Monday, 24 March 2014

Stepping out!

This last week has once again been slow when it comes to the spring migration.  Passing by the Cabo de Palos lighthouse gardens on most days, the winter visitors are still moving out, with Black Redstarts, Meadow Pipits and Chiffchaffs on most days.

On Sunday morning (16th March) after a visit to the gardens, I called in firstly to the Playa Paraiso side of the Salinas of Marchamalo, seeing only some House Martins busily collecting clay to build/repair their nests, and then to Calblanque. Of note there was a pair of Chough circling around the hills, and an adult Bonelli’s Eagle hunting nearby.  At the Rasall Salinas, the numbers of Audouin’s Gulls are slowly but surely diminishing, with only 92 seen.

It's a hard life - having just returned from Africa, first job, repair or build the nest

 The adult Bonelli's Eagle at Calblanque

On my visit to the lighthouse gardens on Monday (17th March) morning, there had obviously been a small arrival of birds, with my first Common Redstart of the year, with a supporting cast of Blackcap, Robins, Black Redstarts, Meadow Pipit, Hoopoes, Chiffchaffs and a couple of Swallows.  And while I was there I had a couple of adult Night Herons flying around the lighthouse as if they weren’t quite sure where to go next.

 A record shot of one of the two Night Herons

 A couple of the resident birds around the gardens - here a Goldfinch ...
 ... and a male Serin

Having heard that good numbers of Garganey have been seen lately in the south of Spain, on Tuesday morning (18th March) before work, I took a trip down to the ‘Encañizadas’ at the end of La Manga strip.  This is probably the nearest thing we have locally to saltings, and if there are any Garganey about, this is where they tend to gather.  Well, I had no luck with the Garganey, but birds of note were an Oystercatcher (rarity in Murcia), 2 Great White Egrets, a Peregrine perched on one of the power cable pylons, and still 3 Spoonbills.  One of the Spoonbills had combination colour rings on its legs, and was well traveled, as when I got the details of its life history, I read that it was originally ringed as a pullus in Oosterkwelder, Holland on the 21st July 2007, then passed its first summer in Cataluña and Valencia Spain and the winter of 2009 on the Atlantic seaboard in France. In the summer of 2010 it spent its time between Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire and Cley Bird Reserve in Norfolk.  The following two summers it spent near its natal site, and has obviously headed south for the winter.
As a matter of interest, the Oystercatcher was also colour ringed, with a white ring and black lettering, a fact I didn’t realize until back at home and looking through my photos.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible to read the inscription on the ring from the photos, but it does mean it’s a different individual from one seen on the beach between Los Nietos and Los Urrutias last week as that individual wasn’t ringed.

 The distant Oystercatcher at the Encañizadas ...
 ... and two of the three Spoonbills

On Wednesday (19th March) I went once again to the lighthouse garden early in the morning, but the only migrants of note were 5 Robins, 3 Black Redstarts, a couple of Chiffchaffs, a Meadow Pipit, and more than the usual number of Sardinian Warblers.

 One of three Black Redstarts seen that day

 I'm not the only one waiting for the migrants to arrive!

Returning to the ‘Encañizadas’ at the end of La Manga strip early on Thursday, 20th March, I saw pretty much the same birds as two days previously.  The only addition was a Red-rumped Swallow.

On Thursday afternoon, having read in a blog that good numbers of Puffins were being seen close to Tarifa, I decided to do a seawatch from the cliffs at Cabo de Palos.  I spent a couple of hours there, from 3 to 5pm and was quite impressed with what I saw.  I had 5 Gannets (all adults); 18 Razorbill; 19 Puffins and 14 unidentified auk sp. (definitely Razorbills or Puffins, but too distant to identify).  The peak of the movement was at around 4pm, when the sun was directly behind me, and I had a group of Razorbills plant themselves in the water in front of me (too distant for a decent photo, although I tried).

 Looking out to sea from Cabo de Palos, the rocks are Islas Hormigas,
 and the whitish stains in the foreground a group of seven Razorbills - honest!!

On Friday morning (21st March) I was once again at the lighthouse gardens first thing, but the only birds of note were 2 Gull-billed Terns which flew north directly over the lighthouse itself, calling.

On Saturday (22nd March), I’d decided to go for my first visit this year to the steppe areas around Yecla for the day.  Basically I specifically wanted to see Little and Great Bustards, and Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, although obviously I wouldn’t turn my nose up at anything else!  So at 5-30am I was up with the larks (literally – as I had my breakfast on my small patio in the dark, I could hear a Crested Lark singing overhead).  This made me wonder if I shouldn’t call in ‘en-route’ for Dupont’s Lark, but I decided it would be too late for them – I would have to be actually at the site at 7 am at the latest, and it was a 2 hour drive to get there.  So, gathering myself together, I set off at 6-20, and was entering the ZEPA (Zona Especial de Protección de Aves) of Yecla at 8-15 having driven about 160 km. 

You have arrived at the Yecla steppes ...

 Much of the terrain is large open fields ...
 ... and a lot of grape vines for the wine

Although the weather wasn’t brilliant (the forecast was for cloud early, clearing later and wind light – the actual weather was cloudy to start, getting heavier with light drizzle before clearing a bit in the mid-afternoon, and quite a strong breeze).  The first birds of note were the singing Calandra Larks and Short-toed Larks.  They seemed to be everywhere, and I spent a while watching and listening to them.  Whilst I did, I heard the comical calls of Black-bellied Sandgrouse (reminiscent of Turkeys ‘gobbling’) and I had a group of four birds fly over me.

 In one area, the Calandra Larks were all over the place ...

In the same area, some Lesser Kestrels came out of their barn roof nest-hole and started hunting, although quite what I’ve got no idea, as there seemed to be no insects about.  In total I had eight hunting together over the same wild flower covered field.

 ... and Lesser Kestrels were hunting over the fields

Moving further on, I had more Black-bellied Sandgrouses; a couple (pair?) of Common Buzzards; a pair of Green Woodpeckers; Carrion Crows in the fields plus a single Raven; a Little Owl perched on one of the many piles of rocks around; good numbers of finches (mainly Linnets); a group of 50+ Corn Buntings, and Swallows flying over. In one field I noticed a load of lumps that weren’t rocks and were slowly moving, so stopping to ‘scope them, some turned round to show themselves properly – Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.  I’ve noticed this before, but it’s amazing how much sandgrouses with their backs to you, look like large Tortoises at a distance!  A good opportunity to use my new Lumix camera as they weren’t amazingly far away, and although I say so myself, I don’t think they turned out too bad considering the (dark) conditions, and looking into the sun.

 The Little Owl watching me watching him (or her)

 At first glance, a bunch of large tortoises in a field ...
 ... until they raised their heads, and you could see they were Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

By 1pm, I still hadn’t had the other two ‘target’ species I was particularly looking for (Little and Great Bustards), so I decided to take a little ‘safari’ and drive out as far as some of the neighbouring villages.  Well I had no luck with the bustards, but I DID have a Black Kite fly over which definitely WASN’T on my expectation list!  Although plenty are seen in neighbouring Albacete province, these are a rarity in Murcia, although I think this has more to do with scarcity of birders inland, than scarcity of birds.

 Searching for bustards, I had this Black Kite fly over me

 The countryside here is covered in windmills, but not the type Don Quixote knew about!

Finally giving up driving around, I returned to the ZEPA area at around 3pm, as the sky was meant to be brightening up, and I’d really have liked to take some photos of the Lesser Kestrels if I could. Well, the sky only brightened slightly, but I did have some amusement when I heard a pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos turn up, announcing their arrival by that strange call they’ve got.  The female was obviously intent on laying an egg in the nest of a local Magpie, and the Magpies just as intent that this wasn’t going to happen.  The cuckoos obviously have a well tried battle plan – they announce their arrival by calling – the Magpies jump up straight away – and one of the Cuckoos tries to distract both the Magpies while the other Cuckoo drops an egg into the nest (the Cuckoos having obviously done some reconnaissance as to exactly where the nest is, beforehand).  When the Cuckoos first arrived, the Magpies were totally indignant, chasing them away all the time and all four birds making a lot of noise.  After a while though, the Magpies seemed to give in to the Cuckoos (or maybe just ran out of energy), things went quiet for a while and then eventually the pair of Cuckoos flew off.  The whole process took 15 – 20 minutes, and the pair Cuckoos flew off calling one to the other, as if to congratulate each other on mission accomplished.  Obviously, this is only my interpretation of what happened without any scientific knowledge as I could only see from one side of a hedge as to what was happening, and the Magpies nest was hidden in a high pine tree on the other side of the hedge.   I know this is all part of natures grand plan, but I couldn’t help a wry smile thinking of the Magpies being on the receiving end instead of giving it out!

 An agitated Magpie, searching out the G.S.Cuckoos

 Once found, driving it into a thicket

 The G.S.Cuckoo checking to see if it's safe to come out ...

 ... and keeping lookout from the top of a conifer

 Job done, and off to the next nest

I eventually decided to leave at around 4pm, which gave me just about enough time to get to the sewage farm (EDAR) at Campotejar (Molina de Segura, Murcia) and still get home before it got dark.  The Campotejar reserve is a well established series of settlement pools with reedbed borders, which quite often turns up birds quite different to the coastal birds I normally see, and it’s all open to the public.  Arriving at 5pm, I did one complete circuit of the reserve.  It was still pretty windy, and the majority of the water birds were at the western ends of the lagoons trying to keep out of the wind.
The majority of the waterbirds were Pochard (with around 340 counted) followed by White-headed Ducks (22 counted).  Apart from these, there were the usual Little Grebes, Moorhens, Coots, two male Shovelers, a pair of Red-crested Pochards, a couple of Cattle Egrets, a Cormorant and a Purple Gallinule.  It was too windy to hear any birds from the reedbeds, but there were plenty of Swallows and Sand Martins flying over the lagoons.

 General view from the EDAR Campotejar

 The reserve area consists of numerous lagoons ...

 ... where in the windy conditions, there were mainly ducks - here a male Red-crested Pochard ...

 ... female White-headed Duck ...

 ... and male Common Pochard

 The birds can be seen from this hide on stilts

 The last bird of the day, a male White-headed Duck

From here I came straight home, having done around 500 km of driving, and 10 hours in the field.
And that’s about it for the last week, so until my next report, happy birding!


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A slow start and a new lens!

Over the last week birds have struggled to come in.  With predominantly North West winds (at least in the earlier part of the week) and a couple of days of turbulent weather (Wednesday and Thursday), a few Swallows and House Martins are being seen on a daily basis as are Blue-headed Wagtails, but as yet there’s been no inward ‘rush’ of birds.

As usual for this time of year, I’ve been concentrating on the lighthouse gardens at Cabo de Palos, and on Tuesday morning there was a bit of a movement and I even had a Chiffchaff singing! (Shame the song was of a normal Chiffchaff and not Iberian Chiff!).  Other migrants seen were mainly Black Redstarts.
From here I called into the Marchamalo Salinas, and round at the Playa Paraiso side, I had a complete surprise –  a bird flew up off of the ground to perch on a fencepost.  Assuming it would be a House Sparrow, to my surprise on lifting my binoculars, a Wryneck!  Totally out of season, I can only think that it was a local wintering bird that was moving around.  It stayed on the post just long enough for me to get a quick photo of it.
Staying on its perch just long enough for a photo, a Wryneck

On Wednesday I was in Torrevieja all day, and on my way back in the afternoon at around 6 pm, on the motorway passing the Rambla de Albujon, I had a group of six Alpine Swifts moving through.
On Thursday morning (when last week I predicted it might be worth a look), I went over to the lighthouse garden again.  All I got for my trouble was a male Blue Rock Thrush, and very wet as a heavy long shower passed when I was as far from my car as it’s possible to be!  Still, the day had its good side, as I finally received a new lens for my camera that I had been waiting two weeks for.

The next morning (Friday) I was back at the lighthouse gardens, and another day with some movement, as I counted 14 Black Redstarts in total, plus more than the normal Sardinian Warblers (it’s difficult to tell exactly how many are migrants as a few pairs nest here), Robins ‘tack-tack’ing, and on the water just beyond the rocks, a large group of gulls (there must have been a shallow shoal of fish there), mainly Yellow-legged, but which included three adult Mediterranean Gulls in breeding plumage.  Again on the way home I called in at the Playa Paraiso side of Marchamalo Salinas, but there was nothing new there, although I did have the amusing sight of a very bossy Meadow Pipit chasing Little Stints around.

Saturday.  The whole day to myself, so where to go?  Well, with my new lens in my bag itching to be used and not many migrants around, on a day with clear sky and hardly any wind, it stood to reason to go and try out the new lens!  And what better place than Sierra Espuña! (Especially as it was rumoured that a Fieldfare had been seen there during the week).  I warn you now, if you’re not into lots of photos of birds you might want to move on to another blog, and I apologise for being a bit self indulgent from here on.

For the technically minded, the equipment I was trying out – my ‘old’ NIKON D300S camera body with an AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED prime focus lens and TC-20EII teleconverter.  The setup without the teleconverter is fully auto focus, but using the teleconverter, manual focus only.

So, setting out at just before 8, I was up at the ‘Pozos de la nieve’ by 9-30 having tramped bins, tripod, hide, two cameras and lenses and food and drink with me!  I was knackered by the time I got there!   On the last part in the pine woods area before reaching the open field of the ‘pozos’, I heard a Firecrest singing.  No time like the present I thought, so stopping, I got out the camera and virgin lens and started snapping away.

 One of the pair of Firecrests seen on the way to the 'pozos'

Once I’d had enough of the Firecrests (as if anyone could ever!) I carried on down to the ‘pozos’ and set myself up in my hide and waited, overlooking wild rose bushes, where I was joined by a couple more photographers, José and Antonio.  It must have looked very strange to anyone out walking, seeing three miniature tents with large lenses poking out of them arranged around some bushes!  I was at the same place as a couple of weeks ago when I’d had all the Ring Ouzels, but on my way down there I hadn’t heard hardly anything, and I presumed they must have gone by now.  I was mistaken!  They took their time to show themselves, but by the time I’d finished I reckon I’d seen at least 20 different birds.  Apart from them, I didn’t have much different from my last visit, with Black Redstarts, Coal, Great, Crested and a single Blue Tit, Mistle Thrushes, Songthrush, Blackbirds, a Robin, Rock and Cirl Buntings, Gold and Greenfinches, Crossbills, a Blackcap, and overhead a flock of around 50 Chough calling and displaying.  The Blue Tit WAS different – I think it’s the first one I’ve seen there, and another interesting bird was a thrush that I didn’t see either entering or leaving the bushes, and it kept itself well hidden in the densest part, but I managed a single photo of its head and upper breast head-on, and it seemed to have a distinct cream supercillium and so I presume it was a Redwing.  The majority of the photos I took were with the teleconverter (and so manual focus) but later on I moved closer to the bushes and used just the 300mm lens on auto focus.  Even this wasn’t easy; the bushes had a lot of wispy branches sticking out of it so even the auto focus couldn’t always handle it.  I ended up taking just under 1800 photos in total, but managed to reduce this total to around 250 after hoiking out all the out of focus/covered by branches pictures.  The practice was definitely worthwhile even though I still need lots more.  Something else I photographed while I was there – a Red Squirrel of the local sub-species (hoffmanni) showed itself for a while, so I was able to get some decent photos of it even though it was a little against the light.

Some of the photos:

 The mystery thrush - probably a Redwing

 Male Crossbill ...

 ... and its mate

 Coal Tit

 Female Blackcap

 Another female Crossbill

 Male Cirl Bunting

 Male Chaffinch

 Male Greenfinch

 Female Black Redstart

 Male Rock Bunting

Blue Tit

If you look in the fieldguides, Ring Ouzels (depending on sex) are basically Blackbirds with a white (male) or cream (female) crescent and pale panels on the wings.  But as the following sequence shows, they are very much more variable than that.

Ring Ouzels seen at Sierra Espuña

 Photos of some of the Ring Ouzels seen during the day

Finally, some photos of the mammals seen during the visit.

 The endemic race of Red Squirrel 'hoffmanni'

 Barbary Sheep (even though they look like goats) or 'Arruí'
In the afternoon, coming back from Espuña, I called into the sewage farm (EDAR) at Alhama de Murcia, in the hope of seeing some migrants, but apart from numerous House Martins, a couple of Swallows, three Crag Martins and three Sand Martins (which were new for the year), there were only the resident Coots, Moorhens, Little Grebes and Mallards.  As it was on the way home, I called in for a quick visit to the Saladares del Guadalentin, but as I’ve found in the past, in the late afternoon there’s hardly anything flying, calling or singing there, so I called it a day and made for home.

And that’s all for now, so until my next report, happy birding!