After 3 different flight cancellations, my wife and I finally managed to get back to the UK on 17th December, nearly 3 weeks later than planned. Unfortunately we are now restricted in our movements and unable to travel for the foreseeable future, either to other areas of the UK or back to Spain. I shall miss being out and about in my familiar stamping grounds, but it will give me a chance to explore a bit more in my other home of Suffolk. In the meantime I can reflect a bit about my last birding trip out in Northwest Murcia.

After the lifting of the municipal travel restrictions in December and before our flight to the UK, there was a small window of opportunity to venture further afield so I decided to visit the high plains of Los Royos/La Junquera, Puerto Alto and Inazares, all in our northwest frontier. The landscape in these areas is quite different from the rest of the region especially in winter and if it is during a cold spell then all the better. Cold weather further north of us encourages birds that normally don’t come this far south to move into our area to avoid the unexpected harsh conditions.

On the chosen day it was only 1 or 2 degrees above freezing. There was a cold wind blowing across the bare and fallow cereal fields and snow on the surrounding high mountain tops. The plains of Los Royos are at 1,000m above sea level on average and on this day they looked and felt bleak and lifeless. I wasn’t seeing much at first; just an occasional flock of Finches mainly Goldfinches (Carduelis Carduelis), Linnets (Carduelis Cannabina) and Greenfinches (Chloris Chloris). Also, in contrast to the coastal areas where they can be somewhat scarce, there were quite a few Carrion Crows (Corvus Coronne) which are common birds in the northwest.

I was also keeping an eye out for a bird that is quite abundant in the area, the Red-Billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax). At this time of year they form large flocks which can forage over quite large areas. They look for fields with plenty of soil-living invertebrates on which they feed, using their longish down-curved beaks to probe the soil in their search for insects. If you come across a flock on the plains they are normally quite noticeable walking along the ground and it is quite likely one or two individuals will take to the air with short bursts of light bouncy flight. It often appears to me that there is no real purpose to some of their flights other than the sheer joy of being able to do so. I always think of them as ‘happy birds’, especially as they are often chatting to each other as they fly along together. By the end of my drive around the plains I had seen several flocks feeding in the fields.

Occasional Iberian Grey Shrikes (Lanius Meriodonialis) were obligingly visible, perched on remote bushes or stunted trees in the open landscape. As I made my way back towards the main road to Puebla de Don Fadrique a large Raptor was circling slowly trying to gain height; it was still quite low and therefore afforded excellent views. It was a juvenile Golden Eagle (Aquila Chrysaetos) with very attractive markings. It had a white tail with a broad black band at the base and a bold white patch on the underside of each wing. I often think that these young birds have a more attractive appearance than the adults. The amount of white in their plumage decreases after each annual moult until they reach maturity after 5 or 6 years. At a distance, the older birds will appear uniformly brown and it is only with close views that you notice the golden hues and subtle colouring of their plumage. The accompanying photograph is of a similar-aged bird to the one I saw and the photo was taken recently at the reservoir of La Pedrera just over the Murcia-Alicante border. On a computer it was possible to see and read the ring on one of its legs. On checking this unique number it transpires that this bird was born and reared in 2020 by a pair that bred in the area of Cartagena.

Other birds of prey such as Common Kestrel (Falco Tinnunculus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter Nissus) and Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) were also sharing the plains with me. In winter both the Sparrowhawk and Buzzard are more common and visible in the region as their populations are augmented by birds from further north.

After the plains I went to Puerto Alto which is the pass to the west of our highest mountain range of Los Revolcadores. The road started well with a good tarmac surface, but by the time I had reached the highest point at 1,500m it had become a gravel track in fairly poor condition. Visibility was pretty poor, with the peaks clouded in mist, so not great for scanning skywards for the Vultures which probably wouldn’t have been airborne in these conditions anyway, so it was better to concentrate on looking for smaller songbirds.

Close to the highest point there is a deserted and ruined farmhouse just off the track. At the rear of the building is an old irrigation channel that always has running water and a plentiful supply of rose hips and juniper berries nearby. This food and water supply is always attractive to winter Thrushes, so I spent a bit of time observing the area hoping to see Redwings (Turdus Iliacus) a close relative of the Blackbird (Turdus Merula) and other Thrushes. Redwings breed in the northern regions of Europe such as Scandinavia and the Baltic states and across to Russia. In winter they migrate to western, central and southern Europe, but the majority don’t come this far south. However, during a really cold spell a few individuals will get to Murcia. The best place to see one of these uncommon winter visitors is in the northwest, or on the top of Sierra Espuňa. Unfortunately, I had no luck except for seeing very large numbers of Mistle Thrushes (Turdus Viscivorus) coming and going to the water canal.

There were also quite a few Rock Buntings (Emberiza Cia) on the surrounding bushes and dwarf hedges. They are delightful birds and this is one of the most reliable places I have found for seeing them. They are relatively common birds of our mountainous areas, especially if there is some light tree and shrub cover, but they are not always easy to find consistently in the same spot. The males are unmistakable with their head markings and remind me of those Olde English childhood sweets, ‘humbugs’.

The track started to become more rutted, wetter and slippery, but I continued on as I wanted to visit Inazares, the highest village in Murcia. This route goes over the saddle of the mountain on the opposite side and then drops down on a rough track to the village at 1,350m. I became more anxious driving along, as the risk of getting stuck or sliding off the track was becoming a real possibility and the thought of spending the night in the high mountains wasn’t very appealing. Needless to say there was no phone signal in the area. Anyway, more by luck than judgement I arrived at my next stopping point on the mountainside; an old drinking trough flanked by berrying shrubs. There is always an ample water supply here so it attracts birds from around a wide area.

A lot of Thrushes were arriving, but neither the Redwings nor the other wintering Thrush I was expecting to see here, a Ring Ouzel (Turdus Torquatus). This latter bird is the mountain equivalent of our Blackbirds and breeds in rocky areas and scree slopes in the high regions of western and central Europe, the Caucasus and Scandinavia. In the winter they migrate south to the Mediterranean and can be seen in open areas with scattered pines and bushes at high altitudes. They look almost identical to our common Blackbird except for a large white crescent or horseshoe shape on the chest. Luckily, as I descended down to the village of Inazares there were a number of them on the mountain slopes by the track which allowed some good, but fleeting views.

In the same area I managed to photograph an intriguing-looking Pipit perched on a bush. It looked a bit different from other Pipits and I was hoping that it was something out of the ordinary. On looking more closely at the photo back in the warmth of the house, it proved to be our common winter visitor, the Meadow Pipit (Anthus Pratense). Although they are small brownish birds, they are quite attractive when seen well and I was happy to end my final Murcian birding trip of 2020 with this minor identification challenge.Finally, many thanks to local bird photographer John Thompson for allowing me to use his excellent photos of juvenile Golden Eagle and a male Ring Ouzel.

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