I arrived back in the UK in mid-July and hopefully will be able to return to Murcia towards the end of August. However, with the change in quarantine regulations and the increase in Spanish infection rates, the airlines may decide to cancel more flights, so it is fingers crossed for the moment.
It may not be Murcia, but a recent visit to a seabird colony in the UK allowed me to see close up some of the pelagic (living far from land) species that enter the Mediterranean in winter and can be seen occasionally off the Murcian coast.
The most southerly UK nesting site for Pelagic birds is at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire and the last time I visited was with my dad a little more than 50 years ago, when I was a very young schoolboy. It was certainly a long overdue visit to this spectacular seabird nature reserve. Walking along the cliff top 120 metres above the sea was amazing, especially as I suffer from vertigo! However, a sturdy fence between the path and the abyss did give some reassurance. The site is managed by the RSPB and there are several viewing platforms on the small headlands that give you formidable views of the seabirds on their nesting ledges. The birds were totally unconcerned by the people walking the tops and just went about their daily business without a second glance at the ornithological voyeurs.
It is estimated that there are 200,000 birds nesting on this short section of cliffs with Northern Gannets (Morus Bassanus), Herring Gulls (Larus Argentatus), Kittiwakes (Rissa Tridactyla), Fulmars (Fulmarus Glacialis), Guillemots (Uria Aalge), Razorbills (Alca Torda) and Puffins (Fratercula Arctica), all crowding together on any available space or ledge.
As you approach the cliffs you experience a sensual overload with the sounds, sight and smell of this avian city. There is a cocaphony of calls, threats and chatter from the thousands of birds crammed in as they constantly communicate with their close neighbours. The smell is unique and not totally unpleasant; a mixture of salt-laden winds and guano (and 200,000 birds can produce a lot of guano!). However, it is the views of so many seabirds everywhere you look; on the cliffs, in the air, on the sea and even flying within a few metres that takes your breath away, birder or not. In fact, the majority of visitors appeared to be non-birders, often with children, who were enjoying this unique wildlife experience.
The Gannets often fly level with the cliff top path and this allows extraordinary close up views of a bird that is normally glimpsed 500m or more offshore. You definitely don’t need binoculars and have no worries about identification; they are unmistakeable. They are large birds with a wingspan of up to 1.8m and are beautifully adapted to their life at sea as they glide effortlessly on their long wings riding the sea breezes. They feed on fish such as anchovies, sardines, cod, haddock and other shoal-forming species. Their hunting technique is a dive into the sea from heights of anything up to 30m, folding back their wings just before entering the water. This allows them to reach depths of up to 11m, before swimming maybe to 25m down as they hunt their prey. On catching a fish, they will swallow it under water before re-surfacing, which I suppose stops it being stolen by others.
Although Gannets are masters of the sky, in their natural environment of wide-open seascapes, it is different coming into land on small cliff ledges with little room for manoeuvre. They find it very difficult to turn sharply and then stall to land cleanly on their nest site and will often take several attempts before being successful. Unfortunately, they can hurt themselves badly at times and it is not unheard of for birds to die after breaking a wing on a failed landing. After saying that, they are long-lived birds and the oldest recorded so far is 37. They are monogamous and pair for life, although they spend most of the year apart and only meet up again when they return to their nest site. After breeding and rearing their single chick, the birds disperse out to sea where they spend the rest of the year. They will move quite a distance; up to 1,600km away from their breeding colonies and quite large numbers will move into the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar. Consequently, it is quite common to see them off the coast of Murcia in winter, but they can be seen all year round as a few non-breeding and juvenile birds will also remain in the Med throughout the summer.
Also breeding on Bempton Cliffs are three species of Auks: Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins. The three are closely related species of northern climates that, like Gannets, live their lives at sea, except when breeding. They are all shortish, stocky birds that are ungainly on land because of their short legs and webbed feet, coupled with a lack of walking practice. In flight they have very rapid wing beats and normally fly relatively low over the water. They hunt their prey of fish and crustaceans, by diving from the surface and sometimes to considerable depths. Razorbills have been recorded up to 120m below the surface. They are all excellent swimmers, with their specially adapted flipper-like feet propelling themselves in a very similar manner to Penguins. I suppose they can be considered as the ‘Penguins of the Northern Hemisphere’.
Guillemots crowd themselves on the narrow ledges to nest and are almost touching their neighbours, which leads to quite a number of noisy disputes. They lay a single egg straight on to the rock surface, which appears somewhat precarious, but seems to work. Their close relative, the Razorbill, normally nests close by, but prefers a bit more social distancing and will be a couple of metres away from their nearest neighbour. They prefer slightly wider ledges to lay their single egg. An interesting fact is that Guillemots will recognise their own egg, but not Razorbills, so how many end up raising somebody else’s chick is a mystery to be uncovered. If you are close enough, the best way to tell the two species apart is by bill shape. The Guillemot has a long sharp bill and the Razorbill has a larger thicker black bill with distinctive white markings, especially in the breeding season.
As with Gannets, both species can be seen offshore in Murcia during the winter if you are lucky, but Razorbills are far more likely, as Guillemots are quite scarce in the Mediterranean.
The third member of the family and the cutest is the Puffin, which always seems to be everybody’s favourite. It was the least numerous on the cliffs, but everyone was asking where the Puffins were. There were quite a few about, but they don’t congregate together as the other birds do. They are also smaller and nest in burrows, so are not always as visible. However, once you spot their bright and outrageously coloured beak they are unmistakeable and their nickname of ‘Parrots of the Sea’ suits them quite well. Outside the breeding season, they spend most of their time fishing and resting on the surface of the sea. They are also strong flyers and flap their wings 400 times per minute and can reach speeds of up to 88km an hour. It is an advantage to be quick, as they are predated by large Gulls which are capable of snatching them in mid-flight or from the ground. The majority of Puffins over-winter in the North Sea and the Atlantic, but quite large numbers (maybe up to 35,000) are thought to enter the Mediterranean during the winter, so they are seen each year off the coast of Murcia. Wintering birds don’t have the characteristic coloured beak as it turns a dark grey colour outside of the breeding season.
There were several pairs of nesting Herring Gulls dotted around the colony, appearing very handsome in their best breeding plumage and looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Unfortunately for the Auks, they would be quick to take advantage of any unguarded eggs or chicks. A momentary lapse of concentration by any parents could quickly lead to a failed breeding season and a ready meal for a growing gull chick.
The other Gulls that can be seen in abundance are the gentle looking Kittiwakes that breed in large noisy colonies on precipitous cliffs, such as those at Bempton. They are a true marine species and the most Pelagic of the Gull family and are unlikely to be seen on land, except when breeding. They feed on small fish and other marine creatures that they will pick from the surface of the sea, or plunge dive. After breeding they will move out around the British coast or further out into the Atlantic, sometimes as far as the North American coast. Young birds may stay out at sea for several years until reaching maturity and returning to their natal colony to breed. In recent years they have learnt to nest on the ledges of tall coastal buildings, which presumably look like a cliff when seen through the eyes of a Kittiwake. Some birds do come into the Mediterranean and are occasionally seen off our Murcia coast and would definitely be a good tick for Murcian birders.
After all the cliff-side entertainment, I was pleased to see lots of Tree Sparrows (Passer Montanus) in the area around the visitor centre. It is a species that has been suffering a serious population decline in the UK since the 1970’s, although the trend has stabilised in recent years. In Murcia, they are relatively uncommon and I have only seen them occasionally. However, on a winter visit the old water treatment plant at El Algar, near Los Alcázares, there was a small and active flock of these delightful little Sparrows that are probably resident in this area.
Hopefully, I will be back in Murcia by the time you are reading this article.
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