My wife normally goes to a class on furniture restoration on Thursday morning in Caravaca, but her friend Tatiana was unable to pick her up because of another commitment. Quick as a flash I volunteered to drive her the 50 minutes there and pick her up again at lunchtime. Not only would it win me ‘Brownie points’, but it would mean 4 hours to myself exploring the mountain areas on the region’s north-western boundary.
When I go out, birding I have a mental checklist of things I must take with me such as notebook, pen, binoculars, camera and telescope. However, as I was going to the village of Inazares and high up in the Los Revolcadores I would need additional items: woolly hat, windproof jacket complete with fleece, gloves and flask of coffee. It is always considerably colder in the north-west and even more so where I was going.
Inazares is the highest village in the region at an altitude of 1,350m (nearly 4,500 ft) which is 5m higher than Ben Nevis. It has an official population of 40 and many of the houses have been converted into ‘Casas Rurales’, or holiday cottages, so that at weekends and holiday times there is plenty of life in this very small village. It also supports two very good restaurants providing traditional cuisine, but it is worth checking if they are going to be open mid-week, especially in winter.
If you are into star-gazing then Inazares is officially recognised as the best place in the Iberian Peninsular for astronomic observation due to its geographical location and lack of light pollution. The other claim to fame is that it is situated in the lee of the region’s highest mountain, Los Revolcadores, whose peak El Pico de Los Obispos is at an altitude of 2015m (6,610 ft).
If you don’t know the area, I would recommend a visit to both the village and the surrounding countryside. The landscape is quite different from many parts of the region. It is predominately limestone with a flora dominated by Aleppo Pines (different species from most of our woodlands) and Evergreen Oaks with an under-storey of Juniper, Rosemary, Thymes and a variety of smaller plants adapted to the more severe conditions prevalent in this area.
If you are feeling particularly energetic you could take a walk to the summit of the mountain (the WARM walking group’s book includes a route) the highest point in the region. If you arrive at the top there is a wooden box that contains paper and pencil for walkers to leave messages for whoever wishes to read them!
Anyway, as I drove closer to the village with the car’s frost warning brightly lit I started to get into birding mode, with the camera on the seat beside me and binoculars on my lap. I tried to concentrate on the road, but also on any birds in the adjoining fields. I wouldn’t normally drive in this fashion, but there was little or no traffic, nor likely to be. I think I saw just two other cars all morning.
I stopped at various points along the route using the car as a mobile bird hide. It is often better to do this as birds are less likely to fly off. However, I did venture out a few times to investigate a bit further. I was seeing a lot of more common birds such as Larks and flocking Finches (be careful with the last phrase if you try to say it too quickly!).
There were also quite a few flocks of Linnets (a small Finch); a common enough bird, but often overlooked as they seem to be constantly on the move and can appear to be just another LBJ (little brown job) if not seen well. They are quite small (a couple of centimetres smaller than a House Sparrow) and appear slim. Unfortunately, it is another farmland bird that has declined dramatically in the UK, but here it is still common and can be seen in all areas of Murcia. In breeding plumage, the males are particularly attractive with their red forehead and chest, but in winter their plumage is duller and provides better camouflage.
Further along the route I spotted a very small bird flitting alongside the road amongst the stunted bushes. It just had that jizz (a feeling because of behaviour) of being something a bit different. As I watched it playing hide and seek with me amongst the undergrowth it appeared very briefly, but cocked its long tail in a characteristic pose. It was an instant identification; a Dartford Warbler; a good start to the day. Although they are reasonably common residents in the right sort of scrubby habitat (matorral), these small Warblers are always a delight to watch as they flit about looking for small insects amongst the foliage. The males are quite pretty with their deep red wine-coloured chests and the females are similar, but with duller plumage colours (as is normally the case).
Once at the village and duly wrapped up in all my available clothing I ventured out to wander around the orchards on the outskirts of Inazares. There were plenty of flocking Finches, but no sight of the Bramblings that had been reported as being there a week or so ago, so I dipped out on those. Bramblings are sort of like Chaffinches, but breed in Scandinavian countries and are occasional and uncommon winter visitors to Murcia. However, this year there have been a number of sightings and more than in previous years.
However, I was soon compensated for missing out on the Bramblings, by getting a hat-trick of Buntings with Corn, Cirl and Rock Buntings all seen around the village. Buntings are all Sparrow-sized songbirds with stout triangular shaped beaks typical of seed-eaters. They tend to have characteristic head patterns, although in the case of the Corn Bunting this is a bit more subtle.
I was especially pleased with seeing Cirl Buntings as they are quite a scarce resident bird which I have only seen here occasionally and mostly in the North-western areas of the region. It was interesting to see all three species in relatively close proximity to each other as they tend to favour different types of habitat, with the Corn Bunting preferring open cereal areas, the Rock Bunting more mountain areas with open woodland and the Cirl Bunting being quite happy in orchards and mixed habitats.
Besides the Buntings, I was hearing and seeing a number of Great Spotted Woodpeckers flying about. It is a scarce resident and again mainly found in the North-west. They were flying from tree to tree and were very visible. I have to say that it is far easier seeing them in winter when all the leaves are off the trees. Speaking of which, the number of deciduous trees in Inazares is another notable difference from the rest of the region.
After wandering around the outskirts of the village I decided to drive a few kilometres higher up and see what hardier birds were around on the lower mountain slopes. I found a place that looked interesting. There were old water troughs surrounded by deciduous shrubs including wild dog roses with bright red rose hips. With water, food and shelter provided, it definitely had promise. Sure enough, within a few minutes I was hearing and seeing Crossbills coming to drink at the troughs. It seemed strange to see them perched on the adjoining deciduous trees and shrubs as it is a bird associated with coniferous trees as they feed on the seeds of pine cones. Their crossed bills (hence their name) are especially adapted to opening cones to access the seeds. The females are a greenish colour (as the photo) and the males have more colourful reddish plumage.
As I continued watching the Crossbills I heard a chattering sound from some of the bushes that was sort of familiar, but not something I was accustomed to hearing here. As I was processing my thoughts and eliminating the species they might be, I saw two large Thrushes flying away. They were Fieldfares, birds from the far north of Europe that are very scarce winter visitors. They are occasionally seen in some of our North-western mountain ranges and the summit of Sierra Espuña, but not every winter. My familiarity with them in the UK, where they are common winter visitors, allowed me to identify them quite quickly. It was proving to be a very worthwhile trip, as it was a first for me in Murcia. Fortunately, they returned to feed on the rosehips as I was trying to photograph some of the Crossbills, but they didn’t want to pose for a photo. Some you win, some you lose!
I suddenly realised that it was quite a bit later than I thought, so I quickly returned to the car. I didn’t want to lose my ‘Brownie points’ by being late back to Caravaca to pick up my wife. As I got into the car, the thermometer was registering 2 degrees (at 1pm) and as I arrived in Caravaca it was 11 degrees. On checking later, the temperature in Mazarrón was 17 degrees! It is amazing how our relatively small region has such a variance, but that is another reason for its natural diversity.
If anybody wishes to comment or has a query, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org