I recently made a short visit to the UK for two very important events; my mother’s 97th birthday and a memorial day for one of my oldest and best friends who died suddenly and unexpectedly last September. My mother’s birthday was obviously a happy occasion and although my friend’s memorial day was tinged with some sadness, it was also a cheerful event as it brought many friends and family members together to celebrate and reminisce; great memories of a treasured friendship. It also made me think a lot about the experiences that the passing of the years bring to us all and how our environment has changed during this time.
I think these thoughts were triggered by a walk that I very much enjoyed with my wife and my friend’s widow. It was along the coast from Lytham to the town of my birth, St Annes in Lancashire. It is somewhere I hadn’t visited for many years, so it was an opportunity to wander down memory lane and remind myself of days spent in my youth, birdwatching along the Ribble estuary. There were also many memories of my teenage years that wouldn’t be appropriate to mention in a nice family magazine! So many stories.
It was striking to see the changes in the estuary. I remember it as having wide open areas of mudflats swarming with waders at low tide; now it is turning into salt marsh with grasses and saline vegetation taking over the entire coastline and stretching away into the estuary. I assume that this is the result of closing the nearby port of Preston and the subsequent lack of dredging to the main channel. It has allowed the silt to build up along the shore and commence the evolution to salt marsh. As we approached my home town the once golden sands are also disappearing because several hundred metres of vegetation are creeping inexorably towards the sea and northwards.
As I walked along I bumped into a couple of birders armed with binoculars and telescopes and couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and chat about what they had seen. It was quite a nice list, but not as many as I would have seen in my teens. I also told them about some of the birds such as Twite (Carduelis Flavirostris) and Shorelark (Eremophila Alpestris) that I used to see regularly during the winter, but alas those birds are rarities there now. As I moved on the couple probably thought that this amiable old guy was in the first stages of dementia mentioning such improbable species that he had seen commonly years ago!
It made me think about what was happening in my adopted home of Murcia and more importantly what future generations will see and witness. Can you imagine what La Manga would have looked like before the building boom that started there in the 1960’s? It must have been a beautiful wild landscape of natural dunes with a unique fauna and flora. It certainly doesn’t look beautiful now, unless you like skyscrapers.
Change isn’t bad and like all things there are winners and losers. This includes our flora and fauna which are, evolutionary speaking, clearly affected by the rapid change to our climate. Climatic change alone would pose enormous challenges for our birdlife, but in Murcia it is also accompanied by massive changes in land use. Construction, solar energy farms, intensive and industrial-scale agriculture are all altering our traditional landscapes. Misuse of our water resources and excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers are just a few of the other issues that our natural world is struggling to adapt to.
The good news is that our birdlife does learn to adapt; some species more successfully than others. Historically, change has happened at a sedate pace which allows time for the evolutionary processes to re-adjust. However, things are happening at such a rapid rate nowadays that it is becoming increasingly difficult for many species to react quickly enough. It is becoming a war of attrition with species continually being squeezed out from their optimum habitats.
So, leaving negative thoughts behind, let’s think about some of the winners that have done reasonably well in the last 20 years. One that immediately springs to mind is the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis Falcinellus). It became extinct in Spain in the 20th century and it wasn’t until 1993 that it started to breed again in the Albufera de Valencia. Since then the population has been growing quite rapidly with breeding colonies now in Andalucia and also in the last two years, the Ibis have been breeding at the salt pans of San Pedro del Pinatar. They are now commonly seen at a number of the region’s wetlands; something unheard of not so many years ago.
Griffon Vultures (Gyps Fulvous) were also extinct as a breeding species in Murcia during the last century, but they started to breed again in the nineties in the Northwest of the Region. The population has since grown very successfully with the help of some feeding stations that have been set up. We now have several breeding colonies in the region and they are firmly established as part of our resident birdlife.
Another surprising success story is one that nobody expected. Who would have thought that a desert-living bird from North Africa would invade and colonise Almeria and Murcia! However, the Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes Githagineus) has established itself and is now a resident species. It is clearly an indicator of climate change and desertification which will undoubtably become more prevalent if we can’t reverse current trends.
Another success story relates to woodland birds, but this is story that has taken more than 100 years to come to fruition. In the 19th century Murcia was devoid of woodland and most of the mountain ranges were bare and suffering from extreme erosion. This led to severe flooding events after heavy rain. However, due to the foresight of people like Ricardo Codorníu (who was responsible for the reforestation of Sierra Espuña, started in 1894), we now enjoy many forested mountainsides. Amongst the more practical benefits of reducing erosion and flooding, it has given us very healthy woodland birdlife. Birds such as the Crossbill (Loxia Curvirostris), Short-Toed Treecreeper (Certhia Brachydactyla), Greater Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Major), Jays (Garrulus Glandarius) and Crested Tit (Lophophanes Cristatus) are all common birds nowadays.
It is also an example that shows us what can be achieved if we give nature a breathing space from our destructive behaviour and invest some money, time and energy in rectifying the damage we are creating.
It’s pleasing to see new species that are thriving, but unfortunately there are far more that are declining and trying to hang on in areas where they once lived happily. Dupont’s Lark (Chersophilus Duponti) has never been common, but during the last century it was possible to see it in several different areas around the region. Last heard, it was down to a handful of pairs in one area of Yecla, but I suspect that in reality it is already extinct in the region.
When I first came to live here I remember seeing Barn Owls (Tyto Alba) hunting at dusk on the plains of Cagitán, but a recent survey didn’t find a single bird. They are still hanging on in a few places, but once a population declines to such low numbers it is very difficult for it to recover, particularly if the habitat isn’t optimal.
Talking of Cagitán, I used to regularly see Black-Tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles Orientalis) out on the plains, but I think it was probably more than 10 years since I saw the last one! This is a local observation, but what I have witnessed close to my home is happening in lesser and greater degrees across all the region and across many other parts of the country.
Little Bustards (Tetrax Tetrax), which are birds of the plains and cereal-growing areas are now limited to just two regular sites that I know of. There may be more, but it’s unlikely. It is my guess that it will be extinct as a breeding bird in Murcia well within my lifetime.
The science is very clear that all our farmland wildlife, not only in Murcia but across all of Europe, is in serious decline. Future generations of birders may consider some of our everyday birds such as the Corn Bunting (Emberiza Calandra), as rarities. I hope not, but something needs to happen to stop the current trends. A first step would be to amend the Common Agricultural Policy and stop using public money to subsidize poor environmental practice that has the unintentional result of damaging our biodiversity.
I will finish by looking into my crystal ball and try to predict a few other species that due to global warming may not be here in Murcia for future generations. Science has already demonstrated that some of our species which live near their southern geographical limits, are beginning to move north at a rate of 2.35km per year. I think Tawny Owls might struggle to survive in a future Murcia and maybe a very common woodland bird, the Blue Tit, could possibly be another. I also think some of our winter visitors will no longer have to migrate so far south to find suitable wintering areas in future. The Redwing is a scarce visitor at the moment and I suspect it could become a major rarity for future generations.
Obviously, my musings about future losses of species are just that. Hopefully, none of this will come to pass, but my general concerns about habitat loss and degradation, global warming and our lack of care for the planet, are real. I suspect future generations may judge us harshly for the environmental legacy we are leaving them.
Finally, I would like to thank John Thompson for allowing me use his photograph of a male Trumpeter Finch; a great capture of an elusive bird.
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