Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Black Stork Count

My good friend Cristi Parkes, who has been involved with birds and animals all her life and is president of the Asociación Amigos de la Laguna de La Janda, here in Andalucia went with me to the vast, flat muddy landscape on the eastern side of the Guadalquivir river, between Andalucia's capital, Seville and Bonanza in the south, to count the number of wintering Black Storks.

Last year there were lots, in fact hundreds of birds but this winter the extreme cold and wet weather has moved birds down into Morocco and beyond. We found twent-seven birds, mainly adults feeding in this once swamp, now cleared of reeds, wild olive, drained and managed as an enormous almost featureless agricultural land given over to rice and cotton. The far (western) side of the Guadalquivir river holds similar intensive agricultural farms, butting right up against the famous National and other Natural Parks that make up the Coto Doñanas protected areas, once huge hunting estates. This is the largest rice producing area in Europe and some of the large silos we passed were full of dried rice regardless of the the apparent world shortage of cerials. Holding onto stock until the price of rice rises on the international market may prove to be good business practice but I often wonder if profiteering on basic commodities creates even the slightest feelings of guilt amongst rich land owners.

We drove with Cristi's Land Rover round and around the myriad of various mud tracks and dykes that surround hundreds of large flat paddy-fields on the Guadalquivir basin, linking this massive rice producing area.

All of the large farms are strictly private areas and most being co-operative farms are fiercely protected with guards to keep the poacher off their ducks, rabbits and hares. Each winter we have to arrange permissions to get inside the locked gates and chain fences that as so common to see in rural Spain and purposely keep up good relations with owners and workers within. There is no 'right to roam' here.

The day day was dull and grey with little or no sunshine although apart from the Black and more commoner White Storks we also saw hundreds of Calandra Larks in a massive flock.

On a newly sown wheat field we saw group of seven Stone Curlews, several Bluethroats, Hoopoes, masses of Meadow Pipits, Chiffchaffs and lots of Crested Larks. There were huge numbers of squabbling Black-headed Gulls, fields full of Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets. Moorhens and overhead circled a few Booted Eagles.

There were more Marsh Harriers than any other raptor with a few Hen Harriers thrown in for good measure.

Hundreds of Black-crowned Night Herons sat around in large roosts along the larger reed-beds on the broader canals and the greatest number of Purple Swamphens you could ever imagine - probably in the thousands!

Some juvenile Eurasian Spoonbills and a few Great Egrets were also seen along the banks of the rice-fields or in the ditches and small canals.

We stopped to have a picnic and watched a flock of sheep with their lambs pass us by as we cut slabs of pork and egg pie and drank tea. Suddenly, we saw one ewe that was dragging a young lamb that had a string collar that had caught around its mother's plastic ear tag. The mother was dragging the lamb along the ground and it was clear to see that the lamb eas slowly being strangled - In fact it's eyes were popping out as was its tongue. I quickly ran across and after a short chase caught both animals and held the mother down to try and release the pressure from the cord. Cristi then joined me with a knife and cut the string free from around thelambs neck and the ewes ear tag. The lamb looked dead but Cristi quickly gave it mouth-to-mouth and within a minute the lamb started to breathe again. With no apparent phisical damage to the lambs neck, we stayed back while the mother bleated and encouraged the little thing to get back on its feet once more and join the flock. This it did and we watched both mother and offspring disappear down the track.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Return of the Pharaohs Bird

The Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) is a globally threatened, rare bird which favours arid, sand locations normally associated with nearby fresh running water. There are only around four hundred and fifty free-flying such birds, on the whole planet to which Birdlife International declares this species on the critically endangered list. There are however larger numbers to be found in Zoos and private collections with most in Europe.

Northern Bald Ibis and other Ibis species were revered as holy birds and symbols of brilliance and splendour in Ancient Egypt and as such were given an adored status and prime protection. As the Pharaohs and the great Egyptian civilisation disappeared, slowly the Northern Bald Ibis lost social recognition and sanctuary and was hunted more and more for food.

The last know breeding population on the Iberian peninsula was thought to have been around the 14thC. Monks in Germany and Austria described in their ancient books and manuscripts what life was like and how Northern Bald Ibis were ‘farmed’ like chickens and eaten just like we do to chickens to this day.
Europe and Middle Eastern countries too had small colonies dotted from southern Germany and Italy, through the Balkans to Turkey and the Middle East.
Most of these groups have disappeared and the largest known natural colony can be found near Tamri in Morocco. This colony is protected and closely monitored by park rangers, local Police and local and international biologists. Some years ago another population was discovered in Syria.

Over the centuries this odd-looking bird that forages mainly for insects, and small reptiles on arid agricultural land became easy prey for man and numbers crashed. In more recent times, loss of habitat to man, pesticides and pollution amplified their decline. The recently discovered group in Syria recently came under the spotlight where it was discovered that the increasing availability and indiscriminate use of rat poison, particularly around open rubbish tips in African countries has halved the know (naturally) migrating Syrian group. Less birds return to Syria each spring putting this colony under further threat.

Here in Spain a re-introduction programme, Proyecto Eremita is running on the military (Armada) land close to the port of Barbate, on the Costa de La Luz. Last year a pair successfully bred, for the first time entirely on their own at a location chosen by the birds, and successfully raised one chick. This must be something like after an absence of five-hundred years! Originally all of the three eggs hatched but two of the larger chicks killed the smaller one (a brutal but regular occurrence in the wild). A short time later one other chick was killed and eaten by a two meter long Montpellier´s Snake. All the action was watched on the security cameras in the offices of Barbate’s Marina. There was even once incident where a young Italian tourist climbed down the cliff-face to video the nestlings after forcing the parent off with his irresponsible behaviour. Unknown to him and relayed back by a cleverly camouflaged, solar-powered video camera! The story goes that our young Italian film-maker was made to stand in the corner in an office at the Guardia Civil Barracks for a few hours and wear a silly hat (rather like the old style black, shiny Guardia one I suspect - they always got a laugh……. I don’t think that a prosecution was deemed necessary and anyway his video camera seems to have been mysteriously lost somewhere en route! Weeping he left Barbate and returned to Italy, replacing video camera with something more substantial to shoot with and vowing with a blood-curdling scream atop Mount Vesuvius, to shoot birds indiscriminately in order to restore his lost honour as a young hunter.

Sorry, I digress.

A similar project to re-introduce the birds in central Europe is currently running in Austria and a semi-wild group also exists in Turkey. The Austrian project did however undertake a migration programme with microlight aircraft to Tuscany with limited success. Hit by torrential wind and rain the aircraft was forced abandon the journey and to land. The birds were later transported by road. Some of the birds were lost or killed on the return journey later the following spring, which reinforces what we already know about how precarious and dangerous migration is – especially for first year birds. Geographically, this wasn’t a huge distance to be covered by the birds, but nevertheless travelling in ‘uncharted’ territory can have a dramatic effect on the survivability of all migrants.

The Spanish programme is managed and run by biologists at Jerez Zoo and obtains assistance from other bodies. Here, the zoo has a large breeding collection of these rare birds and DNA analysis shows that they have six different genetic blood-lines in different birds, from a known total of eight blood lines still surviving. There may be other small colonies yet to be discovered in places like Somalia but the present political situation there for example, makes exploration and searching for new groups impossible.

The birds at Barbate do not know how to migrate although several adult birds have since taken up residence around some of the Algarve golf courses. A single ringed bird from the Spanish programme was also seen in the middle Atlas mountains in 2005. A few birds have been seen recently roosting with Cattle Egrets at La Barca de Vejer in Cadiz province and the nearby golf course at Montenmedio is also a favoured feeding area for the Ibis. I do not wish to accuse any leisure organization of indiscriminate use of insecticides on their fairways but know of other golf courses where Mole Crickets and other burrowing insects are particulary targeted, especially during winter hibernation.

Most of the Spanish birds are fitted with a radio transmitter and with luck tracking the birds can be undertaken. The difficulty for any operator with this type of equipment is that the bird must be in line of sight to the operator. The terrain along the Strait of Gibraltar and inland makes finding any of the birds a real challenge for the biologists.
In the last few weeks five of the Ibis from the Barbate project have been killed in various ways, by natural predation by Eagle Owls and Bonelli’s Eagles, road kill and presumed poisoning with the use of strong insecticides, tests on the dead birds are still awaited.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Very Cold but Sunny!

More Common Cranes have arrived from France since the freezing temperatures made foraging for food too tough for these wonderful creatures. Up until recently, the mild, wet winter we were having came abruptly to and end with frost in our garden! Spain and Portugal have been suffering from extremely low temperatures, snow and ice up and down the Iberian peninsula during the last week.
The new influx of about 500 Cranes boosted the wintering group around La Janda. I also saw another group of about 20 birds flying high over The Strait to Morocco. There are roughly around one thousand with us here and I expect more to head south.
Golden Plovers, Northern Lapwings have also been much more visible and Reed Buntings, Bluethroats, Meadow Pipits, Serins,
Greenfinches, Linnets and Spanish Sparrows feeding in larger groups or huge flocks. Common Buzzards are indeed common enough throughout the year here in SW Andalucia but wintering birds boost the numbers dramatically. Black shouldered Kites and the first of the Black Kites are returning from Africa, as are Great Spotted Cuckoo's. Short-eared Owls, Red Kites, Peregrine and one Lanner Falcon were seen and the young Bonelli's Eagles are normally fairly easy to spot. Black Storks are present in low numbers as are Glossy Ibis and those pesky 'escaped' Sacred Ibis. I did have Black Swans at La Janda a few winters ago and Ruddy Shellduck, Egyptian Geese, Cape Teal are just a few of the birds that have literally flown the coop from ornamental collections in hotels, parks and private gardens up and down S Europe. White Storks are taking up their nest sites again, building the platforms higher and re-arranging their nests. Their bill-clapping from atop cork-oaks beside La Janda mixes in beautifully with the 'honking' cranes feeding in the maize and rice-fields. I flushed a Great Bittern along the collector canal whilst watching the frantic running and flappy flight of Purple Swamphens in the reedbeds. I tried for some photos but with pretty poor results. Quality photograpgs of Bitterns, well the big one anyway, have always eluded me. I tried for shots in the south of England, again in Germany, Hungary and Austria and evry time I have had either 'bum' shots or blurred brown birds. In compensation, I have been able to digitally capture loads of other lovely species in various places around the world.
As our long, golden beaches are tourist free at this time of the year, the enormous numbers of roosting gulls are often a good place to check out for any vagrants amongst the resident Yellow-legged and Lesser-Black-backed Gulls. The clean looking, blood-red billed Audouin's Gulls are normally easy to pick out sitting around in isolated groups. Vagrant gulls to Barbate are have included Laughing Gulls but I'm sure that more rare birds would be picked up if ther were more 'eyes' out there!
Back soon with more news

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Just a quick note to say we are back and ready for another exciting year of birding and wildlife notes, observations and happiness here in SW Andalucia. A Happy New Year to you all!

Our Christmas and New Year travels to Germany were great although quite tiring. We took four days in the mountains of the Schwarzwald at a wooden farmhouse with family, sledging, eating (drinking ? - who said that?) and having lots of fun and catching up! They also made great cheese at the farm and we had some excellent samples to try in our apartments.
Back to the Rhine near Baden-Baden we travelled around visiting friends and family between the Alsace in France and to Manheim. Patty and I escaped without the kids for four days to Berlin, a most friendly and extremely interesting capital city - probably the warmest place in Europe even although the temperature was close to zero!

Over the next few days I'll post some photos from Berlin and beyond plus give an update as to whats been happening down this way with early migrants, winter visitors and the like. It seems that we missed all the rain that fell on what is now one of the wettest winters in recent years here in Andalucia.
I did have a day out with some Dutch and Scottish friends when I came back and although it was very wet we did manage to see some lovely birds including Black Shouldered Kites and Short-eared Owl.

Back in a while - Stephen