Since writing last month’s article, and before returning to Murcia, I spent the first few weeks in the UK. So I thought it might be appropriate to tell you about visits to a couple of English nature reserves that I very much enjoyed: Holkham National Nature Reserve in Norfolk and Abberton Reservoir in Essex.
On returning to Murcia I went looking for vultures at Valdeinfierno. This name translates to “The valley of hell”. I was certainly intrigued and a little bit wary about what I was letting myself in for!
Anyway, first things first, I will tell you about Holkham. The site is on the North Norfolk coast and being privately owned it is quite unique for a national nature reserve. It is owned by the Earl of Leicester and managed by a charitable trust. The range of habitats is impressive and it can best be described as part wilderness and part working landscape. The coastline is beautiful. It has miles of golden sands interspersed with shingle and dune ridges and the occasional tidal creek reaching inland. There is also a shelterbelt of mixed pine woodland planted in the late 19th century, to stabilise the dunes. This separates the coast from saltwater and freshwater marshland and wet grazing land. All in all, it is a very diverse landscape that provides a wide range of habitat for different species, and is a birdwatcher’s paradise that changes with the seasons.
We parked the car opposite some fresh water marshes and the field alongside was full of birdlife. Jessica and I probably spent a good hour watching and identifying the ducks and waders that were so close to us that I felt I could lean over the fence and touch them. We had amazing views of many birds that you normally only see on some distant marshland on dull grey days. Not only were the birds so close but we were enjoying a very rare winter’s day in the UK, because although bitterly cold, there was a bright blue sky. The half-flooded field obviously had good grazing as everywhere you looked hundreds of Wigeon (Anas Penelope) were feeding on the lush grassland. The males were particularly colourful and easy to identify, having chestnut heads and creamy-yellow foreheads, which contrasted with their grey bodies. They are an extremely common Winter visitor along the coastal areas of Suffolk and Norfolk. In Murcia it is a scarce Winter visitor but can be seen occasionally at some of our coastal wetlands.
As I moved on there were quite a lot of waders dotted around probing for food in the wet grassland. Judging by the number of birds I was seeing it must have been very rich in invertebrates.
The number of species was quite limited but I had good views of Black-tailed godwits (Limosa Limosa), Common redshanks (Tringa tetanus), Oystercatchers (Haemotopus ostralegus), Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), Curlews (Numenius arquata) and Lapwings (Vanellus indicus). Thinking about it, it was actually quite a good number of different waders that I was seeing in this marshland. They are all species that can be seen in Murcia, although both Oystercatchers and Lapwings are quite uncommon.
It was time to move on to a different area and after walking between the pine woodland and the grazing marsh, we headed out towards an area where large flocks of geese were flying in and out of some distant fields. We were keen to see what species they were, without doubt there would be the ubiquitous Greylag (Anser anser) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and we were certainly not disappointed with that informed guesswork. There were also a few of the colourful and introduced Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) knocking around. However, what I was really wishing to see were both White-fronted (Anser albifrons) and Pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus). We saw plenty of Pink-footed geese feeding on the fields, but didn’t have a glimpse of any White-fronted geese. The Pink-footed goose breeds in Greenland and Iceland and a good number migrate to spend the Winter in the British Isles. They can be identified by their dark necks, pink band to the front of the beak and pink legs, their backs also have a frosty grey-coloured tinge. Unfortunately, there is very little chance of seeing any of these geese in Murcia except for the odd escapee from a zoo or wildfowl collection.
As we walked back to the pinewoods there was a group of roundish birds about the size of a football walking slowly over the grassland. I was delighted to see that they were Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix), a bird that I was accustomed to seeing in my youth, but which is now extremely uncommon. The population has declined by 85% in recent years and is now on the red list in the UK. This is due to agricultural intensification and pesticide usage, both of which have decimated their insectivorous food source. It is a species that isn’t found in Southern Spain and you would have to travel to the very North of Spain to have a chance of seeing them.
We then walked through the pinewoods to the dunes and wide-open beaches and were delighted to explore such a beautiful landscape. The big surprise however, was watching a huge flock of small birds moving around the rough grassland between the dunes. In flight they were massed together and with their white feathers they looked like a snow flurry moving across the landscape. These small sparrow-sized birds were quite recognisable as Snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) as I can’t think of any other small bird that has so much white in its plumage. They are arctic specialists with a circumpolar breeding range, and migrate South during the Winter. A few reach the British coast, but it would be a huge surprise to find one in Spain other than on the Cantabrian coastline.
As we finally walked back to the car we saw a medium size gull on the adjoining grassland. It was standing on the spot and paddling up and down on the grass, what a strange thing to do! However, gulls are well known for this paddling act as it is a means of attracting worms up to the surface to then be devoured. Quite clever really! In this case it was a Common or Mew gull (Larus canus). They are, as their name suggests, fairly common in the UK during the Winter, but are quite rare in Murcia. One spent a good part of the Winter in Murcia last year and was a very good tick for local birders.
My next visit was to Abberton reservoir and nature reserve, close to the Essex coastline. It is a newish site to me and is an excellent place for wintering wildfowl that visit in their hundreds and thousands. I was particularly keen to find a couple of ducks that I hadn’t seen for a long while, as they have never been recorded in Murcia. They were Goldeneye (Bucephala gangula) and Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).
Goldeneyes breed in the lakes and rivers of boreal (northern) forests across Canada, Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Northern Russia. They actually nest in trees, making use of cavities in the trunks. In Winter they move South to warmer coastal waters in Northern Europe. They are diving ducks so require areas of deep water, which is in abundance at Abberton. They were once relatively common Winter visitors to the UK, but due to climate change there are fewer of them each year. Many of them are now wintering further North. Fortunately, there were plenty on the reservoir and I was particularly pleased to be able to photograph the handsome drakes in their breeding plumage, and of course their drabber looking female partners.
The other duck I was looking for at Abberton, the Greater Scaup, is very scarce but a pair had been reported here in recent days. These birds spend the summer months in Alaska, Siberia, and the Northern parts of Europe, including Scotland, but it is the UK’s rarest breeding duck. In Winter there is a better chance of seeing them as more birds come South to avoid the worst of the weather further North. In appearance they are very similar to the more common Tufted duck, which can be occasionally seen in Murcia. Except for the lack of a tuft and their backs being silvery-grey instead of black, the males look the same.
I was having a lucky day, as just before leaving the site I spotted a slightly different looking bird sleeping on the water amongst a big flock of Tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula) and Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis). On checking with the binoculars I was delighted to confirm that it was a male Greater Scaup, the first male bird that I had ever seen! The glow from this sighting made the journey back home so much better.
Unfortunately, I have run out of space to tell you about my visit to “the valley of hell” but I will certainly mention it next month. Promise.
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