Let’s hope that the weather has improved by the time you start reading this article. The very wet start to Spring seems to have delayed the arrival of many of our summer migrants this year. Nowadays, it seems that exceptional weather is a regular occurrence.
After being driven indoors by the weather and bored by painting the lounge, I was grateful for a break in the clouds and thought it would be worth going for a walk where I wasn’t going to get too mud-splattered. The riverside path at Ojós in the Ricote valley seemed a perfect place to go as it has good gravelled footpaths alongside the River Segura. I also had an ulterior motive as I thought there was a good chance that by the end of April the Nightingales would have arrived.
Sure enough, I had only ventured about 100m down the path adjoining the lemon orchards before I was listening to a Nightingale singing away. They tend to sing from within the centre of the lemon trees so are difficult birds to see, but easy enough to listen to as they sing from their hiding places for hours on end and for days on end. They tend to stop singing after finding a mate as they get distracted by nest-building and caring for their family. As I walked along there were six males spaced out along the path every 50-100m or so singing, so I was particularly well-entertained by their powerful and melodic songs. They sort of make it up as they go along with lots of trilling sounds, fluted whistles and a variety of rippling or gurgling notes. I was very lucky when one male bird perched in the open centre of a lemon tree just long enough for me to get a reasonable photograph.
The other bit of birding excitement was a bird of prey flying overhead, following the river northwards. Many birds, especially raptors, will often use rivers and other noticeable landmarks as a route planner when they are on migration. The River Segura is a great marker that is very visible from the air. The bird in question was a Black Kite, fairly common in more northern parts of Spain, but quite uncommon in Murcia, so it was a good sighting. They are more frequently seen in spring going north and in autumn returning south as birds follow the coastline, more or less.
I am going to be distracted now because I have just received an email that raised something that is relevant and worthy of a mention, so please forgive my wandering off-topic! A reader was concerned because her neighbour had destroyed the House Martin nests that were under the eaves of his house. I assume that he was offended by the nests and the bird muck underneath them. However he may feel about it, it is a crime to destroy the nests, even if the birds are not present. It is a shame that people don’t understand the implications of such action. House Martin populations are declining in most European countries including Spain. This is partly due to events such as this, but not entirely so. Can you imagine how much effort and time is invested by these little birds flying back from sub-Saharan Africa, then building their nests of mud, tiny mouthful by tiny mouthful, then to see it destroyed in a couple of minutes by somebody who objects to a bit of bird muck? So, what to do? It is a reportable crime and you can contact your local Forest/Environmental agents on 112 or the Guardia Civil on 062. (The department that deals with environmental crime is Seprona). Alternatively, there is a report form on the website for ANSE (the naturalists’ association for the South-east). Go to the bottom of their home page and click on Denuncias. Thanks to the reader who raised the issue, thus giving me an opportunity to highlight the situation, which unfortunately here in Murcia is still far too common.
Now I’ve got that off my chest it’s time to get birding. However, I’m going to take you out of Murcia and over the border to visit El Hondo Nature Reserve in Alicante province. It is a wetland site with good visitor access that has quite a number of bird hides. The area around the visitor centre is particularly accessible and allows you really good views of the birds from the raised walkways. I had recently heard that there were two rare waders present, so it seemed an attractive proposition to see if they were still there.
The first rarity was a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa Flavipes), a North American wader that I mentioned last month. I had only just seen one for the very first time when I was in the UK. Wow, how fantastic that it had come to see me in Spain! Who knows if it was the same bird, but you never know with these transatlantic wanderers? However, contrary to my luck last month, I couldn’t find it. It had presumably got fed up after waiting several days for me to arrive. I should have gone when I first got the news!
Anyhow, there was the second rarity to look for, but this tiny wader called a Temminck’s Stint (Calidris Temminckii), wouldn’t be too easy to find as it is smaller than a Sparrow. It is one of the smallest waders in the world, being slightly smaller than its close relative, the aptly named Little Stint (even though it isn’t the smallest Stint). There was quite a bit of grass and herbage on the banks of the pools where it would be possibly feeding. You can imagine it wouldn’t have to be a very big tuft of grass to obscure it from view! Temminck’s Stint is strongly migratory, wintering at freshwater sites in tropical Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. They also have an intriguing breeding and parental care system in which male and female parents incubate separate clutches, typically in different locations. I suppose it doubles your chances of successfully raising your family.
After much searching, a small wader appeared from behind one of the grass tufts and sat quite comfortably probing the surrounding mud for food. So, the big question in my mind was, is it a Temminck’s or Little Stint? The size difference is minor, especially when you are 40m away, but Temminck’s favours fresh water pools whilst Little prefers saltwater pools, so that was a favourable pointer. Temminck’s is less hyperactive than Little, so the behaviour was another point in its favour. The other notable difference is the leg colour; Temminck’s has yellowish-green legs as opposed to the black legs of Little. I was desperately hoping its legs weren’t covered by black mud, but luckily the colour confirmed my strong instinct that it was the rare wader I had been looking for. Success!
As I progressed around the reserve there was a lot of springtime activity and I was seeing many of the special birds that the site is well-known for.
The locally common, but internationally rare, Red-Knobbed Coots (Fulica Crostata) and Marbled Ducks (Marmaronetta Angustirostris) were very active and it was quite easy to get close views of them.
The strange-looking Purple Swamphens (Porphyrio Porphyria) were everywhere you looked. It is a bird that has enjoyed a bit of a population boom in the last 20-30 years.
As I moved around the reserve the habitat changed slightly with a number of larger and deeper lagoons (water depth is important for the different species). I had been hoping to see the colony of Collared Pratincoles (Glareola Pratincola), an uncommon summer visitor to South-east Spain, but the high-water levels had flooded their normal resting beach. However, I finally managed to see some of them hiding behind the grasses on one of the islands. It is always a pleasure to see these beautiful, but strange looking birds. In Murcia it is extremely uncommon, but in good years there is just one known colony near Los Alcázares on the Mar Menor.
Out on the lake I was intrigued and entertained by the courtship dance of a pair of Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps Cristatus). As they swam around their territory, they headed towards each other and then reaffirmed their relationship with a series of ‘dance moves’ as both birds faced each other and performed a set of head bobs and shakes, whilst calling to each other and showing off the crest feathers on top of their heads. The dance went on for several minutes before the Grebes headed off in their own directions – a beautiful show that made me feel good as I wandered back to the car.
By the time you read this my wife and I will be in Uzbekistan focusing on the birds and natural history of the country. We will also enjoy some of the cultural sites of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara on the famous Silk Road. Hopefully, I will come back with some interesting birding stories to tell you.
If you have any queries or comments, please feel free to contact me