Ever heard of a “Lesser Yellowlegs”? No, it’s not surprising really, especially when it sounds like a made-up or a joke name.
Well, a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) is a medium-sized wading bird that is fairly common in North America, but extremely rare in Spain. If you are familiar with our commoner wading birds it looks a bit like a Redshank (Tringa totanus), similar size and shape, but it has bright yellow legs instead of orangey-red.
It is so rare, that there is just one record of it in Murcia back in 2014. They are migratory birds and usually spend the Winter in either the Gulf Coast of the United States, the Caribbean or down in South America. Just occasionally, odd birds either get lost or blown by storms across the Atlantic. On a recent visit back to the UK one was reported at a nearby nature reserve and it was too much of a temptation, so my wife and I went to find it. As we worked away around the marshlands, we could see a large group of birders in the distance, which was a bit of a clue to its whereabouts. However, as we got close, there was stream of birders coming towards us. The bird had just flown off!
We were about to go when we thought we would wander down to where it had last been seen; you never know it could return. And lo and behold, within a few seconds of our arrival at the marshy pool where it had been feeding, it appeared right in front of us. It was more than happy without the crowds and just us for company!
Anyway, let’s get back home to Murcia. I think Spring is a very special time with the awakening of nature. All the flowers, trees and shrubs have rushed in to growth and there is so much blossom wherever you look. Where I live the fields are vibrant with all the wild flowers, especially the white flowered Bittercress. When it’s not raining, the air is alive with insects buzzing around and of course a lot of birdsong as birds are now trying to entice partners.
Many of our birds use song as a way of establishing territories and demonstrating their superiority over rivals. It does seem to be a far more intelligent way of settling disputes; we could a learn thing or two! However, some occasionally revert to more aggressive means.
Besides the arrival of our Summer visitors there has also been a changing of the guard from Winter to Summer. Many of the Wiinter visitors have now departed for their breeding grounds further North, species that have become so familiar during the last few months such as Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros), Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis) Siskins, (Carduelis spinus) and Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) have all moved on and are looking to set up home away from us here. However, it doesn’t take long for our Summer visitors to replace them and it is a real pleasure to spot these early arrivals. The first Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) or Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) of the season is quite an event!
Some of our Swallows arrive quite early and there are always reports of them being seen in February and March, but it is normally early to mid-April before the bulk of them arrive. However, the biblical storms at the end of March have clearly delayed and interrupted normal arrival times. Would you want to continue your journey across the Straits of Gibraltar or the Mediterranean Sea with all that rain?
Our common Barn Swallows mainly overwinter in North Africa whereas others from Northern Europe will make the long trek down to Southern Africa, one hell of a journey! The other swallow that breeds in Murcia is the very attractive Red-Rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica) a bird that is mainly seen in Southern Spain (but can be found further North). It has been quite successful in recent years and has expanded its population and colonised new areas. It overwinters in Africa, in the tropical belt from Senegal down to Nigeria, so is quite a long distant migrant. It’s no wonder they appear so pleased to be back home at long last!
The more I learn about bird migration routes and the prodigious distances they travel the more I marvel at such tiny beings having the ability to complete these journeys twice a year.
Just to digress slightly, a friend recently sent me a link about Cuckoos and their migration.
Evidently, a Cuckoo named PJ was caught in King’s forest, Suffolk (my UK home) and fitted with a tracker. It has now been recorded on its migration from its wintering grounds, in the Congo, Africa. It has since crossed the Sahara Desert then the Mediterranean via Tunisia, arriving in Murcia on the 8th April. It seems to have veered a bit too far to the East, but I’m sure it knows better than me. Quite a journey so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it finally makes it back to Suffolk and does not get seduced by the delights of Murcia. Come on PJ!
Besides seeing all the obvious Summer visitors like Swifts, Swallows, Martins, Bee-Eaters etc, now is a great time to see some of the shyer Summer visitors such as Nightingales and Warblers. In May, birds are thinking of finding a mate and the males will often be seen singing from conspicuous places as they establish territories, so it is probably one of the easiest and best times to see them.
Some of the more visible warblers to see at our wetland sites (with reed cover on the banks) are those that breed in these situations and both Reed and Great Reed Warblers are fairly common. They are conspicuous at this time of year with their loud and noticeable territorial songs from the top of the reeds as they advertise their presence to the passing ladies. Both species have warm brown plumage on their wings and back, with creamier coloured under-parts. Their song differs, so apart from the size difference they can be identified in this way. The Reed Warbler is just a bit smaller than a sparrow whereas the Great Reed Warbler, as its name suggests, is bigger and nearly as big as a Starling (Sturnus unicolor). So, if you want to see these birds try areas such as Campotéjar or along the banks of the River Segura. However, there are lots of sites around the region with suitable habitat.
Another warbler that I am always pleased to see in Spring is the Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta). It is quite a smallish delicate-looking bird that is in between the size of a Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) and a Great Tit (Parus major). They are a light greenish colour on the back and wings and have a lovely lemon-yellow blush on the chest and lower parts. They like open shrubby type habitats and I have seen them quite often in some of the less dry rambla valleys. At this time, they can be quite vocal as they also sing from the top of a nearby bush.
The final Warbler that I will highlight isn’t quite so easy to come across; it is a Sub-Alpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans). It is a scarce Summer visitor that favours humid areas with dense shrub cover and is found mainly in the North and West of the region. However, as birds on passage pass through during this time it becomes more common and could be seen anywhere in Murcia. You just need to be observant and have a bit of luck. The males are very attractive with their head and backs being a blue-grey colour, which contrasts with their brick-red throats and chests. All in all, a nice bird to see.
Finally, I will end by suggesting a walk by the River Segura to listen for the song of the Nightingale. In May they will be singing at all hours, even at night, hence their name. My favourite place to hear them is the riverside walk from Ojós towards the footbridge downstream at the “Salto de la Novia”. You can’t mistake the powerful and melodic song that is varied throughout with fluted whistles and rippling or gurgling notes. It is also a very pleasant and scenic, short riverside walk, which can spring further avian delights on observant strollers.
I would like to thank my friend, Juan García López, for allowing me to use the photo of a Sub-Alpine Warbler taken in his garden.
If anybody has any comments or queries please feel free to contact me