The easing of the Covid-19 restrictions at the end of May was something I really appreciated. Moving to phase 2 meant being able to visit places outside of the 1km limit from home.
The first trips were close to home with some lovely early morning and late evening strolls along the banks of the River Segura near the village of Ojós (near Blanca). There is a short circular walk of 2.5km that starts from the village and takes in both banks of the river. The bird song was quite amazing, besides Cetti’s (Cettia Cetti) and Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus Scirpaceus), Nightingales (Luscinia Megarhynchos) singing continuously at this time of year. They are singing to attract a mate and/or claim a territory and every 50m or so along the riverside there was another Nightingale. One bird did perch obligingly for a while, but my fumbling fingers weren’t quick enough to get the camera focused and a good photo opportunity was lost. Anyway, Nightingales are not as beautiful to look at as their song suggests! They are dullish brown birds with a reddy-brown tail and they like to skulk around in the undergrowth. They look a little bit like a Robin without the red breast and are ever so slightly bigger.
Whilst I was looking for these skulkers, a bigger bird landed in the reeds on the opposite side of the river. It looked a bit like a small Heron. After scanning the area with binoculars I glimpsed a very well disguised male Little Bittern (Ixobrychus Minutus) half way up some reeds. This is one of the scarcer members of the Heron and Egret families breeding in the region and being only 33-38 cms tall, (about the same size as a Pigeon), it is also the smallest. Most of the family breed in colonies, but Little Bitterns are solitary and build their nests within reed beds in order to be close to where they can catch the small fish, frogs and insects that form the bulk of their diet.
Nearby, Red-Rumped Swallows (Cecropis Daurica) were landing by puddles so that they could get mud for nest building. They construct mud domes with a tunnel entrance that are stuck to overhangs which could be under bridges, abandoned buildings, or rocks. If you see one of these nests they are quite amazing structures and must require thousands of visits to collect sufficient building material.
Another attractive summer visitor that was staking out his territory, was a small masked predator, a Woodchat Shrike. It hunts large insects, small birds and amphibians and will wait patiently on a favourite perch for an unsuspecting meal to pass by, before swooping down to catch it.
Coming to the end of the walk, a small Warbler was calling from a nearby Tamarisk bush. It wasn’t too difficult to spot as it was perched at the top and was singing its heart out. It was an aptly named Melodious Warbler (Hippolais Polyglotta), a summer visitor that will have crossed the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea to arrive here. You can’t help but admire its achievement of completing this dangerous journey for a bird that is smaller than a Sparrow.
On regaining more confidence to venture out further afield, a trip to Cabo Cope to look for Rufous Bush Robins (Cercotrichas Galactotes) became very attractive. The area around the cape, although being quite arid and barren in places, is beautiful. On arrival, the blue of the sea and the varied coastline were looking at their best in the sunshine, particularly as we had the place to ourselves. It wasn’t too long after arriving that a Thrush-like song advertised the presence of our quarry, Rufous Bush Robin. They are normally a bit skulking and prefer to forage low down in thick bushes. However, at this time of the year the males are much more interested in singing from visible points in their territory to warn off any impertinent rivals, so good views can be enjoyed without too much difficulty. It is a bird that has seriously declined in Murcia in recent years, but the 2019 survey identified nearly 50 breeding pairs. This result was good news as it was better than had been anticipated.
On leaving the coastline we came across a rambla that still contained some water along its sandy and gravelly banks and saw a very attractive Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius Dubius) on patrol. It probably had a nest or chicks nearby as it was quite bold and posed beautifully for a photograph. This species is very similar in appearance to its very slightly larger cousin the Ringed Plover (Charadrius Hiaticula), but in summer it can be identified by its prominent gold eye ring.
The next day trip was also coastal, this time to the saltpans of San Pedro del Pinatar. The lockdown had obviously been of great benefit to the breeding birds of this regional park as not only were there more birds, but also species that hadn’t previously bred here. According to the staff at the Visitor Centre this success was probably due to no visitors and the lack of any disturbance to the nesting areas. Species such as Terns, Avocets, Plovers and Stilts, all require areas of undisturbed sand and gravel to nest. Unfortunately, many visitors are oblivious to this and will walk through and trample the ground where there are possibly nests and eggs. Even if there is no physical damage, the disturbance will often cause the adult birds to abandon their nesting attempts or move elsewhere.
Out in the park there were plenty of Little Terns (Sternula Albifrons) hovering above the shallow waters, looking for prey before diving down into the water to catch an unsuspecting small fish.
Common Terns (Sterna Hirundo) were loafing alongside the lagoons in close proximity to the central roadway, before recommencing fishing trips slightly further afield. There was also a steady stream of Sandwich (Sterna Sandvicensis) and Gull-Billed Terns (Gelochelidon Nilotica) constantly on the move between nesting and fishing areas, but they were keeping further out in the saltpans.
Slender-Billed Gulls (Chroicocephalus Genei) are sweeter-looking than many of their more brutish-looking Gull relatives and they have taken full advantage of the lockdown this season. There are many breeding pairs in the park and this is in stark contrast to previous years where you would have been lucky to find only an occasional pair. It is to be hoped that they continue in future and that 2020 isn’t remembered as a one-off.
Black-Winged Stilts (Himantopus Himantopus) are also having a good breeding season and there were many pairs, often noisily seeing off intruders daring to get close to their offspring. I was given a very strong scolding by one pair in the garden of the Visitor Centre. I assumed they had young nearby and quickly moved away and left them to their domestic chores.
Avocets are also having a good year with an estimated 80 pairs breeding, instead of the handful that normally try.
The best news about this breeding season is that, for the first year ever, there is now a breeding colony of Herons and Egrets that has established itself in the large reed bed at the entrance to the Salt Pans (near to the Visitor Centre). Apparently, there are Cattle (Bubulcus Ibis) and Little Egrets (Egretta Garzetta), Black-Crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax Nycticorax) and 4 pairs of Glossy Ibis (Plegadis Falcinellus). As far as I am aware it is the first time this latter species has bred in the region, so 2020 has brought plenty of good news to San Pedro del Pinatar.
There are lots of nice birds to see, but for most people who surprisingly aren’t birders, it is the ever-present Flamingos (Phoenicopterus Roseus) that grab their attention. However, they never breed here and the flocks all consist of juvenile and non-breeding birds. That would be a very special event if Flamingos did start to breed!
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