I have just spent a very enjoyable, but quite intensive four days birding with Miles, a very good friend of many years. Miles helped me by acting as a critical friend with my recent book Birding in Murcia, so his visit was a great opportunity to show him some of the sites featured therein. I’m sorry, but this sounds like an unmissable opportunity to suggest that the book may be a good stocking-filler, assuming you are still scratching around for Christmas present ideas!
Our trips around the Murcia Region allowed us to tick off a total of 108 species, which is clearly a lot more birds than I can reasonably tell you about. I think I would need the whole magazine rather than these two pages! I will pick out some of the birds that caught my imagination, some of which are very scarce and others less so.
Our first day of birding incorporated visits to Campotéjar and the Saladares del Guadalentín, two sites that always offer glimpses of good birds, especially for visitors from Northern Europe. My last visit to Campotéjar was probably prior to the pandemic, so it was like visiting an old friend. Fortunately, all the wildfowl that I was accustomed to seeing were still there, including the rare White-Headed Duck (Oxyura Leucocephela), the scarce Ferruginous Ducks (Aythya Nyroca) and Red-Crested Pochards (Netta Rufina), plus lots of Common Pochard (Aythya Farina), Shelduck (Tadorna Tadorna) and Grebes. However, these lagoons held a very pleasant surprise as we came across a very scarce bird, a Wryneck (Jynx Torquilla).
Wrynecks are small Woodpeckers that are just a bit bigger than a Sparrow. Although they breed in the north of Spain they are very scarce passage migrants in our region. In fact, it is only the third time I have come across one in my 18 years of birding here. Needless to say we were delighted to see it, especially my friend Miles, as it was a lifer for him (never seen it before). They get their English name because of their ability to twist their heads through 180 degrees. They feed on ants and ant larva and are summer visitors that over-winter in Sub-Saharan Africa and maybe a few in Andalucía as well.
Flushed with our success we headed down to spend the afternoon visiting the Saladares del Guadalentín to try and find Black-Bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles Orientalis) and Little Bustards (Tetrax Tetrax). We didn’t have a sniff of either bird, but we did get some excellent views of Stone Curlews (Burhinus Oedicnemus). These resident nocturnal birds are quite common, but extremely difficult to spot as they play doggo (sit quietly) during the day. Their cryptic plumage allows them to blend in perfectly with the landscape, so it is always a pleasure when you do find them and can see them properly.
Soon afterwards we saw a flock of Starlings and thought we would have a closer look to see if there were any Common Starlings (Sturnus Vulgaris) mixed in amongst the resident Spotless Starlings (Sturnus Unicolor).
Each winter we have varying numbers of these birds from Northern Europe that decide they would like a little bit of winter sun. In fact, there were quite a few in amongst the flock. There have also been more reports than normal of other Northern European birds being seen, such as Siskins (Cardeulis Spinus). In fact, just before sending the article to the magazine there were two sitting on the electric cables in front of the house! It is strange so early in the winter and in such numbers, so I’m not sure how ominous it is for this winter’s weather in the north – winter is coming!
Our next day was a visit to the saltpans of San Pedro del Pinatar. I was hoping to see some Audouin’s Gulls (Larus Audouinii) loafing by the beach, but there were none to be seen however much I searched amongst the numerous Yellow-Legged Gulls (Larus Michahellis). We moved down to the saltpans where we had better luck with the waders and enjoyed really close views and some great photo opportunities of Ruffs (Philomachus Pugnax) and Little Stints (Calidris Minuta).
Ruffs are medium-sized waders with quite long legs and medium length beaks. They are seen at San Pedro quite frequently during the winter and on passage, but never in great numbers. They can be frustrating birds to identify for beginners as they are quite variable in size, with the males being significantly bigger than the females, which doesn’t help! Neither does it help that their beak and leg colour can differ from bird to bird and the plumage can vary as well. I’ve heard it said that if you can’t identify the wader you are looking at, it is probably a Ruff! One tip that I can give you is that quite a big percentage of them, but not all, have a white ring of feathers around the base of the bill, so, good luck with looking for Ruffs amongst the waders.
The other wader intent on feeding just a few metres away from us was a lot easier to identify, especially when so close. It was a Little Stint, the smallest wader that occurs in the region. It is tiny; about the size of a sparrow. They have shortish legs and beaks, so you will normally see them feeding along the shoreline or just in the shallow water at the edge. Their little legs won’t allow them to paddle in any deeper water! It might be small, but it must be pretty tough and hardy as it is a long distance migrant. It breeds in the arctic tundra and will often over-winter in Africa or South Asia. However, the brighter ones will hang out at San Pedro during the winter. It certainly beats flying down to the southern hemisphere!
Our third day was spent in the north of the region in and around the Steppes of Yecla, primarily looking for Sandgrouse. It is a great spot for both species found in Spain: Black-Bellied and Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles Alchata). We didn’t find a hint of them. Even though I stopped frequently to listen for their calls, the place was deadly quiet with just the occasional Little Owl (Athene Noctua) keeping an eye on us. It was proving to be a surprisingly low-key day until we spotted a group of Great Bustards (Otis Tarda) on one of the fields to our left. Every year there are a handful of these stately birds that will spend the winter here on the Steppes. It is the only place in the region that you have any chance of seeing them and I was very pleasantly surprised to watch them glide slowly across the plains. The males are about one metre tall with a wingspan of 2.4mtr and for such a big bird, have an amazing ability to make themselves invisible on the open plains.
Our final day was a visit to the El Hondo wetland across the border in Alicante province. The highlight of the morning was watching a number of Spoonbills (Platalea Leucorodia) feeding close to the boardwalk. They look a bit like Egrets being long-legged all-white birds, but once you see their incredibly shaped spoon-like bill, they are unmistakeable. Whilst watching them, a very excited Belgian guy with a camera and lens combination nearly as big as him, approached us. He settled himself down long enough to show us a photograph of a bird he had just seen skulking amongst the reeds.
Wow! It was a Spotted Crake (Porzana Porzana)! This is a very scarce migrant and an extremely secretive bird, so two excited Brits (trying to be laid back and British about it) joined the very excited Belgian back to where the bird had been spotted. Fortunately, it was our lucky day and the bird put in another appearance, which was long enough for me to take a photograph. It soon returned to type however and hid itself in the dense reeds.
My final bird for this month is one that is very common and epitomises winter in Murcia for me. No, it is not a Robin (Erithacus Rubicula), but a Black Redstart (Phoenicurus Ochrurus). Once they arrive here, they are everywhere. In the fields around our house you can hear their cheeky and cheerful “tk-tk-tk” calls every 50mtr or so.
I will sign off by wishing you a very Happy Christmas and hope you are able to celebrate with the customs and normality that we enjoyed prior to the pandemic.
Many thanks to John Thompson for allowing me to use his excellent photograph of a Wryneck.
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