What do an Englishman, a Belgian and a Spaniard have in common? Apart from being keen nature lovers, they have all collaborated in a campaign to save Lo Monte Nature Reserve from neglect and decline. This small wetland reserve near Pilar de la Horada is a little gem. It consists of two settlement lagoons fringed with reed beds and is very attractive for a lot of wetland species, even several breeding pairs of the very rare White-Headed Duck. Although it is small, it is a key wetland in this area. The place was developed with EU funds and the local Town Hall committed to its future maintenance. Unfortunately, it has been deliberately neglected, resulting in the reeds encroaching on all areas of open water. This has led to a very rapid loss in biodiversity and made the bird hides unusable as all the views are blocked.
Fortunately, our three amigos are on the case and have just written to the Town Hall pointing out the rapid deterioration of the reserve and suggesting several courses of action to bring about a satisfactory solution. It remains to be seen if they will respond positively and maintain the reserve in an environmentally sympathetic manner. They are very quick to claim the kudos in their marketing. Let’s see what happens next!
Now, I think it’s time for a whinge! I don’t think I have had one for a long time, but I suspect my wife probably has a different opinion. What’s got me going? Nothing particularly, it’s more a slow-burn issue that has recently slapped me in the face. Surprisingly the issue is agriculture, which is a bit strange as most farmers pride themselves on caring for our environment and are in the band of the ‘good guys’. However, I think that some modern farming techniques and industrial outfits are having a dramatic effect on our region.
I have lived here for 20 years and during this time the landscape around me has changed considerably and the biodiversity has slumped dramatically. I live in a beautiful area, with mountain ranges to both the north and south and if I go a few kilometres west I can see the steppes of Cagitán stretching towards the mountain ranges of Caravaca de la Cruz and Moratalla. I used to love the steppes with their special birds, wildlife and flora. Now I see almond trees and the occasional field of apricots all immaculately clean with no field margins. It means that the landscape is nearly devoid of life. There are no plants (weeds) as the land is regularly hoed and harrowed before anything can get established, which in turn means there are no seeds for anything to eat, or flowers for insects and butterflies. Meanwhile, the mechanical cultivation of the land destroys many of the surface (feeding) roots of the trees they are cultivating. On talking to local farmers they tell me they are opening the ground to allow rainwater to enter instead of running off.
However, I am not convinced, as my very good friend Juan has an orchard with natural herbage (weeds) under the trees. This allows the ground to retain moisture instead of the sun drying out the weed-free soil. The biodiversity in his orchard is amazing and he even has his own bird hide to watch the wide range of avian visitors to his garden. Therefore it seems counterproductive that farmers are spending a lot of time harrowing around trees to produce a desert with little or no life, nor improving their harvest!
I don’t want to get started on farmers spraying pesticides, because I will really whinge! Most of our local farmers have little or no formal training and rely on the advice of people selling pesticides to tell them when and what to spray. Has it not occurred to anybody that there might be a vested interest in this over-use of pesticides?
I used to love wandering around my local farming areas, looking at the flowers, insects, butterflies, reptiles and of course the birdlife. Nowadays, I see very little. Where has everything gone?
I think that’s enough of a rant for today. I have now taken a deep breath and am ready to tell you about a very good day’s birding with my wife and a couple of British birders who were holidaying at a relative’s house in Camposol. As their relative’s house is very close to Los Saladares del Guadalentín, we decided to go there after meeting Janet and David, our new birding friends. What a lucky choice that was! This area can be a bit hit and miss, but we were immediately seeing lots of different birds. The first surprise was just 10 minutes after our arrival as we spotted a large brown bird of prey flying towards us. With four pairs of binoculars focused on this bird it wasn’t long before we identified it as a Black Kite (Milvus Negra). It is a bird of prey that is a similar size to a Buzzard and all brown. As they bank and turn, their forked tail is normally very visible and is a good identification feature. It is a bird that is very infrequent in Murcia and normally only seen on migration either in spring or autumn. This bird was making a leisurely move towards Mazarrón and I guessed it would follow the coast west all the way to Gibraltar and Tarifa, before heading south across the straits to Africa. It will probably spend the winter on the southern continent before making the return journey.
As we progressed, Janet mentioned that she had never seen a Shrike before. Would you believe it! A beautiful adult Iberian Grey Shrike (Lanius Meridionals) obliged us for a few minutes by perching on top of a nearby bush. As it turned out, we saw lots of them as we drove across the flood plain of the River Guadalentín. They are quite striking birds with their grey, white and black plumage.
They are mini birds of prey and close up you can see their hooked beak if you are not mesmerized by the striking black highwayman’s mask. They are nicknamed ‘Butcher birds’ because of their ghoulish habit of hanging their dead prey (large insects and lizards) on thorny bushes, a larder for when hunting is difficult.
We then went to an area with a sheep corral. This is a good place to see some of our small-feathered friends feeding on the insects attracted by the sheep dung. As we were watching a flock of migrant Yellow Wagtails (Blue-headed race, Motacilla Flava Iberica), David asked me what the birds were walking across the ploughed field on the opposite side. Gosh, what a shock! There were seven Dotterels (Charadrius Morinellus) calmly walking parallel with our car. These are very uncommon passage migrants that on migration occasionally stop in Murcia for a day or two (normally in the same location each year). I have been waiting nearly 20 years to see them in Murcia. I immediately alerted other birders on the Whatsapp groups, but as far as I know nobody else saw them. It’s better to be lucky than good. Thank goodness David was distracted by something on the opposite side, otherwise they would have wandered past completely unnoticed. Dotterels breed in the Arctic tundra from Norway to Eastern Siberia and also on suitable mountain plateaux such as the Cairngorms and the Alps. They migrate south to a narrow belt across North Africa from Morocco eastwards to Iran. They also practice reverse parenting as the male does the incubation and rears the chicks. The female then goes off to find another male and lay another clutch of eggs (I don’t know if she says goodbye or just goes!).
We then saw another interesting bird – a Hoopoe (Upopa Epops). Although this is a relatively common bird, our friends had never seen one before and I have to admit, a Hoopoe is quite spectacular when seen for the first time. Its dinosaur profile (Pterodactyl) doesn’t look like any other bird, and it is quite unique in its colouration, crest and long down-curved beak. A great holiday memory for any visitor!
Next stop was the coast to visit a nice restaurant near to the salt pans of San Pedro del Pinatar for lunch, then on to El Carmolí and the port of Los Urrutias on the Mar Menor.
The salt pans were a bit of a disappointment because there were just a few of the normal waders about and of course the Flamingos, but I managed to see a Kingfisher (Alcedo Atthis) in one of the canals. It is always a delight to see this colourful little bird. As far as I am aware they aren’t resident at the salt pans, but are commonly seen in winter.
I had also received a Whatsapp saying that a Red-Necked Phalarope (Phalaropus Lobatus) had been seen in the Salinas that morning. This is a rare wader that very occasionally stops off here on the way to its wintering grounds in the Arabian Sea. The last visit by a Phalarope was 2 years ago. Unfortunately, we missed out this time and heard later that it was found in an unlikely part of the salt pans that we hadn’t visited. You have to be lucky!
Our next stop was the mouth of the Rambla Albujón and the adjoining coastline of El Carmolí. It was a brief stop, but was quite fruitful as two young Collared Pratincoles (Glareola Pratincola) flew along the coastline and over our heads. This was good news as this is the only area in Murcia where these summer visitors breed, so two juveniles was a very positive sign of breeding success this season. They are largish birds (about a foot long) and have a wingspan of 28 inches, with shortish legs, long pointed wings and a long forked tail. They remind me of Giant Swallows. They migrate south to spend the winter in tropical Africa and are officially classified as waders, but they look nothing like waders. Well, not to me anyhow.
There was also a group of largish Terns resting on a sandbank just offshore. I originally identified them as Sandwich Terns (Sterna Sandvicensis), but later realised they were Common Terns (Sterna Hirundo) that were moulting into winter plumage. Speaking of Terns, at the port of Los Urrutias we came across another group of Terns. They were Little Terns (Sternula Albifrons), probably my favourites of this family of birds. They are summer visitors that make the long and dangerous journey to Western and Central Africa to spend the winter. It is a lovely sight watching them fishing as they hover about 5-10 metres high before diving head first into the water to catch a small fish.
It was now time for four tired, but very happy birders, to head back to Camposol. However, one final birding delight presented itself as just before leaving the motorway; a migratory Osprey flew overhead. We only see Ospreys in Murcia during migration time, so we felt very privileged to have our own private fly-past. It’s certainly better to be lucky!
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