It seems funny to be writing about birding in August when you are reading this in October! As temperatures have been reaching 44ºC I have been catching up on reading and planning my next birding trip. I’ve decided to go looking for Rollers (Coracius Garrulous) as they are birds that don’t seem to mind the high temperatures. If they are around they will perch out in the open in prominent places as they look for the large insects and small reptiles that they feed on. During August days with exceptionally high temperatures, most birds are active early morning and late evening and then rest up during the heat of the day.
Before telling you about my search for Rollers I will mention a couple of things I have just read. The first is about the deterioration of water quality in the Mar Menor. I’m sure you have seen a lot of articles already in the local and national press as it is proving to be both an environmental disaster and a political shamble. One of the problems causing the eutrofication (excess of nitrates and nutrients) of the lagoon is the excessive level of nitrates from the intensive agriculture in the Campo de Cartagena. It has been known about for many years, but I was shocked to read that the amount of nitrates entering via the Rambla de Albujón (just south of Los Alcazares) in June this year, reached 8.6 metric tons a day; a shocking amount. It is depressing to see how society continues to poison our environment even when the evidence is indisputable. Big business and money talks! I can’t think of any other logical reason for permitting this to happen.
The second article that caught my eye was about a bird that is a fairly common winter visitor; the Blackcap (Sylvia Atricapilla). These birds breed further north from here and have always migrated south in winter. In recent years, Blackcaps from some parts of Central and Eastern Europe have started migrating west to the UK, attracted by milder winters and the amount of food being put out in people’s gardens. A recent study in Aragon, Northern Spain, has started tracking birds that breed there to find out where they migrate to in winter. Guess what? Some of them are going to the UK! After thousands and thousands of years travelling south for the winter, they are going in the opposite direction. It is another small, but worrying sign of climate change that is happening at a pace that may be too rapid for many species to adapt.
After those two depressing titbits, let’s go looking for Rollers.
I decided to head to the west of Caravaca de la Cruz, to an extensive area of high plains near to the villages of Los Royos and El Moralejo. In August it looked barren as all the cereal crops had been harvested and much of the other vegetation was burnt off by the summer sun. These are harsh landscapes with high temperatures and little shade in summer and open countryside with little protection from the cold winds of winter. However, there are birds here and quite a few interesting species, if you are patient. The trick is to drive slowly and be acutely aware of any movement that you see around you. The single-track roads were virtually deserted, which was a good job as although my senses were alert they weren’t focused on fellow travellers.
I wasn’t seeing too much for the first half hour or so. I had checked the buildings where the Lesser Kestrels (Falco Naumanni) breed each year, but they had already moved on. Eventually, I saw a bird of prey ahead of me and quite low. It was slowly quartering the fields in search of some tasty morsel. The hunting technique was typical of a Harrier, so I was pretty sure of the family, but which species? It looked smaller and not so heavy winged as a Marsh Harrier (Circus Aeruginosus), so that was discounted. Hen Harriers (Circus Cyaneus) are only winter visitors, so I was pretty sure that in August it would be too early in the year for them, so that only left Montagu’s (Circus Pygargus) and Pallid Harrier (Circus Macrourus). As Pallids are quite a rarity in both Spain and Murcia, I was quickly coming to the conclusion that it was a Monty’s. Fortunately, it allowed me to get closer and watch it as it flew backwards and forwards across the hillside. The orange–rufous colour to the chest and inner wings was quite striking and immediately identified it as a juvenile Montagu’s Harrier; a pretty good bird to start my day, so with spirits lifted I continued my slow drive across the empty-looking plains.
As I approached some ruined buildings, a small bird with a very noticeable white rump flew across the road. Time to get out and walk a bit! I soon found the bird with the white rump and it was one of a family of Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe Oenanthe) feeding happily on the fields. Also, closer to the ruins, there were a couple of Black-Eared Wheatears (Oenanthe Hispanica). Both species are summer visitors or passage migrants. The Northern Wheatear is more often seen as a migrant passing through, but I am fairly convinced that there is a small breeding population on these plains and possibly the Steppes of Yecla.
The Black-Eared Wheatear is a regular summer visitor that breeds here. In recent years it seems to be getting scarcer as I am seeing less of them each year, but hope I am mistaken in that view.
If you see a small bird flying with a very noticeable white rump it is invariably a Wheatear, or as they are affectionately known by some as ‘white arses’!
Whilst I was looking at the Wheatears another family of small birds appeared on the field ridge and at first, I thought they were young Wagtails in their drab almost nondescript plumage. However, on closer inspection they were Tawny Pipits. Most people would be totally unimpressed by them as they are not very striking, but their drab grey-brown plumage does help them to blend in perfectly with the surrounding landscape. That’s always a good strategy to avoid being caught and eaten, especially if there is a passing Montagu’s Harrier around.
The Tawny Pipit is the only Pipit that breeds in Southern Spain, but is scarce or absent from most of Andalucia and Murcia. It occurs mainly in the Northern half of the country on high plains and dry mountain areas. They over-winter in the Sahel and the Northern Savannah Belt of Sub-Saharan Africa, so I was very pleased to see a family of them, but it left the question hanging in the air. Did they breed here or were they just passing through on their way to Africa?
As I was watching these drab small birds, my wife Jessica wandered off with her camera looking for something more interesting to see and photograph. She found a beautiful and centuries old evergreen oak tree with a twisted and gnarled trunk and a rotten cavity in the centre. It was only when she got close to take an artistic photograph that she noticed a pair of bright yellow eyes staring at her from the centre of it. It was a frustrated Little Owl (Athene Noctua) giving her a very hard stare after being disturbed from its mid-day siesta.
We completed our trip by going to La Junquera where there is a spring that feeds a small pool and stream. It is always a good idea to look around any water course as it is magnet for local wildlife in these arid areas. It wasn’t long before we spotted a Turtle Dove (Streptopelia Turtur) sheltering in a Eucalyptus tree, but there wasn’t much else around except for some very striking looking dragonflies. The one that caught my eye was the male Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis Erythraea). I hope you agree that it is rather handsome and worthy of a photograph.
Did I find any Rollers? What do you think? Well, of course I did and rather successfully as I was very well entertained by at least seven different birds on my long, enjoyable and slow drive over the plains.
Finally, I have been asked a number of times if there are any birding trips that people can join. As far as I know there aren’t any and I don’t know of any informal English speaking groups. This has made me think that a Costa Cálida Birding Group might fill a need by allowing people with a shared interest to meet occasionally, visit some sites and allow people to experience and learn about birds and nature. However, it would need somebody or a small group, willing to organise it. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, but I would be willing to assist by acting as a conduit to bring people together and join the odd excursion or event. No special birding knowledge needed; just a love of nature and willingness to get involved. If you think you would be interested then please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks to Juan García Lopéz for using his photo of a male Blackcap and John Thompson for his photos of juvenile Montagu’s Harrier and Black-Eared Wheatear.