I had to go to Camposol one morning to deliver some books to the shop, ’Best Wishes’. It is a longish drive from where I live so it seemed sensible to incorporate another visit or activity before meeting some very good friends at Juanjo’s bar in Puebla de Niño for a slow, lazy lunch. If you’ve never visited Juanjo’s, I would certainly recommend it as the tapas are both unique and very tasty. The village is quite ordinary and appears uninhabited and very sleepy on a hot summer’s day. The bar looks like any other village bar from the outside, but inside it is clean, modern and with great air conditioning. Juanjo prides himself on his very inventive tapas that are generally based on a traditional Spanish theme. The ‹gazpacho de remolacho con langostino’ sounded rather different from normal and was surprisingly good, but it is just one of many non-traditional tapas on the menu. Anyway, enough of Juanjo’s; this is supposed to be a birding article!
I had thought of perhaps going to the coast, which would have been a more sensible choice, but in the end I decided to visit the adjoining area of Los Saladares Del Guadalentín, a particular favourite of mine, but probably not a good choice on a blazing hot day in the middle of summer. It was a lazy choice really as I didn’t want to drive too far. It was a gamble as the site is very biodiverse in spring, autumn and winter and one of the region’s best birding sites. At the height of summer I was expecting it to be hard work with very few birding rewards, but you never know!
Well, it certainly started slowly as I edged my way forward in the car. I don’t think one would survive for very long walking in the Saladares with no shade and the sun beating down. The birds had clearly decided either to move on to somewhere cooler, or hunker down amongst the low vegetation and wait for a cooler time in the evening and very sensible too. I was wondering if I should do the same, but I then got distracted by a very large bird perched on top of one of the giant electric pylons. I guessed that it was likely to be a Golden Eagle (Aquila Chryseatos) due to the sheer size of the bird and not much more, being so far away. Golden Eagles are a bird of prey that is pretty successful here in Murcia with an estimated 68 breeding pairs. If you compare this to all of England, Wales, the Netherlands and Ireland where you are unlikely to see even one bird, we have to be in one of the best places in Europe to enjoy this magnificent raptor. Like many birds of prey, the female is larger than the male (about 20% larger) and a large female will have a wingspan of 2.25m which is big by any standard (I’ve just measured my own wingspan at 1.7m). They tend to hunt in daylight hours and will prey mainly on small mammals such as rabbits and hares, but are also opportunistic and will take gamebirds, other smallish mammals and will feed on carrion. Their eyesight is amazing and they are able to spot a moving rabbit up to 2 miles away!
The bird seemed to be quite relaxed as it sat on the pylon, so I drove very slowly towards it hoping that it would hang around a bit longer for me to get a better view. In fact, I drove to within 30m of the pylon and enjoyed the bird’s company for quite a while as it surveyed all around, presumably looking for a tell-tale sign of movement that would indicate a juicy morsel for it to hunt. The bird I was watching looked like a juvenile bird as I am sure an experienced adult bird wouldn’t have let me get so close, but it is easier to tell if they are juveniles when in flight. The juveniles have patches of white on the wing and rump. They gradually moult into their warm golden-brown plumage over a period of about 6 years when they reach breeding maturity. Outside the breeding season the Saladares is a great place to visit if you want to see these birds, as there are normally a few of them about. It is obviously a good hunting territory!
As I drove further on the dry, dusty tracks the place seemed almost lifeless and occasionally I was seeing a ubiquitous Crested Lark which are normally seen every 50m or so. I’ve got to say it wasn’t looking very promising and late morning in the middle of summer wasn’t the best time to be there. Eventually, I came across a bird sitting on a post and wondering where to go next. It was quite close to the car and was clearly quite happy to have its photo taken.
It was a juvenile Woodchat Shrike. These pretty little Shrikes are summer visitors that spend the winter in tropical Africa. The adults are quite striking with their black and white plumage and chestnut caps, but the juveniles are still in their cryptic plumage until they become more street wise. This one obviously hadn’t learned that Homo Sapiens is a very dangerous species and should be avoided.
A bit further along the track I had the pleasure of seeing a family group of Red-Legged Partridges who had been happily feeding in the field before being startled by the appearance of my car. The parents immediately realised the danger and soon started chivvying the kids to get a move on and run away from this dangerous-looking machine. Mum led them at the front as they scuttled away into the herbage, whilst dad bravely remained at the back making sure there were no stragglers. It’s a great pity that birds are so scared of people, but I’m sure there is a good reason for it!
Many years ago I had the good fortune of visiting the islands of the Seychelles where many of the birds have absolutely no fear of people. I vividly remember the shock of wandering around a local fish market alongside a Little Egret that was there to help himself to some of the fish discards from the market stalls.
On Bird Island, thousands of seabirds were nesting and we even had a pair of Fairy Terns nesting in our hut at the side of our bed. They were totally unconcerned by our presence and carried on as if we weren’t there. When we wandered around the island many of the birds would fly towards and above us just to sate their curiosity about the new species they had just spotted. It was a unique and wonderful experience and a small insight into how the world could be without violence and fear.
The one experience I will always remember is having breakfast on Fregate Island. I was studying my birding book to find out the difference between a Madagascar Fody and a Seychelles Fody, both of which occurred on the islands. I was deep in thought working out the finer details of it when I Iooked down at my plate in front me on the table. There was a Seychelles Fody on the plate eating the crumbs I had left! Needless to say I was able to identify them during the rest of the holiday.
Sorry about my digression, but it hadn’t been too exciting driving on the Saladares. However, it was interesting and more so when Jessica spotted some movement on a nearby field bank. It was a Stone Curlew trying to blend in with the soil using its perfect camouflage. It wasn’t happy that he had been spotted and had lost this little game of hide and seek. It was quite amusing to watch as it tried to creep ever so slowly, without being seen, to a new hiding place. All that was now left to do was check some of the artificial irrigation reservoirs to see what was there as they often become homes to unlikely species of waders and wildfowl. It seems somewhat incongruous to see birds of our wetlands in such a dry area at the height of summer. It just goes to show what a bit of water can do to our biodiversity in such an arid climate.
Sure enough, there were a few birds about, most noticeably a family of Little Grebes and a couple of families of Little Ringed Plovers. The Plovers nest on the gravel on the banks of the reservoir, although ‘nest’ is a bit of a misnomer as it is usually just a small scrape on the ground where they lay their eggs. They are extremely vulnerable to predators, but I guess the chain-link fencing around these reservoirs protects them from mammals such as Foxes and Martens.
In the New Year I am intending to visit the Galapagos Islands which is another of those extremely rare environments where some of the birds have no fear of man. I am looking forward to seeing if it is still true and equal to my wonderful memories of the Seychelles.
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