Most of my local birding trips tend to be a spur of the moment type. However, my trip to the Steppes of Yecla with John Thompson and Tony Rea, two bird photographers, had been planned a couple of months in advance without knowing if the weather would be any good or what the birding would be like. We met at sunrise at an area close to the Steppes and drove out into the uninhabited landscape. It was interesting because I am a birder who has a camera with him, whilst John and Tony are bird photographers first and foremost. I’m quite happy to see birds in the distance, but I soon realised that John and Tony wanted to position themselves with the sun in the right direction and fairly close to the birds. This was a completely new experience, but I was starting to learn a little bit more than point and click. On reflection, I think I am quite happy with my informal approach to bird photography.

Great Bustard - John Thompson
Great Bustard – John Thompson

The birding was ok, but the light and the distances were a bit iffy for Bird Photography. We had however seen a group of male Great Bustards, but a bit too far away for the photographers. However, I was delighted about it, as this is the only site in the whole of the Region where it is possible to see them and then only during the winter. Seeing them isn’t guaranteed and sometimes it is like searching for a needle in a haystack! Being such a big bird, this is very surprising. An adult male will stand just over 1 metre tall, have a wingspan of up to 2.7 metres (my wingspan is 1.7m) and weigh anything from 6-18kgs, depending on age. The Iberian Peninsula holds 60% of the world’s population and the plains of Castilla La Mancha is a great place to look for them. 

Great Bustards - Tony Rea
Great Bustards – Tony Rea

Strangely, it is highly unlikely that you will see a female Great Bustard here in Murcia. It is only the males that migrate to Yecla. Males and females live in separate flocks most of the year, except at mating time. Males congregate in a place called a lek and compete with each other to see who has the best dance moves. A John Travolta of a Bustard lekking site will be chosen by the watching females that will then probably mate with 6 or more of them. The males then go their own way after mating and leave the females to create a nest, incubate the eggs and raise the family. If you believe in re-incarnation I recommend you return as a male, and not a female Great Bustard!

The cave of Horadada
The cave of Horadada

At lunchtime we went to Monte Arabí, a local beauty spot and archaeological site, as I thought that the impressive cave of ‘La Horadada’ would sate their photography appetites. The birding was struggling a bit! However, as we drove back across the Steppes we came across a much larger flock of Great Bustards, with good light, but a bit distant. It would be interesting to see how the huge zoom lenses would cope with this challenge. I have never seen so many Bustards in one field. I counted well over 30. Normally, about 12 birds would be considered good for Yecla. I soon had two very happy companions clicking away with their cameras before the Bustards decided it was time to move on. 

My next trip was a spur of the moment decision as I was supposed to be going to El Valle to walk ‘Las Murallas de King Kong’, an emblematic Murcian route with a lot of ‘uppy’ bits. Instead, I decided to take myself off to the Saladares del Guadalentín, as it would be my only opportunity before going travelling in the New Year. I have trips booked to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Morocco.

Black-bellied sandgrouse
Black-bellied sandgrouse

I never put myself under pressure about what birds I see on a visit, but I prefer to play it by ear. However, in the back of my mind was the hope of seeing Sandgrouse, a notoriously difficult species to spot. As I started slowly driving across the barren plains, I spotted a fast-flying bird a fair way off to my left. I thought it looked like a Pigeon or maybe a Falcon. Much to my surprise, when I finally focused my binoculars, it was sharp winged and had a very noticeable black belly on a light background. Amazingly, it was a Black-Bellied Sandgrouse! This called for a change of route, so I changed my destination to coincide with the flying Sandgrouse i.e. to the southwestern extremity of the Saladares. I must be lucky, as I spotted four birds on the bare ground to my left about 50 metres away. Their plumage is cryptic, so they have an amazing ability to blend into the landscape, looking like elongated round stones. I had good views for a few minutes before they took off and flew very quickly into the distance, never to be seen again.

Cattle egret
Cattle egret

As I drove slowly around the field tracks with the car occasionally sliding to one side or another in the mud, a fair variety of birds managed to put in an appearance for my benefit. At my first stop there was a group of Cattle Egrets standing by the side of the road watching a digger driver filling in a trench. They appeared to be happy with the work and seemed to give their silent approval to the finished product. It also occurred to me that perhaps they were more intent on pouncing on any poor insects or worms that the digger might uncover!

Kestrel
Kestrel

I was hoping that a few birds of prey would be out hunting, but apart from the many Kestrels and Marsh Harriers, nothing else put in an appearance. However, a bit further on I was entertained by an incredibly tame Hoopoe who insisted on posing on a post next to my car and obliged me by turning around so I could get photos of all its profile.

left Hoopoe
Left Hoopoe

I am not accustomed to this sort of behaviour as their first reaction is normally to fly away and I have enough shots of fleeing Hoopoes. I have to say that they have a rather attractive rear end view, with their overly large butterfly type wings, which are strikingly marked black and white. They really are unmistakeable and very noticeable birds.

Spotless Starling
Spotless Starling

My next stop was for a Starling perched on a cable. How strange to pay attention to such a common bird! Starlings are extremely common, but many people will not realise that in wintertime we have two similar looking species of Starlings in Murcia. Our resident species is called a Spotless Starling and is very similar to its close relative the Common Starling, which is the bird regularly seen in northern European countries. Spotless Starlings are only found in the Iberian Peninsula and Northern Africa, so it offers a good tick for birders from the rest of Europe. I was interested in the lone Starling as I was wondering which species it was and it turned out to be a Common Starling and presumably had therefore just arrived to spend the winter in the sun of Murcia. As the name suggests, our resident Starling is ‘spotless’, but otherwise looks identical to its northern cousin. The two photographs clearly show the difference, but take care with your ID as the Spotless Starling has faint spots on its plumage in winter!

Black-necked grebes in winter plumage
Black-necked grebes in winter plumage

My final stopping points were to see what Waders and Grebes were hanging around. It seems strange to look for these water-loving birds in a nearly desert-like landscape. 

Black-winged Stilt
Black-winged Stilt

However, agriculturalists have constructed several artificial irrigation water reservoirs. Many of these are devoid of birdlife because of the shiny plastic banks, but others have gravel and reeds growing along the banks and are attractive to water birds. It is always worth checking these reservoirs, just in case something unusual has stopped for a rest.

Common sandpiper
Common sandpiper

However, on this occasion there was nothing out of the ordinary; just a few Black-Winged Stilts, Common Sandpipers and some winter plumaged Black-Necked Grebes. I know that the day I don’t check these reservoirs there will be some rarity there; you need to be lucky!

I would like to thank my friends and bird photographers, John Thompson and Tony Rea for allowing me to use their photographs of Great Bustards taken recently when we visited the steppes of Yecla.

If you have any comments or queries please do not hesitate to contact me on antrimbirder@gmail.com