A little over three years ago, I wrote my first article for the Costa Cálida Chronicle and since then I must have mentioned a lot of species of birds. I haven’t kept count, but it did get me wondering about how many species have been recorded in the region, so a bit of research was called for.
Fortunately, an official checklist of the birds of Murcia has been correlated by the University of Murcia (in Spanish) and is available on the internet. It was last published in 2017, so is fairly recent. The previous list was published in the 1980’s and included 71 less species; a quite remarkable difference. The authors of the more recent document credit the change to the increase in more knowledgeable birders who have recorded and shared their observations, rather than a flush of new species. Also, in the intervening years there have been a number of organised surveys that have provided more information. I think it is interesting to note that there were very few active birders here 30 to 40 years ago, so it is encouraging to see the rising interest in bird-watching.
How many species have been recorded in Murcia?
The answer in 2017 was 339. Since then there has been a further four species recorded which will need to be added to the next list. That’s not bad for such a small region that only forms a bit more than 2% of the country’s land mass. Evidently, 70% of the birds that are regularly seen in the whole of Spain can also be seen here; a fact which seems pretty good to me.
What makes our corner of Spain so attractive to such a large number of species?
I suppose the first answer is the variety of different habitats that are found in the area. Many birds are generalists that can live in a wide variety of places, but others are more specialist and require specific habitats which will provide an appropriate food source.
We are lucky to have a bit of everything in Murcia, so can cater for generalists and lots of specialists. There are high mountain ranges that go up to 2,000mtr above sea level, forested hillsides, semi-deserts, dry ramblas with high cliffs, rice fields, citrus, olive and almond fields, steppes, reservoirs, the River Segura and of course a longish coastline with associated wetlands and salt pans.
Three examples of specialist birds that have specific requirements are: Crossbills (Loxia Curvirostra), Lesser Short-Toed Larks (Calandrella Rufescens) and Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria Interpres).
A Crossbill is a type of Finch which has a specially adapted beak that enables it to feed on pine cones, so it will require large areas of pine woodlands.
Lesser Short-Toed Larks are scarce residents that require low scrubby vegetation on sandy, clay or pebbly ground and are therefore found in steppe-like landscapes.
Ruddy Turnstones are wading birds, but unlike other waders, don’t have long legs and beaks or feed on mudflats. Instead they require rocky shorelines where they feed by turning over pebbles to find small insects which may be hiding underneath; hence their name.
All three will only be found in specific habitats where their specialist needs can be met.
Secondly, our climate is Mediterranean and suits many summer visitors which spend the winter in Africa. Not all of them will travel to northern Europe, for example: Lesser Kestrels (Falco Naumanni), Red-Rumped Swallows (Cecropis Daurica) and Rollers (Coracius Garrulous).
Likewise, many Northern-European birds are happy to avoid the long flight back to Africa and will spend the winter here in our more temperate climate. Amongst these are: Black Redstarts (Colirrojo Tizón), Bluethroats (Luscinia Svecica), Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus Collybita) and Robins (Erithacus Rubecula). Many thousands of these winter visitors will have now arrived from the North.
Thirdly, the fact that we are on a migration route brings many ‘passage migrants’ as they pass through on their much longer journeys. Some will stay a while to re-fuel, whilst others may arrive and depart on the same day. Last month, birds like Honey Buzzards (Pernis Apivorus), Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe Oenanthe), Whinchats (Saxicola Rubetra) and Tawny Pipits (Anthus Campestris) were being seen here as they travelled through our region.
Lastly, we seem to collect a fair number of unpredictable visitors, which in birding parlance, are called ‘vagrants’. These are birds that in normal circumstances should never be seen here, but turn up unexpectedly for a variety of strange reasons that don’t always have a rational explanation. It is believed that some just set off on their migration in the wrong direction because their internal compasses are faulty.
For example, some Siberian song birds, which normally winter in South-East Asia, instead of going East and then South on their normal route, will turn West and end up in the wrong place. Others may find their journeys disrupted by sudden storms and get blown completely off-course. If this happens over the sea it can be fatal unless they achieve a fortuitous landfall, or as occasionally happens, they collapse on a boat and hitch a ride to the next port of call.
If enough of these ‘vagrants’ arrive at a new location, it can prove to be the start of a new colonisation. One ‘vagrant’ on the Murcia checklist is a Laughing Dove (Spilopelia Senegalensis). This is normally resident in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. However, there are two records of them being seen in Murcia; one from Cartagena in 1995 and another from Isla Grosa in 2012. It is anybody’s guess how they got here. However, this ‘vagrant’ Dove is now breeding successfully in a small area in the province of Sevilla and maybe we are seeing the start of it colonising Southern Spain.
The nature of ‘vagrants’ is that they are unusual and surprising and the following two are definitely in that category:
In 2002 a group of eighteen White Pelicans (Pelecanus Onocrotalus) were seen offshore at Cabo Cope, but where they came from is a mystery because the nearest populations are a long way South in Africa or possibly Greece, Turkey or the Danube Delta.
A Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle Alcyon) was an even more spectacular record as it would have come all the way from North America to spend a few weeks by the Mar Menor at the Rambla de Albujón. It must have heard it was a good holiday spot!
Our geography and climate provides us with a rich birdlife of 343 species, but it doesn’t stop there. There are a further 31 birds that have been recorded here, but they are considered ‘exotic’ because they haven’t occurred naturally. In most cases they will be family pets that have escaped and managed to survive in the wild for a period of time. There are also people who keep a whole menagerie of exotic birds and animals and undoubtedly some will have originated from these sources. Other individuals will be deliberate releases into the wild such as Japanese Quail and Pheasants to satisfy the desires of the hunting community and also sadly, people release unwanted pets.
Some of these ‘exotics’ will die out naturally, but others have started to create small breeding communities in various areas of the region and may in time be adopted onto the official list:
Rose-Ringed Parakeets (Psittacula Kramer) are already breeding in small pockets in our coastal regions.
The Mexican House Finch (Carpodacus Mexicanus) is expanding its population in the city of Murcia.
Various species of Waxbills can now be seen along some stretches of the River Segura.
Murcia is not necessarily recognised in the birding world as a hot-spot in comparison with better known areas of Spain such as Extremadura and parts of Andalucía. However, it is undoubtedly blessed with a wide range of habitats and an amazingly rich birdlife of 343 different species that includes residents, summer and winter visitors, passage migrants and ‘vagrants’, plus another 31 exotic species. It is a hidden gem for birders and naturalists; well at least in my mind!
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