For those of you who have been reading these articles in recent months you will know that I am currently in the UK after a Christmas visit. The intention was to return to Murcia at the end of January, but due to COVID travel restrictions I am still here. Although I am missing my usual stomping grounds, it has been a great opportunity to explore the many great birding sites around my new English base in the county of Suffolk. It has also been an opportunity for me to compare some of the birdlife in the two places. Spain and the UK have much in common, as they are both in Western Europe and share the north/south migration routes of many birds. However, Suffolk and Murcia are 2,200km apart, so it has been interesting to note some of the divergence that this latitudinal distance makes. There is much that is familiar as well some clear differences and surprisingly there are even a few different accents in the bird songs!
On a walk one day I was hearing familiar common bird songs, but they were sounding a bit different from what I was used to, so I was struggling to identify the birds quite as readily as I was accustomed. At the time I put it down to being in a different habitat and environment that wasn’t triggering my sub-conscious reasoning. As this happened a few times I began to mention it to other birders on chance meetings and did a bit of research.
Evidently, some birds have developed slightly differing local and regional repertoires with differing tones and notes. A very knowledgeable birder told me that the Chaffinches in Holkham, Norfolk definitely have a local accent and some of their calls sound similar to the contact call of a Nightingale. It causes a great deal of confusion for birdwatchers searching for Nightingales; a bird that is increasingly uncommon in the UK and much sought after by local birders. In Murcia it is fairly common around areas of scrubby growth, especially along the banks of the River Segura. If you have never heard this enigmatic bird, I suggest you take a stroll along the riverside downstream from the village of Ojos during May and early June. You should be rewarded with the sound of their continuous and beautiful singing from dense vegetation, but probably won’t get a glimpse of this quite drab bird. However, be quick as they stop singing once the task of raising a family has commenced.
On my regular forays into the countryside the air has been filled with bird song. One bird in particular made my heart skip when I first heard it on a local woodland walk. It was a fairly monotonous song that was quite loud and insistent, ‘chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff’. Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus Collybita), so named because of their calls, are a common bird in both countries. The reason it made me so happy to hear it was the fact that I hadn’t heard one for many years and it fleetingly took me back in time to forgotten and pleasant memories. Chiffchaffs are very common winter visitors in Murcia, but apart from occasional short contact calls, are silent until they return to their summer breeding haunts. In the UK they are summer visitors, but nowadays there are more birds over-wintering (probably due to climate change). I have to admit that I am now beginning to get a bit bored with the monotony of it all after several weeks of hearing this repeated song!
On visits to wetland areas, a bird that I have been hearing a lot is the Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus Schoenobaenus). It is a very common summer visitor here, but is a very good bird to see in Murcia where it is a scarce migrant, occasionally spotted at some of the coastal wetlands and reed fringed riverbanks of the Segura. I wonder if the birds I am seeing (or more often hearing, because of their secretive habits) have travelled through Murcia on their return journeys from Sub-Saharan Africa. I haven’t spotted any Murcian accents so far, but their songs can be somewhat gutural!
A very regular garden visitor here in Suffolk is the Common Starling, a bird which I have never really bothered too much about in the past. However, during winter in Murcia I have been in the habit of checking the flocks of Spotless Starlings (Sturnus Unicolor) that I bump into, just in case there are Common or Northern Starlings (Sturnus Vulgaris) that have palled up with them for the winter.
In case you are wondering, the Spotless Starling is the normal resident Starling that you will see all year round, but in winter there are always some Common Starlings that make a partial migration south to spend the winter in southern Spain. In the UK we have the pleasure of seeing just Common Starlings and it would be an amazing find if a Spotless Starling turned up one day. I should probably check all the ones that are visiting the garden, just in case a Spotless joined them on their return journey. Well, it costs nothing to dream! The adjoining photographs show the two species in their summer best, but in winter the Spotless Starling does have some light, delicate spotting so it is best to double check your identification.
Another uncommon winter visitor to Murcia that occasionally gets driven south by cold weather in Northern Europe is the Siskin (Carduelis Spinus). It is a small and attractive Finch with green and yellow plumage with splashes of black and is similar looking to its commonly occurring close relative the Serin (Serinus Serinus). The Siskin is resident in the UK and a few days ago I was pleased to take the attached photo of this male bird in its breeding finery as it came to drink at a woodland pool.
I am sure you are all quite familiar with White Wagtails which are relatively common small birds in Murcia. They are instantly recognisable with their black and white plumage, jerky walking style and a long tail that is in continual movement. Hence, the common name of Wagtail. They are also common birds in the UK, where they look different as they have far more black in their plumage, especially on their back.
English birds are also commonly called Pied Wagtails and not White Wagtails. Suitably confused? They are in fact the same species, but there are two distinct races; the UK race (Yarrelli) and the Continental European race (Alba). In winter it is possible to see the very occasional UK bird that has decided to escape the British weather for a few months to visit their southern cousins.
Whilst on a trip to the coast I was watching some small waders as they fed along the shoreline and I was pleased to see a few Sanderlings (Calidris Alba) and Dunlins (Calidris Alpina) that were in summer plumage ready to fly up to their arctic breeding grounds. I am accustomed to seeing both of these small common waders around the coastline of the Mar Menor, but generally in their drab winter plumage. You do occasionally see them with partial breeding plumage, but clearly there are better opportunities to see them in all their finery when they are 2,200km further north on their journey to the Arctic.
On a visit to the neighbouring county of Norfolk, I came across an uncommon Duck that I regularly see in Murcia at wetlands such as Campotejér. However, in the UK it is very uncommon so I was pleasantly surprised to see a very striking drake Red-Crested Pochard (Netta Rufina). It was so unexpected that I had to pinch myself, but there is no mistaking it with any of the other Ducks that can be seen in the UK. I suppose it goes to show that birds, like humans, are unpredictable at times and if they fancy going to somewhere unusual and exotic, all they have to do is unfold their wings and away they go – a very enviable lifestyle during a global pandemic.
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