Last month I wrote about the common birds you are likely to bump into in your daily lives here. So this month, I thought I would continue broadly with the same theme, but with a bit of a twist. I will again write about common birds, but in specific habitats. Therefore, they may be quite uncommon on a regional scale, but are locally common in the right habitat.

The habitat is very important and each birding site will have different characteristics and therefore the birdlife will change as the habitat does. It all depends on the food that is available.

This month I will share with you my thoughts on the well known and scenic area of the salt-pans of San Pedro del Pinatar. It is a beautiful and unique landscape for birders and tourists alike. It is very popular with locals and tourists who wish to walk and take some gentle exercise alongside the Mediterranean, the Mar Menor or the salt-pans.

It is a Regional Park of 856 hectares, so pretty big by any standards. Its status and legal protection is enhanced by also being classified as a Natura 2000 site, a special Protection area (ZEPA), a site of Community Importance, a special Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance and a RAMSAR wetland site. A very impressive array of awards!

If you enjoy fresh air and walking, there is a very interesting 11 km circular walk from the visitor centre that takes you towards the coast between the salt-pans, then along the Mediterranean coast before returning along a paseo between the salt-pans and the Mar Menor. However, if you wish to be more relaxed there are several parking areas at many of the view points along the route.

As I will be talking about the common birds of the salt-pans they will invariably be birds that live and feed in wetland habitats. There isn’t an abundance of wetlands in Murcia, which means many of the common birds here won’t be seen inland and are therefore quite uncommon or rare elsewhere.

Many of the birds I will talk about have often been featured in previous articles, but hopefully you will by now be able to recognise many of them. Familiarity is the key to good identification.

The most emblematic bird of the salt-pans is undoubtably the Flamingo. Many people who aren’t birders will visit this area with the primary objective of seeing these special birds. There are six species of Flamingos in the world, but the birds here are Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), the largest and most widespread of the flamingo species. Although they are resident birds, they don’t breed here and the flocks that you see are generally made up of juvenile birds and non-breeding adults. If you want to see them breeding then you should visit the lakes near Torrevieja or the lagoon of Petróla in Albacete.
I love to see them in flight as they are more colourful and spectacular than when they are stood still in the water. If you ever look at the Murcia Birding Facebook page there is Spanish guy who posts a daily photo of a Flamingo in flight, yes that’s right every day! It seems a bit obsessive for me, but he obviously has a passion for these birds.

My next common bird, the Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), is probably as equally emblematic as the Flamingo, but only for us Brits. It is because it was extinct as a breeding bird in the UK for more than one hundred years, since 1840. In 1947 it was decided to flood many parts of East Anglia to protect the country from potential invasion plans. This also had the happy coincidence of providing lots of good habitat for breeding Avocets. The birds quickly recognised these new wetlands and there are now about 2,000 pairs breeding in the UK. A real success story for conservation and it was a much heralded achievement in my childhood and youth.

Fortunately, these resident and elegant black and white waders with their unique up-curved beaks are relatively common here. You should be able to see them quite easily as they feed in the salt-pans. They are very visible and easy to identify from the other waders in the lagoons.

Probably, the only other bird that can be confused with an avocet is another long-legged black and white wader, the Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus). However, they are quite different if you study them a bit more closely. It is an extraordinarily elegant wader with incredibly long slim red legs. The upper parts are green-glossed black contrasting with the rest of the plumage, which is a clean white colour. The adult male has black on its head in breeding plumage.
In the UK it is classed as an uncommon migrant and occasional breeder. It is nowadays being seen more commonly in England, which is presumably a result of warming due to climate change. I do not think you need to be a genius to predict that it will soon be a species that is re-colonising the UK’s wetlands. It will be a bird that will be welcomed with open arms by British birders as it will be an elegant addition to the list of British breeding birds.

Besides Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plovers, most of the common waders disappear up to the Arctic during the breeding season. However, it is a very short season as the Arctic is frozen until late spring, so the waders time their arrival after the ice melt. They tend to arrive at the breeding grounds in May and will start their migration south as soon as July.

Dunlins (Calidris alpina) are one of our more common waders at San Pedro. They are small birds, about the size of a starling, but fly huge distances north to south from breeding grounds to wintering and feeding areas. Some of them will fly south into Africa, but most of the birds seen here will stay at the salt-pans outside of the breeding season. It is a very common wader, but if you can identify it, it is a very good indicator species for size and plumage comparisons.This will help you identify other species.
It is very easy to spot in its summer plumage with its rufous cap and wings, a black patch on its chest and belly and a long down-curved beak. In winter plumage it is a nondescript bird with a dull coffee or light brown colour on its head and back. The beak and legs are still the same colour, black with a beak that is long and down-curved.
The smallest wader you will probably see here is a Little Stint (Calidris minuta), about the size of a House Sparrow and obviously smaller than a Dunlin. In the UK they are quite uncommon and usually seen far away, but here they will allow you to be quite close.
A larger wader than the previous two is a Ruff (Calidris pugnax). These birds can be quite confusing as the males are bigger than the females and their plumage can be quite variable. Birders often say that if you are struggling to identify it, it is probably a Ruff! Personally, I look to see if they have a small white ring around the base of the bill. The majority, with a few exceptions, show this ring.
Larger wading birds are a lot easier to identify and there are two you can see here all year round, Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus).
The first one is very noticeable as it is all white with a long black stiletto beak, black legs and peculiar green feet!

The second bird, a Glossy ibis, is quite large and can look almost black depending on light conditions. Their plumage is actually purple brown, with a green gloss. It is an incredibly beautiful bird if the light reflects well off its plumage. It is over half a metre in height with long legs and a large down-curved beak, quite unmistakeable.

One of the very common aquatic birds that over-winters here in their hundreds, if not thousands, is the Black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis). In summer plumage they are very striking birds, but in winter they are grey-black above and a dirty grey below, quite a grubby looking bird. It is 28-34 cms long and stays principally on the water and often dives down when feeding on aquatic insects.

My final selection is a gull that is very uncommon in Northern Europe, a Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genie). They are here all year round and if you look carefully enough you are sure to find one. They have a delicate and elegant appearance and are similar size to the Black-headed Gull, but probably just a little bit bigger. It has a white head and reddish-legs and in summer has a feint pinkish blush on its plumage.

I hope you find time to visit San Pedro del Pinatar and see how many of these species you can spot.

If you have any comments or queries please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.