainly recommend it and you can change the language on the webpage to whichever you wish to use.
Back to the Saladares; besides the wide range of species to be seen here, it is particularly well known for two regional scarcities, Black-Bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles Orientalis) and Little Bustard (Terax Tetrax). Although both are larger than most birds, they are notoriously difficult to see well or get close enough to photograph. Sandgrouse have an amazing knack of blending into the landscape and look like rounded flattened stones that occasionally move. More often than not I see them as they fly away, which is very frustrating at times. When I am on Sandgrouse safari I drive slowly along the tracks and stop occasionally to listen. One of the clues to finding them is hearing their distinctive churrring sound in flight and seeing where they land.
These shy birds are 30-35cms long, are often in small groups and are fast-flying with long-pointed wings, so they look quite different from other birds in the area. They seem to favour the more natural areas of the Saladares and some of the fallow agricultural fields alongside.
Little Bustards are a bit like mini Ostriches in shape and stand about 45cm high. You would think that fairly tall birds would stand out in a flat landscape, but it’s not the case. They seem to like walking through growing crops with just their heads and necks visible, so they are difficult to see unless flying away from you.
A few times I have called them Little B.stards rather than their proper name! On my latest visit I finally managed to get some reasonable photos of both, maybe not the best, but I was delighted all the same.
The interesting thing about this site is the variety of birds to be found here. There are surprising species like Ducks, Grebes and Waders that frequent the artificial, plastic-lined irrigation reservoirs dotted around. On the same visit I also saw Common Pochard (Aythya Farina) one of our commoner Ducks, and Little Grebes (Tachybaptus Ruficollis) who seem to find a home in the most unlikely stretches of permanent water. It does seem incongruous to see them in an area of relatively dry plains.
The Saladares is also an excellent place for Raptors at this time of year with Golden Eagles (Aquila Chrysaetos), Marsh (Circus Aeruginosus) and Hen Harriers (Circus Cyaneus) being frequently seen hunting rabbits and other titbits. However, on this trip the only bird of prey of note that I came across was a Common Buzzard (Buteo Buteo) on the northern side of the area. The local Stonechat (Saxicola Turquatus) was keeping a wary eye on the Buzzard and seemed more relaxed when the Raptor eventually moved out of the little chap’s winter territory.
I suppose it might be a few weeks before we get out and about around the region again, but I hope the pandemic subsides soon and that you all keep well and safe.
Finally, I would like to thank John Thompson, a local bird photographer, for allowing me to use his excellent photo of the remarkable Bar-Tailed Godwit in flight.
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