Sunday, 24 May 2015

Larking about at the other end of Murcia

Hi all,

Last weekend (Saturday 16th May to be precise), I decided it was time for my annual trip to the far end of the ‘Province’ of Murcia.  The reason for choosing Saturday was that I’d started to hear of numbers of Red-footed Falcons entering into the peninsula, and the reason I chose the Yecla area was that it was on my way to there that I saw a female last year.

But before I went to Yecla, as I did last year I wanted to try to see the Dupont’s Lark.  This small brown bird, about the size of a Crested Lark but with longer legs and a down-curved bill is a bit of an enigma to many birders.  Indeed, when I first came to Spain, I thought there was only one place in the north of the peninsula where it could be seen, otherwise one had got to go to Morocco to see it, and even then it wasn’t always guaranteed.  However, as I´ve got to know Spanish birding locations and Spanish birders, I realize that it’s nowhere near as rare as I’d originally thought, and that even here in Murcia there is a small population. 

But here lies the rub – if you thought Skylarks were early risers, they’re downright lazy compared with the Dupont’s Lark!  The Dupont’s in Murcia actually sings for a couple of hours prior to daybreak (actually it might be all night for all I know – I’ve only heard them prior to daybreak), but once the sun’s up, that’s it, shtumm!!  And they sing from the ground.  So not an easy proposition.  Which is why with sunrise officially at 06:48am, I was on my way at 4:30 in the morning, arriving at their breeding zone at 05:50am (catching a couple of Red-necked Nightjars in the cars headlamps as I approached)..  I thought I may have left it a little late, as the eastern sky was definitely getting lighter, but no, parking in the middle of a field in the middle of no-where, there they were, with their plaintiff calls (or rather, there their plaintiff calls were).  Also beginning to sing were Crested and Lesser Short-toed Larks, but the Dupont’s call really stood out – rather like a Curlews call on an open moor.

I couldn’t do much to look for them for a while, it being too dark to wander away from the car, so I just drank in all the sounds – one of the sounds being the grunting of a Wild Boar which I saw in the rear-view mirror on the track behind me, totally unconcerned by my presence.

By about 6:30 I could finally use my binoculars, but still couldn’t find the Dupont’s even though they must have been calling from closer than 10 metres, hidden by the ‘bushes’ of ‘spartina’ grass that is their habitat. At 6:40, their calls were noticeably less, and by 6:45, stopped altogether.  The sun actually broke the mountainous horizon at 6:50, at which time for about 5 minutes there was another spurt of calls from them, and then nothing.  Not that it was silent, as by now many more Crested, Lesser Short-toed and Short-toed Larks were singing away, and there was the odd rough ‘churr’ of a Magpie.

 Sunrise, waiting for the Dupont's

I hung around till 7:30 in the forlorn hope that one of the Dupont’s might wander out onto the track I was on, but no, for the second year running, seen but not heard.  The only other birds of interest as I came away from the zone was a Black Wheatear, which I remember I had seen in the same place last year, and a Thekla Lark singing.

So, slowly on to the plains of Yecla, checking all the telegraph wires as I drove in case of the odd Red-footed Falcon, but no luck with these either.  At the plains of Yecla, (which is the farmland north of Yecla on the way to Almansa in Albacete Province), I had pretty much what I would expect to see, but the two species I really wanted to get, Great Bustard and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, were nowhere to be seen.  I think I’ll now have to wait till the autumn/winter for them.  However, I did get Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Larks, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Lesser Kestrels, Hoopoe, Stone Curlews and Woodlarks which were all nice to see.

 View of a wildflower meadow at Yecla
Short-toed Lark

 Calandra Lark

I thought that as I was up that way, I’d venture even further north west, into Albacete, and have a look around the lagoon at Pétrola.  This freshwater lagoon has been quite famous over the last few years for its breeding colony of Greater Flamingos, but also has some other quite interesting breeding birds (from a Murciano point of view).  More importantly, the roads to get there are all bordered by telegraph poles and cables, where Red-foots might be lurking.  It was while driving slowly along that I noticed a raptor (probably a Marsh Harrier) at the side of the road, being harassed by (as I thought at the time) a pair of crows.  However, the raptor turned out to be a Black Kite, and the ‘crows’, Ravens!  Because of the time of the day, the roads were clear, so I was able to stop and get some photos.

 Black Kite ...
 ... being attacked by a Raven ...
 ... but no harm came to either

In Pétrola itself, things were pretty much as my last visit there, small groups of Black-headed Gulls and Gull-billed Terns, a pair of Lapwings in breeding plumage, Little Ringed Plovers, a pair of Redshank and a Common Sandpiper, and in the lagoon itself, plenty of Red-crested Pochards, Pochards, Mallards, Shelducks and Coots, plus a pink mass, of Greater Flamingoes on the western side.  In the reedbeds, Reed and Great Reed Warblers were singing, and I was surprised to see a Water Rail (which I think was also surprised to see me!)  And in the surrounding area, Woodchat and Southern Grey Shrikes, Turtle Dove and House Martins.

 Along the fringes of water, a Lapwing ...

 Little Ringed Plover ...

 ... Gull-billed Tern ...

 ... Common Sandpiper

 Across on the other side of the lagoon, a pinkish smudge which is in fact the colony of Greater Flamingoes

 And back on my side of the lagoon, a Water Rail that popped out of the reeds

Having seen all there was to see there and with the heat haze getting up, I decided it was time to make my way slowly back towards home, with a stop at the EDAR (sewage farm) of Campotéjar, Molina de Segura to have my sandwich lunch, arriving there at about 15:15.  This was quieter than I had expected, although I did finally get to see my first Little Bittern and Squacco Heron of the year,  Other birds of note were many Swifts with Pallid Swifts mixed in with them, Swallows, Sand Martin, Reed and Great Reed Warblers, a Whiskered Tern, a pair of Common Terns, Pochards, Red Crested Pochards, White-headed Ducks, Little Grebes, Sardinian and Cetti’s Warblers, Bee-eaters, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper, and for me a surprise, a pair of Black-necked Grebes in full breeding plumage, obviously together.  Possibly a failed breeding pair, as I don’t think they breed at Campotéjar.

 Not too many birds, but the place was brimming with dragonflies - here a Lesser Emperor

 Nor was it short of swifts, mainly Common, but with a few Pallids thrown in

 One of a single pair of Common Terns that may be nesting on one of the artificial islands

 A pair of Black-necked Grebes with a couple of male White-headed Ducks

 First broods of Swallows are now out of their nests

 Record shot of a feeding Whiskered Tern

Now working my way back to the coast, I called into the Salinas at San Pedro del Pinatar just before 7pm, not really expecting to see much, but just in case a breeding plumage White-winged Black Tern might be floating around (as it’s the time of year for them!).  Well no luck there, but I did see 20 Little Stints, nearly all in their full reddy-brown breeding attire, plus 12 Curlew Sandpipers also in their ‘red’ form, Turnstones, Sanderlings, Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, a single Reeve, Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls, and about 1,000 Greater Flamingoes all in the same lagoon (maybe gathering to go off somewhere?).

 Little Stint - almost in full breeding plumage ...

 ... and a Curlew Sandpiper that's definitely there

 Wow, what was that I trod on???

 With another bird on passage now, Ringed Plover

My last call of the day was into the sailing club area of Los Urrutias on the Mar Menor.  Here the local people are complaining bitterly about the state of part of the beach which due to recent winds has gone ‘wild’ and is a bit smelly, but the wildlife are loving it – to the extent that there are more waders than ever there now (considering the time of the year).  This time I had 6 Curlew Sandpipers (three of which in their breeding plumage), Redshank, Little Stints, 10 Ringed Plovers, 4 Kentish Plovers, Little Stint, Sanderling and Turnstones.

And then back home for an early night!!  Not a bad day out at all, with 85 species seen and 7 species of lark in a day!

That’s all for now, so happy birding,


Birds seen during the day:
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis); Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis); Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutes); Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides); Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis); Little Egret (Egretta garzetta);Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus);  Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna); Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos); Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina); Pochard (Aythya ferina); White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala); Black Kite (Milvus migrans); Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus); Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni); Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa); Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus); Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus); Coot (Fulica atra); Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus); Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta); Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus); Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius); Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula); Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus); Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus); Sanderling (Calidris alba); Little Stint (Calidris minuta); Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea); Ruff (Philomachus pugnax); Common Redshank (Tringa tetanus); Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos); Turnstone (Arenaria interpres); Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus); Slender-billed Gull (Larus genei); Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis); Audouin’s Gull (Larus audouinii); Gull-billed Tern (Sterna nilotica); Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvichensis); Common Tern (Sterna hirundo); Little Tern (Sterna albifrons); Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrid); Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis); Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus); Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus); Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto); Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur); Little Owl (Athene noctua); Red-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus ruficollis); Common Swift (Apus apus); Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus); Bee-eater (Merops apiaster); Hoopoe (Upupa epops); Dupont’s Lark (heard only) (Chersophilus duponti); Crested Lark (Galerida cristata); Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae); Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra); Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla); Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella rufescens); Woodlark (Lullula arborea); Swallow (Hirundo rustica); Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica); House Martin (Delichon urbicum); Sand Martin (Riparia riparia); Spanish Wagtail (Motacilla flava iberiae); White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba); Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucura); Blackbird (Turdus merula); Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cettia); Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus); Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus); Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala); Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator); Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis); Magpie (Pica pica); Carrion Crow (Corvus corone); Raven (Corvus corax); Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor); House Sparrow (Passer domesticus); Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs); Serin (serinus serinus); Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris); Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis); Linnet (Carduelis cannabina); Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra).

Total, 85 species.

Postscript:  This visit was a week ago, and a lot can happen in a week!  Since my search for Red-footed Falcons last weekend, I have seen TWO locally.  And it seems that at the moment they are more common than Common Kestrel in Spain - with flocks of up to 97 having been seen in the north of Spain, flocks of 17 and 40 seen in Mallorca, flocks in Tenerife where unfortunately they have been gathering at the airport, and over 20 have been killed in collisions with aircraft.  They have now probably been seen in all Spanish provinces (on Friday, 5 seen together around Pétrola, where I went).  Plus they have reached Portugal and Madeira – next stop the U.S.?  Watch out for one near you soon!

Post Postscript:  Don't forget you can get more up-to-date local birding news from my FaceBook page - just look for 'Richard Howard' and ask to be my friend!

Monday, 4 May 2015

A long weekend, so time for a road-trip!

Hi all,

This weekend, in order to get away from the Mayday village fiestas and all that that entails, I decided to have a look on Saturday at the area to the extreme Northwest of the region, around Cañada de la Cruz.  I normally have a look around this area earlier in the year, and in fact I had already been here once this year towards the end of January with Mick Brewer, but we had been unable to do all the exploring we wanted due to a recent heavy snowfall.  So, I was going to have another try. I was quite impressed as to how green everything looked, and at the sides of the narrow road leading up there from Cañada de la Cruz, there were still pools of snow-melt water.  In fact it seemed quite strange to be somewhere with the temperature at around the 35ºC mark, and at the same time to be able to look over towards the Sierra Nevada in neighbouring Granada province, and see snow on the tops there.

 Once past Caravaca de la Cruz, the views are almost alpine
 Driving up past Cañada de la Cruz, even more so - although the white is not snow, just the colour of the rock

And some of the views from the top of the road
On my way, I made a couple of rapid stops to try to get photos of a Short-toed Eagle and Black-eared Wheatear I noticed on the roadside – a yes for the Eagle, but not for the Wheatear which was just a bit too quick!

 Missed the Black-eared Wheatear, but got this Short-toed Eagle that floated around for a while

Diving up beyond Cañada de la Cruz, every bush seemed to have
 either a Corn Bunting or Crested Lark posed on it
My first scheduled stop was a wooded area on the way up to the end of the road after going through Cañada de la Cruz, where in the past I have been lucky with the birds I was particularly looking for.  And this time too, things worked out, as I could hear one of my target species singing away as I stopped the engine – a Nuthatch.  Also there were several Blue Tits, another target species which surprisingly are very difficult to find near the coast (Crested Tits, no problem, but Blue Tits a distinct rarity!).  And in the distance I could hear another of my target species singing away, Woodlark.  Well I managed to find both the Nuthatch and Blue Tit, but had no such luck with the Woodlark.  Meanwhile, Nightingales seemed to be singing from everywhere (with the occasional glimpse) as did Bonelli’s Warblers (much easier to see, but surprisingly difficult to get close enough to photograph).  I stayed and had a sandwich and waited to see if anything else might start up and show itself, but nothing did, so I then continued up to the top of the hill (where the narrow road becomes just a track).  Following the track down the other side a short distance, the whole valley opens out so I stopped here for a while, once again to see what I could see (and hear).

 I do love the acrobatic little Nuthatches
 - can't understand why the blood doesn't rush to their heads and make them fall off!
 You really appreciate things like Blue Tits when you don't have them around you all the time

Here probably the commonest birds singing were the Melodious Warblers – they seemed to be everywhere, but were also extremely camera shy.  It was while I was trying to tease one of these out into the open that a shadow went over me.  By the time I worked out where the shadow was coming from, and got my bins onto the bird, it had gone quite a long way gliding all the time – a grayish looking falcon with a short tail, my first Hobby of the year that must have passed within 10 metres of me!
And then another first for me for the year in the form of a Cuckoo that started calling, but from very distantly on the mountain.  Other birds seen from here were Cirl and Rock Buntings, Woodchat Shrike, and a few glimpses from time to time of the Nightingales which were singing constantly.
As I had several places I wanted to visit, at about 2-30pm I left the area for my next stop.

 Some more general views on the way down from the top of the Cañada road 
- and in this last photo you can just make out the distant snow topped mountains

 Big bush of Broome that was in flower adding some colour

At one puddle of snow-melt water, I was fascinated to see tens of small Blue butterflies gathering on the edges of the puddle.  Presumably to pick up some chemical, I think there were two species, one of which Common Blue, but I've no idea of the other.  Anyone with any ideas?

This was at a farm where there is a colony of Lesser Kestrels, but which also normally has some other interesting birds around, such as Carrion Crow, Chough and Rock Sparrow, and while waiting for some of the Kestrels to show themselves, I heard the characteristic song of a Golden Oriole.  Amazing how well a bird with such bright colours can hide itself – I know it was there in a small stand of pines, but could I find it!!  Luckily there was no such problem with the Kestrels.

 Rock Sparrow singing its heart out - you can just about make out the yellow spot on its chest ...
 ... and if there was any doubt, this back of the head view confirms the i.d.
 This Chough obviously hasn't heard the species is meant to shun human company

Female Lesser Kestrel
 Not particularly common in Murcia, the stronghold of the Carrion Crow seems to be in the northwest
Male Lesser Kestrel

Staying there for about half an hour, it was soon time to be moving on again.  This time it was to the outskirts of a village called Campos del Rio, on the way through to Molina de Segura, and the ‘Rio’ referred to is actually the ‘Rio Mula’.  I’d never been to this area before, but my reason for stopping here was to check out a couple of reports I’d seen in the last few months of people seeing pairs of Ruddy Shelducks here in some of the farm reservoirs.  Well checking the reservoirs in question, I did come across a single Ruddy Shelduck, but it had a yellow ring on one of its legs – obviously escaped from some collection.

 If for nothing else, to lay the rumour of a small colony of Ruddy Shelduck to rest.  Yes there was one there, but it had a plain colour ring on it and was therefore an escape from a collection.

I was by now almost at Molina de Segura, so I made my way to the ‘Rio Segura’ at Archena.  Apart from having a well known Spa, this town has a wonderful riverside promenade (pity about all the rubbish), where some good birds can be found.  The one I was after in particular was Western Olivaceous Warbler.  I knew they were in as I had seen that one had been captured and ringed the week before, but it was just a matter of waiting to hear one above the noise of all the Nightingales and Cetti’s Warblers!  Here I struck lucky, with one showing itself on the other side of the river (and at the same time I could hear a Penduline Tit calling – a bit of a bonus).  Having walked the full length of the promenade, on my way back to my car, a small bird caught my attention – a male Pied Flycatcher, presumably still on migration.

 Western Olivaceous Warbler seen across the river ...
 ... and a much closer Pied Flycatcher seen overhead

My last stop of the day was at Campotejar (or the EDAR of Molina de Segura to give it its full name).  These are a series of lakes created by the waste water from the EDAR (or sewage plant), which are surrounded by tall and quite thick reed beds, and are normally very good for seeing members of the heron family – or so I´d hoped.  But today it was not to be - not a single Little Bittern, Squacco Heron or Night Heron.  In fact things were particularly quiet – just a few Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Mallard and White-headed Ducks in the way of ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes and a few more of Little Grebes, Black Winged Stilts, Common Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plovers, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, a few Reed Warblers singing away interjected by the occasional Cetti’s, and very little else.  So by the time I’d walked round the lagoons, it was gone 7-30pm and I’d had a long day and so I decided it was home time.

Birds seen during the day:
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis); Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus); Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna); Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos); Pochard (Aythya ferina); Red-crestd Pochard Netta rufina); White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala); Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus); Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus); Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni); Hobby (Falco subbuteo); Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus); Coot (Fulica atra); Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus); Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius); Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos); Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis); Common Tern (Sterna hirundo); Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus); Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto); Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur); Cuckoo (heard only) Cunulus canorus); Common Swift (Apus apus); Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus); Bee-eater (Merops apiaster); Hoopoe (Upupa epops); Green Woodpecker (heard only) (Picus viridis); Great Spotted Woodpecker (heard only) (Dendrocops major); Crested Lark (Galerida cristata); Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla); Woodlark (heard only) (Lullula arborea); Swallow (Hirundo rustica); Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica); House Martin (Delichon urbicum); White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba); Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica); Blackbird (Turdus merula); Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cettia); Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus); Western Olivaceous Warbler (Hippolais opaca); Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta); Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus); Bonelli’s Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli); Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca); Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus); Great Tit (Parus major); Coal Tit (Parus ater); Penduline Tit (heard only) (Remiz pendulinus); Nuthatch (Sitta europaea); Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla); Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator); Golden Oriole (heard only) Oriolus oriolus); Magpie (Pica pica); Carrion Crow (Corvus corone); Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax); Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor); House Sparrow (Passer domesticus); Rock Sparrow (Petronia petronia); Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs); Serin (serinus serinus); Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris); Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis); Linnet (Carduelis cannabina); Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra); Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus); Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia).
Total, 66 species.

Happy birding,