Long-tailed Tit nest
Long-tailed Tit nest

During our daily lockdown exercise we have tried to vary our locations and we did a very pleasant riverside walk recently. This walk was great because, besides the scenery, it was flat!

As we progressed, my wife Jessica spotted an amazing nest hidden amongst the branches of a small shrub. I don’t know how she spotted it as it was beautifully camouflaged with lichens so that it blended in perfectly with its location (note to self – she doesn’t miss a thing!). It was sort of cylindrical/ovoid shape with a small entrance hole towards the top on one side. It appeared to be constructed with moss under an outer covering of lichens. Evidently these builders use cobwebs to stick parts of the nest together and then line it with feathers to make it cosy for a young family. I have read that it takes about 3 weeks’ work for a pair to complete the nest, so what birds are they?

Long-tailed Tit
Long-tailed Tit

I suspect some of you have begun to realise who the construction team was. Although we didn’t hang around to see which birds arrived, (we didn’t want to cause any disturbance), I am pretty sure it belonged to a pair of Long-Tailed Tits (Aegithalos Caudatus). Long-Tailed Tits, or ‘flying spoons’ as I have heard them called, are fairly common in all types of woodland habitat throughout the region. They are small birds with tiny bodies and as you would expect, a very long tail in proportion to the rest of them. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘a ball on a stick’. They are very sociable birds that are often seen in small family groups. They are not shy, but are sometimes difficult to spot as they constantly move acrobatically through the trees and shrubs in their search for the small insects they feed upon. The photo is of a bird I took recently in the UK which is a slightly different race from the Murcian birds because the local Spanish birds are generally more dusky on the side of the head. However, it is a very minor difference and they are after all, the same species.

Although I am still in the UK waiting for travel restrictions to be lifted, my thoughts do wander to where I would have been going on my Murcian birding trips. At the beginning of May I would be focused on catching up with some of our special summer visitors and would have a number of specific sites on my itinerary.

This is as good a time as any, to plug the book Birding in Murcia. It should be published during May and it will allow you to find the best birding sites in the region and know which birds can be seen when you are out and about. With about 300 colour photos it should be an attractive addition to your bookcase or coffee table. If you wish to purchase a copy there are only a couple of places where it will be available at the moment; these are ‘Cosas y Cosas’ in Cehegin, and ‘Best Wishes’ at Camposol and at Puerto de Mazarrón. If you are unable to go to these shops it is also available at the UK’s premier on-line natural history bookshop, nhbs.co.uk 

Now back to birding!

Roller
Roller

At the beginning of May, the last of our summer visitors will be arriving and will be very busy claiming territories, finding a mate and building nests. Everywhere will be a hive of activity with lots of bird song in the air. One of our most colourful birds, which is also one of the last to arrive, is the Roller (Coracius Garrulus). Having said that, they are actually beginning to arrive earlier each year because of climate change. They normally get to their breeding territories during the last week in April or the first week of May, so now is a good time to go and see them performing their acrobatic courtship flights and displays. Rollers are about the size of a Jackdaw and their spectacular plumage colours of greenish to electric blue with a reddish-brown back and black under-wingtips, makes them unmistakeable if you are lucky enough to see one. They are birds that like warm, dryish, open countryside with scattered trees. They often perch on prominent posts or trees as they are ‘sit and wait’ hunters. They look for large insects and small reptiles to appear, before swooping down for the kill. Birds from Southern Spain overwinter in Angola, Namibia and Botswana, so have a fairly lengthy return journey as they follow the West African coast back to Spain and eventually to Murcia; about 7,000km in total. They are not uncommon birds here, but they do tend to be a bit patchy and localised in their distribution. If I was near the coast I would probably visit the Saladares del Guadalentín to see them, but one of my favourite sites in the North-west is the plain of Los Royos where I took the attached Roller photo last summer. I wish you luck in seeing them. They are beautiful birds and well worth the effort it takes to find them.

Another place I would certainly be heading to, is the coast near Águilas, to visit the beautiful area of Cabo Cope. A couple of years ago I spent a few memorable days staying at Calabardina as I explored the spectacular 17km coastline of Cabo Cope Regional Park.

Rufous Bush Robin
Rufous Bush Robin

My initial interest in visiting the area was to look for one of Murcia’s more uncommon summer visitors, Rufous Bush Robin or Rufous-Tailed Scrub Robin. It also has a few other similar sounding common names, but to be specific, its definitive Latin name is Cercotrichas Galactotes. It is a bird that likes dry habitats with a bit of shrubby vegetation and is often seen associated with dry ramblas, particularly close to the coast near Águilas. It has been suffering a serious population decline in Spain and especially in our part of the peninsula, mainly as a result of habitat loss that is related to changes in agriculture. However, a recent survey found nearly 50 territories in the region; a number which was more than expected. It’s always nice to have a bit of good news. They can be a bit skulking, but May is an excellent time to go and see them, as the males will often perch conspicuously and sing, defending their territories and trying to attract a mate. The Spanish name of the bird, Alzacola, literally means ‘raising the tail’ which is very apt as it has a habit of raising its tail as it sings on the top of a perch. I suspect this habit makes it more conspicuous to both interlopers and perspective mates!

Black Wheatear
Black Wheatear
Jackdaw
Jackdaw

Another part of the regional park that is a particular favourite of mine is Cala Blanca, a small sandy bay that is partially enclosed with cliffs on two sides. It is an interesting place as there are cave-houses carved into one of the cliffs that were used by fishermen in times gone by. It is a very scenic spot, but also ornithologically very interesting because of the birds which nest under the cliff overhang. There are colonies of the region’s 3 species of Swift plus other birds such as Kestrels (Falco Tinnunculus), Jackdaws (Covus Monedula) and Black Wheatears (Oenanthe Leucura) breeding here. 

The 3 Swifts are: Common Swift (Apus Apus), Pallid Swift (Apus Pallidus) and Alpine Swift (Apus Melba). 

Common Swifts, as their name suggests, are numerous and can be seen above a lot of our older towns in the evenings as they fly screaming and manoeuvering rapidly like starfighters in a mad aerial ballet. They normally nest in the roof spaces of older buildings by squeezing through gaps underneath the roof tiles. 

Pallid Swift
Pallid Swift

Pallid Swifts are almost identical to their common relative and it is virtually impossible to tell them apart with the naked eye. However, they have a large white throat patch and are a bit chunkier. They are browner with slightly paler flight feathers, but this feature is sometimes not clear because depending on light conditions, the birds can appear lighter or darker and more or less contrasting. Their voice is slightly different and this can also help with identification. They are to the north of their natural range in our region and are mainly coastal birds rather than inland, although saying that, I understand there are breeding colonies in the city of Murcia.

Alpine Swift
Alpine Swift

The last of the three, the Alpine Swift, is quite clearly larger than the other two. It has a pure white belly and throat divided by a dark brown band and these contrasting colours makes identification relatively easy. Alpine Swifts breed in small colonies in just a few sites in the region and are considered scarce summer visitors. Visiting the coast of Cabo Cope is a good choice to find the least common of the region’s breeding swifts. 

Whether you are an ardent birder or just like being out and about in the countryside, I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Cabo Cope and the other places mentioned here.

Finally many thanks to John Thompson for allowing me to use his photograph of Alpine Swift and to Yeray Seminario for his photo of a Pallid Swifr

If you have any queries or comments please feel free to contact me on antrimbirder@gmail.com