Sunday, 29 March 2009

Tuna from the West, Butterflies from the South

Westerlies today, swinging around to NW at lunchtime which felt pretty chilly.

A Painted Lady takes a refuelling stop

The meadowlands, rough pasture and verges are all starting to come alive with various colourful blooms. Wild Gladioli are flowering as are the dwarf variety, Barbary Nut and Helibore, Statice, Buglos, Chamomile and lots of Echium's are all looking so lush.

A Speckled Wood soaks up some southern warmth

Butterflies are still migrating north through our area and still Painted Lady's, Speckled Wood's, Red Admirals, Moroccan Orange Tips and Brimstones to mention a few species!

Barbary Nut

Subalpine Warbler male

Common Whitethroat female

More passerines have been arriving this last few days. We've had quite a few Common Whitethroats, Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers coming through.

More Cuckoo's have arrived and like the Nightingales start to call within hours of being in Europe. It's such a great sound to hear although I do feel numbers are lower than previous years. Perhaps another bird in a more rapid decline in numbers than was first thought a few years back.

Calandra Larks are one of my favourites amongst the larks of Europe. They are already nesting and like their northern cousin's the Skylark, sing the whole year.

Stone Curlew too are preparing to nest - or is this one going to lay and egg?

This was another shot of the very obliging Black shouldered Kite from last week

It's not often that you get the opportunity to photograph both species of our storks together but this chance came along as the afternoon sun created large thermals.

Harrier AV8 'Matador' from the Spanish Armada flies above our house

On morning last week, the military were flying over with Harrier jet aircraft and one of the planes did a steep climb to avoid striking a huge kettle of newly arrived White Storks that were in the area.

Almadraba boats being towed into position for the 'annual kill'

The 'Almadraba' has started. The name is Moorish in origin and is given to the traditional method of Tuna fishing in Mediterranean countries. Large numbers of fishing nets are laid in a maize-like structure in the sea, along age-old migration routes of both the Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna and the samller Yellow-fin Tuna.

Needless to say that both species are under threat from over fishing and as they swim along traditional migratory routes to breed in their spawning grounds in the Med, they are hunted and killed from Portugal to Valencia in the same way every year. The Japanese freighters that sail around the world following these migrations to buy any fish, particularly Tuna, wait evey year off the coast or in larger ports like Barbate.

Last year, Zahara de los Atunes caught only one Blue-fin Tuna for all their efforts. Prices go through the roof and last year it was reported that some Japanese sailors were shooting Orca's or Killer Whales that also follow and hunt shoals of migrating tuna. The whales too become frozen packages within the holds of these freigthers.
Three Almadraba systems are set up with huge anchors weighting the nets to the shallow coastal waters. One at Conil, one at Barbate and the one at Zahara. You can see the bright orange markers and special boats set out along these areas

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Black Storks, Little Bustards and Black Shouldered Kites

Would you like to see the birds going back across The Strait in September?
Click here for the The Autumn Raptor Migration Tour Dates

One of the highlights from yesterday's day tour - A flock of twenty-five adult Black Storks resting on farmland near Vejer.
Click on any of the images to enlarge

I had a really lovely day out with Liz and Keith from Bristol yesterday. The weather was a bit overcast with some showers coming in from the South-West, which thankfully we managed to avoid. The afternoon was warm and sunny with the wind swinging around and brought lots of birds across The Strait from the South-East.

A young male Montagu's Harrier

We were extremely successful in spotting some of the rarer birds inland from the coast. We quickly came across Hoopoes probing for grubs,around cattle pasture.

A Hoopoe surveys it's territory

Here we saw flocks of Goldfinches, Linnets and Serins feeding while Wood Pigeon and Collard Doves flew past into the woodland. Common Buzzards, Black Kites (just too many to count!), Marsh Harriers came over our heads and in the distance Griffon Vultures patrolled from on high.

A Carpenter Bee on Wysteria bloom

In the last few days a noticeable difference in wonderful bird-song, fills the Spring air in and around Barbate. The variety of calls comes of course with the presence of so many freshly arrived migrants. Nightingales singing their hearts out in and around our garden. Bee-eaters streaming in overhead with their 'referee's whistle' like call. Turtle Doves 'purring' from the wild Olive groves. Calls from Buzzards and Eagles soaring majestically on thermals above the countryside. Iberian Green and Great-spotted Woodpeckers calling noisily and Tawny Owls also 'hooting'during the day.

Black Shouldered Kite yesterday

Eight Montagu's Harriers were seen fairly quickly as we moved onto the rolling countryside. You can never get tired watching these great raptors. Five Hen Harriers were also seen in the same area and it's always good to compare the two species when you have such a variety of adults and sub-adults going past. The commonest Harrier still around is the Marsh Harrier. There are still hundreds of young birds to be seen quartering the verges with their heads down and showing you that instantly recognisable golden-creamy splodge on their crown that often spills onto the shoulders.

Another Black Shouldered Kite with a Zitting Cisticola

Black shouldered Kites are always terrific birds to watch and we certainly managed to get good views of three out of the four birds from yesterday. Our first adult was very active, hunting along rough grazing land and we has stunning views of the bird hovering, diving and also sitting eating its freshly caught meal - in this case it was a large grasshopper.

Booted Eagle (Dark Form)

Booted Eagles came across as well although most were pretty high as they passed.
Short-toed Eagles were easier to watch with a few obliging by hovering over possible prey, allowing us to watch this long-winged beauty in the telescope.
I think I have seen at least one Osprey every day since the middle of the moth and yesterday was no exection as a lovely adult bird flew close by.

Short-toed Eagle

Little Bustard were more obliging than the last few weeks with two Males having a 'raspberry-blowing and 'see who can jump the highest' competition in a field with longer grass. They too were watched through the scope and after a while decided to fly round and show their beauty to any ladies that would undoubtably have been in the area. It was just a pity that the wind carried their wing noise away from us and we couldn't hear the 'whistling' noise the males make in flight.

Yellow Wagtails flew aroun calling as they went and the sights and sounds of Calandra Larks displaying kept us focused on yet another lovely bird. We also came across Thekla Larks as well as the commoner and sad sounding Crested Lark.

Woodchat Shrikes were seen briefly not like this oliging chappie from a few weeks ago. We also had a fleeting view of a Hawfinch crossing the Land Rover's path.

We also came across a lovely pair of Iberian Wall Lizard sunning themselves.

Collared Pratincoles were coming over our garden the day before and this was one of the flocks.
Bee-eater too were heard throughout most of the day, with birds flying high up in the sky. We did manage to get to a single pair that were obviously in need of a rest and they stayed obligingly side by side on a fence as I set up the scope for Liz and Keith.

Black-eared Wheatears were around and this very striking male (with black throat patch - because there are two forms down this way - with or without this throat patch!) allowed me to take some lovely shots.

I was pretty content at some of today's photos and as usual I will post a few up on Surfbirds website

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Collared Pratincoles, Purple Herons and an Emperor Moth

Collared Pratincole adult in flight

Just a quick weekend note to tell you of the last few days newest arrivals in Europe.
Collared Pratincoles, Squacco Herons, Bee-eaters, Booted Eagles and Purple Herons seemed to be the latest migrants to make it across The Strait of Gibraltar.

Bea-eaters - Front and back

The Levante (easterly wind) came back with a vengeance this morning. It had held off with light to moderate easterlies yesterday and there was some hope that it would change back to the friendlier Poniente or westerlies. No such luck, although I'm sure lots of birds crossed in the night, especially passerines. Purple Herons were seen as it was getting dark coming in off the sea, as we came back from the pine forest above Barbate and Bee-eaters could be heard at night crossing over our house!

Purple Heron

Squacco Heron

We've had lots of migrating butterflies lately, particularly Painted Lady's which I think I have already mentioned this week. Southern Swallowtails, Monarchs and Spanish Festoons have been seen as well and I rescued one of our largest moths from the roadside this afternoon, a beautiful female Emperor Moth.

Emperor Moth

Patty, myself and the kids went for a picnic in the Alcornocales Cork-oak forest today to try and shelter a bit from the wind and feel the warmth of the sun. Our friends Jens and Frauke from Germany came along and we found a lovely sheltered spot had some food and played hide-and-seek with the girls. Although not officially birding, I was on the lookout for what was 'moving' and with raptors it was clearly a Booted Eagle day. Without trying, I must have seen over thirty in the skies near Facinas and Tarifa.
Lizards were sunning themselves too with Iberian Rock Lizard and the largest of our lizards, the Ocellated Lizard being seen this afternoon.

Female Emperor underside

Let's see what next week brings.... The Levante is supposed to calm down and some cloudy skies are due. The weather people talk of rain tomorrow but I don't think down this way is likely now. I'll own up if wrong...

Spanish Festoon

Green Hairstreak

Scarce Swallowtail

Monarch - taken in our garden during December last

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Bee-eaters and Warblers

Would you like to see the birds going back across The Strait in September?
Click here for the The Autumn Raptor Migration Tour Dates

A Bee-eater takes an in-flight meal!

Changes in weather are critical components during bird migration which is fraught with danger for both large birds and smaller passerines alike. This week's extreme 'Levante' or easterly wind conditions in The Strait of Gibraltar couldn't have been worse for migratory birds, butterflies and other insects stacked up along the coastline of Morocco. During each morning or evening lull in the wind speed, thousands of creatures, spurned on by their biological clocks, dashed, flapped or soared across this deep-water channel that separates Europe and Africa.

The narrowest crossing point is from the mountain coastline in Morocco to the southern most town on the European mainland, Tarifa. Although you might think that this would be the obvious choice for migrating birds, the Levante can cause birds to drift quite dramatically on their journeys, both in Springtime and Autumn. Birds that cross at say D'jebel Moussa, the other 'Pillar of Hercules' can be blown a great distance out towards the mouth of The Strait, at Cape Trafalgar and beyond. It's common to see Booted Eagles or Common Cuckoos arriving absolutely exhausted on the Coto Doñana coastline after a giant battle with the natural elements.

This Booted Eagle had just lifted off the ground with a full crop after eating a good part of a rabbit.

I was out all day yesterday with Christy, Eileen, Grainne, and James from Ireland. They were staying a couple of nights up at the Hotel El Palomar de La Breña, where migrating birds seemed to have surrounded the place! Hoopoes were flying around, Black Storks, Hen Harriers, Common Buzzards, Montagu's Harriers and Egyptian Vultures all passed overhead as I drove up to collect them. Ravens croaked in the early morning light and Tree Sparrows chriped on the edge of the massive pine forest and Serins, Greenfinches and Goldfinches were in profusion. The wind had died down and I hoped for a good day out - I wasn't to be disappointed at all!

A Red-rumped Swallow flies past our group yesterday afternoon

As the Bee-eaters came across, calling to each other as they headed north, we started to see more and more passerines - especially migrant warblers. This was waht I had been waiting for all week. The winds had kept most of the birds 'stranded' on the other side as the wind just didn't let up during the night, when thousands of warblers and other smaller passerines cross. Subalpine Warblers were the first to be spotted as we watched Sardinian Warblers doing their lovely display flights. Spectacled Warblers were next and we saw some lovely males! Some of the little birds can be fairly tricky to get on to but like a lot of learning requires patience and time.

A great Reed Warbler from last year

Red-rumped Swallows were already investigating potential nest sites with lots of birds seen around culverts and bridges. My first Great Reed Warbler of the season was picked up along the canal Banks of La Janda. One Reed Warbler was also seen close by.
Sadly the farmers drain off all the fields during March and April. Up until now these areas have offered food for thousands of passing migrants and residents birds alike.*

Melodious Warblers like building their nests around wild Mallow and there are now quite a few about. I even heard one singing yesterday - their song isn't really what I'd call 'melodious' - but then again I like listening to the gritty sound of Tom Waits!

Spectacled Warblers are coming in as well and quite often you'll see smaller passerines like these all searching for food directly around the coastal stretches as they try and build up fresh energy reserves for their continued migration north east and west.

Subalpine Warbler

We managed to see some great birds and altough Black Kites seemed to be very abundant, other birds of prey we saw included Hen and Marsh Harriers, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Booted and Short-toed Eagles - in fact great views of the eagles!

A Yacht passes the slopes of the Sierra de la Plata yesterday morning

In mixed woodlands we heard and saw the Iberian Green Woodpecker - a lovely male came close in and called then flew off in his deep undulating flight! We saw a pair of Little Swifts a lovely male Blue Rock Thrush sang his wee heart out on the limestone ridge above Bolonia. Crag Martins and House Martins also flew past the ridges, some mobbing the resident Common Kestrels that strayed into their airspace!

More Montagu's Harriers were passing through yesterday

White Storks were watched along the way, feeding in the canal ditches and sparse wet patches with Grey Herons, Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Black-winged Stilts, Little-Ringed Plovers, Greenshanks and Green Sandpipers

A Griffon Vulture passes over a very quiet Bolonia beach yesterday

Northern Wheatear - Good numbers now coming through

Alpine Swift have been migrating well above the easterly winds this week

Lesser Kestrels are still arriving from Morocco

Three shots from yesterday of Little Swift on the coast

We had a lovely lunch out and toured around the large and very full Barbate reservoir near Alcala. Friday afternoon and the wonderful warm weather - by this time it was 25 oC, had enticed all the local freshwater fishermen out along the resevoir's edges and we tried in vain to look for Osprey. There were the other fishers there of course - loads of Cormorants, a pair of Night Herons and some Mallards. Reservoirs are not the most hospitable places either...

Woodchat Shrike - more birds now seen hunting and resting

During the tour we chated about lots of subjects such as wind turbines, ancient cultures and the history of the area. We all got on very well and really enjoyed each others company and had a lovely day out during such a great time of the year to witness the visible bird migration.

*Draining the fields makes it easier to plant rice in May as the sun will kill off any weed, grasses and any other plant life, making their jobs easier when the rice planting begins.
I don't want to start on again about how great La Janda could be, given it's perfect geographic location for migrating birds and insects, but feel that this is such a loss to Andalucia, Spain and the whole of Europe! It's not just places like SW Spain that these short-sighted agricultural policies are being implimented. It's all over the world. Have a look around and see for yourselves jus how many wetlands have been drained and given over to the plough.
If we loose too many species (and this is happening right now) because of our own population explosion and the need to feed, and make lots of money from hungry people, then this massive loss of natural habitat will mean that it is just a question of time before we pay the price. Our arrogance and and desire to conquer and control most of the land will be our downfall.
Sorry to end on a low note despite the richness of wildlife down this way and the enjoyment we all get witnessing such fantastic natural events like the visible spring bird migration, we have to act more responsibly - and quickly!