Saturday, 28 November 2009

A Monarch in The House

We took in a Monarch butterfly caterpillar and a part of what it was feeding on Milkweed plants from a friends garden a few weeks back. There were plenty of them and I wanted to show our two girls the life-cycle of these extraordinary insects. The Caterpillar was in an advance stage and I though (rightly) that the next stage, that of the chrysalis or pupae was about to happen.
The caterpillar fed for a few days, then it attached itself at the rear end, to the nearby window and literally un-zipped itself to reveal this soft new chrysalis. The shrivelled skin of the caterpillar dropped off as the outer casing of the pupae hardened and changed colour. Iridescent golden spots appeared on the outside of the casing as we checked the chrysalis progress each morning at breakfast.
The chrysalis stayed motionless as inside the often opaque transformation was taking place and a beautiful Monarch butterfly was about to emerge. On the very last day we could see the veins of the wings on the inside and we knew that something was going to happen.
Next morning we found that the butterfly had broken free and was in the process of pumping fluids into the wings.
The empty shell of the chrysalis
I carried the butterfly out into the warm morning sunshine and laid it on a a lantana (Spanish Flag) plant. I have watched other Monarchs wintering here in Andalucia and looking for this butterfly food plant which they love.
Lucia makes a short film of the wings being stretched and pumped up!
After a few hours the new (female) Monarch butterfly took off. I did see another female during the week at another bush and there seems to be a lot around this area at the moment.
The great thing was we all loved the experience and were delighted to see the (almost) whole process.
This is a photo of a male Monarch that I took some time ago. Incidentally they are migrants and apparently crossed the Atlantic from the Americas some time ago. Whether this was on a banana boat or other assisted transport is an on-going debate. Anyway, they are here in Europe and quite stunning they are too. Their life span is around nine months.
Click here to watch a fantastic short film about their life-cycle using some time-lapsed photography.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Wildlife of the Limestone Sierras

A beautiful courtship display from a male Blue Rock Thrush - enough to impress any!

I spent some time up in the Serrania de Ronda last week and it was good just to have a time exploring the sights, sounds and clean air of the higher limestone folds that work their way from the coast at Barbate up to Grazelema and beyond, separating Africa from Europe. The thing is, this is an ongoing geologcal phenomena and the Sierras just get higher and higher...
A Blue Rock Thrush male dances in the sun

Andalucia has some of the most stunning and varied habitats for all kinds of wildlife. As Monarch Butterflies emerge in the warmth of our garden close to the coast, the birds from Northern and Central Europe fly South and mix together in the southern Sierras of Andalucia.From October to March, the warmer valleys and ridges of the southernmost mountains in Europe provide food and shelter for thousands of Alpine bird species like Ring Ouzels, Water Pipits and Alpine Accentors.
Water Pipits are particular favourites of mine within this delicate group of very pretty birds.
I'm lucky enough to be able to watch them in Winter in Andalucia as well as when I lead tours to the mountains of the Pyrenees, as well as the Eastern Austrian Alps and the Wetterstein chain of the Bavarian Alps close to the German border with Switzerland.
The Water Pipit, (Anthus spinoletta), is a small passerine bird which breeds in the mountains of Southern Europe and southern temperate Asiaa across to China. It is a short-distance migrant moving to wet open lowlands such as marshes and flooded fields in winter. Some birds migrate north to Britain for winter, taking advantage of the warm oceanic climate.Like most other pipits, this is an undistinguished looking species on the ground, mainly brown above and dark streaked buff below. It has dark legs, white outer tail feathers and a longish dark bill. In summer it has a distinctive breeding plumage, with a pinkish breast, grey head and pale supercilium
The Water Pipit is also much less approachable than the Rock or Meadow Pipit, rising high and quickly leaving the vicinity when approached. I took these photos from the Land Rover
There was great light on this Woodlark. It's just a pity that it was singing from the this unsightly barbed-wire fence. I wanted to show the long hind claw and slender, delicate bill.
The Woodlark (Lullula arborea) is the only lark in the genus Lullula. It breeds across most of Europe, the Middle-East, Asia and the mountains of north Africa. It is mainly resident in the west of its range, but eastern populations of this passerine bird are more migratory, moving further south in winter. Even in the milder west of its range, many birds move south in winter. This is a 13.5-15 cm long bird of open heath with some trees, and other open woodlands, especially those with pines and light soil. Its generic name derives from its sweet plaintive song, delivered in flight from heights of 100 m or more.
Like most other larks, this is an undistinguished-looking species on the ground, mainly brown above and pale below, but with distinctive white superciliar meeting on the nape. In flight it shows a short tail and short broad wings. The tail is tipped with white, but unlike the Skylark, the tail sides and the rear edge of the wings are not edged with white.
The nest is on the ground, with up to 6 eggs being laid. Food is seeds supplemented with insects in the breeding season.
A few years ago the handsome Southern Grey Shrike was split taxonomically from it's cousin the Great Grey Shrike. The subtle warmth of it's pink breast always reminds me of what a special and unique Iberian and Canary Island species we have down here.
This medium-sized passerine hunts large insects, small birds and rodents. Like other shrikes it hunts from prominent perches, and impales corpses on thorns or barbed wire as a "larder". The plumage is generally similar to Great Grey Shrike apart from the differences noted above.
The Spanish Ibex is an impressive animal - even more so when photographed like this, standing proudly atop a limestone outcrop. Measures are in force to prevent this animal becoming over-hunted.
The Iberian ibex, Spanish ibex, Spanish wild goat, or Iberian wild goat (Capra pyrenaica) is a species of ibex with four subspecies. Of these, two can still be found on the Iberian peninsula, but the remaining two are now extinct. The Portuguese subspecies became extinct in 1892 and the Pyrenean subspecies became extinct on January the 6th 2000.
Feeding on Hawthorn berries on the lower slopes (where the fruits ripen first of course), a Sardinian Warbler watches me, watching her!
An adult Alpine Accentor looks out from an outcrop
The Alpine Accentor, Prunella collaris, is a small passerine found throughout the mountains of southern temperate Europe and Asia at heights above 2000m. It is mainly resident, wintering more widely at lower latitudes, but some birds wander as rare vagrants as far as the UK. It is a bird of bare mountain areas with some low vegetation. It builds a neat nest low in a bush or rock crevice, laying 3-5 unspotted sky-blue eggs. This is a (European) Robin-sized bird at 15-17.5 cm in length, slightly larger than its relative, the Dunnock. It has a streaked brown back, somewhat resembling a House Sparrow, but adults have a grey head and red-brown spotting on the underparts. It has an insectivore's fine pointed bill.
Sexes are similar, although the male may be contrasted in appearance. Young birds have browner heads and underparts.
Although a resident and fairly common on the continent of Europe, Winter sees huge flocks in the South, feeding in all kinds of habitats. It's such a lovely looking bird but it has a rather frenetic song.
Rock Buntings are always great to watch and this male was very confiding
Male and Female Ring Ouzels feeding (Turdus torquatus)

Slightly smaller and slimmer than a blackbird - male ring ouzels are particularly distinctive with their black plumage with a pale wing panel and striking white breast band. They tend to be shyer than other thrushes, although they will often associate with them after the breeding season. Their recent population decline make them a Red List species.
Winter berries are a most important food source for lots of animals. Cutting back hedges and bushes too early this year could starve birds of late autumn berries. The mild weather has meant birds are feasting on insects later this year. They have not had to turn to autumn fruits yet, so many hedgerows are still bursting with berries.

The Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) is a European member of the thrush family Turdidae.
It is the mountain equivalent of the closely-related Common Blackbird, and breeds in gullies, rocky areas or scree slopes. It breeds in the higher regions of western and central Europe and also in the Caucasus. Most populations are migratory, wintering in the Mediterranean and North Africa region, particularly in the Atlas mountains where a winter food source is Juniper berries. (The Juniper berry is quite fascinating to read about - here.)
The Ring Ouzel is omnivorous, eating a wide range of insects, earthworms, rodents, lizards and berries. It nests in bushes or amongst rocks, laying several pale blue eggs, mottled with brown, in a neat cup-shaped nest.
It is territorial and normally seen alone or in pairs, although loose flocks may form on migration. When not breeding, several birds may also be loosely associated in good feeding areas, such as a fruiting tree, often with other thrushes.
The adult male is all black except for a white crescent on the breast and a yellowish bill. The wings have a silvery appearance due to white feather edgings. The male sings its loud and mournful song from trees or rocks.
The female is similar but duller, and younger birds often lack the breast crescent. The juvenile has brown plumage. Birds in Southern and Central Euope belong to a sub-species group, alpestris and show a paler and very scaled breast and flanks. In the photo a male from Northern and Western Europe shows a mostly dark breast.
"Ouzel" (or "ousel") is an old name for Common Blackbird from Old English osle. "Ouzel" may also be applied to a group of superficially similar but unrelated birds, the dippers, the European representative of which is sometimes known as the Water Ousel. As with the English name, the scientific name also refers to the male's obvious white neck crescent, being derived from the Latin words turdus, "thrush", and torque, 'torc' (neck ring).
A male Ring Ouzel looks down the valley
Montejaque - one of the 'white villages or 'pueblos blancos' of Andalucia's Serrania de Ronda
Lovely scenery
A ringed Black Redstart 

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Bluethroats, Reed Bunting and more Cranes

Reed Buntings and Bluethroats

This photo was taken earlier in the year in Austria

This is a very confiding bird from the Sierra de Gredos in C Spain

I had a fairly busy week without telephone or internet. Telefonica made a major blunder and left over 5,ooo customers without a connection during this last week. Making use of the time, I carried on with all the small off-season and domestic jobs both around the house and in the office.

Counting the Common Cranes at La Janda was also something I managed to do, gaining access to several farms and spending some time just on my own listening to the magical sound of these lovely ceatures.
The Common Crane (grus grus) is a large, stately bird and a medium-sized crane at 100-130 cm (40-52 in) long, with a 180-240 cm (71-96 in) wingspan and a weight of 4.5-6 kg (10-13.2 lbs). It is grey with a white facial streak and a bunch of black wing plumes. Adults have a red crown patch. It has a loud trumpeting call, given in flight and display. It has a dancing display, leaping with wings uplifted.

There are around 600 Cranes beside us right now and they have been feeding on the harvest remains in the paddy-fields, sunflower and maize fields.

It breeds in wetlands in northern parts of Europe and Asia. The global population is in the region of 210,000-250,000, with the vast majority nesting in Russia and Scandinavia. In Great Britain the Common Crane became extinct in the 17th century, but a tiny population now breeds again in the Norfolk Broads and is slowly increasing.

It is a long distance migrant wintering in Africa(south to Morocco and Ethiopia), Southern Europe, and Southern Asia (south to Northern Pakistan and Eastern China). Migrating flocks fly in a V formation.

It is omniverous eating leaves, roots, berries (including notably the cranberry which is probably named after the species), insects, small birds and mammals.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Cranes, Bonelli's Eagles, Black-winged Kites

Our Common Cranes are back in Andalucia from the North. Just a few have arrived so far and we could expect more as colder weather pushes down from the North Atlantic. Even down this way, we can feel the effect of the NNW winds cooling effect (must be getting soft!)
The downside to the appearance of our wintering cranes is their vulnerability to wind turbine strikes. Again, recommendations as to the siting of these giants in such a sensetive ornithological area and pleas to allow larger 'corridors' for migrating birds, fell on deaf ears. The dentist of Denmark, the lawyers of Germany and the rest of the so-called 'Green Investors' really had the wool pulled over their eyes when it came to selling them shares in this joke for energy. Half the time they shut them down to allow the nuclear plants of Spain to keep their waters boiling as demand during the night falls with no factories demanding energy and domestic consumption at it's 24 hour low. The wind down in SW Spain blows, the turbines stay still and everyone pretends on being 'green'. Job done.

The Bonelli's Eagle (Aquila fasciata) is a large bird of prey. Like all eagles, it belongs to the family Accipitridae. It breeds in southern Europe, Africa both north and south of the Sahara Desert and across southern Asia to Indonesia. It is usually a resident breeder which lays 1-3 eggsin a tree or crag nest. The Bonelli's Eagle is a species of wooded, often hilly, country with some open areas. The African race prefers savannah, forest edges, cultivation, and scrub, provided there are some large trees; this is not a species of very open or densely forested habitats. This is a small to medium - sized eagle at 55-65 cm in length. The upperparts are dark brown, and the underside is white with dark streaks. The wings are relatively short and rounded. The long tail is grey on top and white below and has a single broad black
terminal band. The feet and eyes are yellow.

I took some photos of at least three, possibly four different juvenile Bonelli's Eagles last week around our local patch last week. It was rather grey and overcast but on examining some of the photos I rattled off, I came across one bird that was fitted with a radio transmitter and antenae. This particular transmitter was quite small and looked pretty modern in comparison of the larger 'backpack' typpes of old. I have to make some more enquiries as to the origins of this bird to make sure it doesn't get shot in an area full of partidges and pheasants. The Bonelli's Eagle is called the Partridge Eagle in Spanish Aguila Perdicera, and has a difficult time surviving where game keepers try to kill them.

Soaring on high, two juvenile Bonelli's Eagles ride the thermals checking each other out. The lower bird has already undergone a partial moult and looks visibly darker. The upper bird still retains much of it's original plumage and will mould through the winter.

I'm often asked about the numbers of Black-winged Kites around The Strait of Gibraltar. The honest answer is that although I feel that there are good numbers for such a rare bird, it's difficult to estimate exactly how many there are all together, during the breeding season. I know that last year there were over 35 pairs recorded in Cadiz province and you can double this number during this time with non-breeding and dispersed birds from other areas. There is of course a Northwards 'drift' of these, essentially African birds and it won't be long before a pair nests in the S of England. They frist bred in French-France in 1989.

Let's explain the change of name thing...

The Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) is a small bird of prey in the family Accipitridae raptors such as eagles, buzzards, and harriers. which also includes many other diurnal raptors such as eagles, buzzards, and harriers.

This species was formerly referred to as the Black-shouldered Kite, but this name is now only used for the Australian species, Elanus axillaris, which at one time (along with the American White-tailed Kite E. leucurus) was treated as a subspecies of E. caeruleus.

It is a species primarily of open land and semi-deserts in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical Asia, but it has a foothold in Europe in Spain and Portugal. It nests in trees.

It takes live prey such as small mammals, birds, and insects. The slow hunting flight is like a harrier, but it will hover like a Kestrel.

This bird is unmistakable. It has a white head with a black "mask", and white underparts except for black tips to its narrow falcon-like wings. Upperparts are blue-grey except for black shoulder patches.

The tail is short and square, quite unlike the more familiar Milvus kites.

Although not resembling the Black or Red Kites, they do have a rather long and fairly broad wing. Hovering, their colour and structure make them instantly identifiable in the field, even in silhouette.