It was great to be at the airport to catch a flight back to Alicante after nearly eight months away from Murcia due to the UK COVID travel restrictions. My excitement nearly overcame the utter boredom of hanging around the airport for two and a half hours.
Arriving at our Murcian home I was feeling a little bit of trepidation about what I would find: a car with a flat battery (it had missed its ITV test), a pool full of green algae, a damp and musty house, unpaid utility bills etc. However, as I sat on the terrace that evening I was thankful for our good friends and neighbours. The pool had been shocked with chlorine, the house cleaned and the garden weeded. As we enjoyed a glass of wine in the fading light, some of our avian friends and neighbours also welcomed us home. A family of House Sparrows (Passer Domesticus) had taken up residence in the gas boiler on the terrace and the family happily chatted to us with their joyful chirping. I think it was to persuade us not to use the terrace shower and boiler for a few more weeks. They seemed to be satisfied with our decision not to!
After the chat with the Sparrows, a Scops Owl (Otus Scops) started calling from the back of the house to let us know that it had returned after a long spring migration from sub-Saharan Africa. Our neighbours told me that they had heard it calling every evening, so I assumed it had been missing us! This small Owl (19-21cm) has a very strange and distinctive call that consists of a constantly repeated short and deep whistling ‘tyuh’ every two to three seconds. In the still of the night the sound can travel for up to 1km, so if there is one nearby you will probably hear it. The call reminds me of the sonar ping in the old war movies. Once you realise what is making that strange sound you never forget it.
Whilst sipping my second glass of wine, the local Little Owls (Athene Noctua) started calling with their sharp ‘kee-ew’ call. News about our return obviously travels fast in the campo! They have an eerie complaining tone to the call, so I’m not sure they were happy that we were back. Anyway, it was nice to hear from old friends. Little Owls, as their name suggests, are small and very cute looking, but they are slightly larger (23-27cm) than the Scops. They are nocturnal, but are quite often seen during daylight hours. They are the easiest of the Owl species to spot as they often perch at head height on prominent perches on trees, walls and old buildings.
The next morning it was a choice between pool cleaning or trying to get our old Ford Focus started. I opted for the pool, as it would give me more chance of seeing our local birdlife. I was eager to find out if some old friends were still hanging out near the house. It doesn’t take much to get me distracted from netting dead algae out of the pool. The first familiar sound was a rattling ‘trr-trr-trr-trr-tr’ of a Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia Melanocephela) that was skulking about in some low bushes, no doubt looking for small insects for its breakfast. They normally nest somewhere close to the house, but they were keeping out of sight of the strange pool-boy. It had obviously forgotten me already! They are one of our commonest birds and can be seen in a wide variety of habitats. They like moving about in low bushes and are most often seen in their short bouncy flight as they move from bush to bush. The males are a dirty grey colour with black heads, a whitish throat and a bright red eye ring. The females are brownish with a grey head and generally less conspicuous.
After being ignored by the Warbler, I was immediately cheered up by a family of Goldfinches (Cardeulis Cardeulis) that had clearly come to see what was going on at the abandoned house. Goldfinches are often heard before being seen and they have a very cheery ‘tickelitt’ sound as they chat amongst themselves. On a sunny morning their chattering can always bring a smile to my face, even if the algae clearing wasn’t going very well.
It wasn’t long before some Linnets (Cardeulis Cannabina) turned up to find out what the Goldfinches had seen that was so interesting. However, they didn’t seem too impressed with my pool cleaning either and moved down to the bottom of the field where some very tasty-looking thistle seeds looked far more interesting. Linnets are small delicate looking Finches, a bit smaller and slimmer than a House Sparrow. In summer the males are very handsome with a red forehead and chest, grey on the head and a russety brown back. They are quite common in the almond orchards around our house, but are quite easily overlooked as they are reserved and not at all showy in their characters. There is a natural spring near to our house that always has water present. It is an excellent place to sit quietly and watch these little birds coming to quench their thirst.
It was probably a good job that they had moved on, as shortly afterwards a beautiful female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter Nissus) flew in, quickly trying to surprise and catch any unwary bird. The attached photo gives you an impression of how scary these Hawks must look to a small songbird.
Eventually, I managed to clear enough dead algae to provide open water, which immediately became a magnet for a group of Barn Swallows (Hirundo Rustica). It was delightful to see them flying so close to scoop up mouthfuls of water from the pool surface. They really are masters of the air as they elegantly and effortlessly glide above the pool refreshing themselves with the occasional drink. I was hoping they would tell their close cousins, the Red-Rumped Swallows and a favourite bird for many years, that we were back. However, I was out of luck and although I prolonged the pool cleaning it looked as if they had moved to pastures new.
Other old friends that hadn’t come to welcome us home were the Golden Orioles (Oriolus Oriolus) that have also spent many summers with us. There are normally two or three pairs that nest reasonably close to the house, but not a peep! It was two days later that my wife decided to call them. She is very good at imitating their call. Sure enough, that did the trick. A nearby male soon decided to find out who the intruder was close to the house. Since then he has kept a close eye on my wife!
A bit later that day, as I continued with my four-day pool-cleaning project, I heard some happy calls from a flock of birds hawking for flying insects. At last, Red-Rumped Swallows (Cecropis Daurica). They had also brought the kids with them to meet us, so that was a double bonus. It was great to see them drinking from the pool. It nearly made me feel good about cleaning up the pool water! These Swallows make amazing mud nests (see photo), which they fix to a ceiling or rock overhang and will often nest in old buildings or under bridges. Both adults build the domed nest with an entrance tunnel and I imagine it must take several weeks to build from scratch. They will lay three to six eggs, which hatch asynchronously, in the grass and feather-lined nest. If there is sufficient food all the chicks may survive, but if not it allows the earlier hatched chicks to survive at the expense of their siblings. Nature is harsh at times.
A few nights later as we sat by the pool at dusk, there were Stone Curlews calling from the rambla below the house. It is a common and familiar call that we were very pleased to hear. However, in 18 years living here, I’ve only seen them on a handful of occasions from the house, so it seemed quite a special moment when two of them took the trouble to fly directly above us from the rambla and calling loudly so that we wouldn’t miss them.
As the days pass I am now gradually catching up with old friends, both human and avian.
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