Saturday, 30 January 2010

Warming up for Spring

Another week has gone by and can you believe that we had even more rain...

Looking across to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast. It'll soon be teaming with migrants heading North

Marsh Harrier (juvenile) at La Janda

I'm all covered in plaster... not plasters but the sticky stuff... er.. fixing the ceiling plaster. The sun is shinning and this has allowed Patty and I to get cracking with repairs and maintenence around both houses and our garden. Of course I do get distracted fairly easily. Just going out to the shed I have to quickly grab my bins and check out a large raptor in the sky, way, way up. It turns out to be a juvenile Golden Eagle drifting slowly inland from the coast.

A Pile of bins - Sale on this week!

I was out only one day this week, on my own and quite enjoying it as well! Itook some time to look at all the flooded areas just on the off-chance that something different had turned up after all the storms. Nothing out of the ordinary apart from a few Bonxies (Arctic Skuas) out off the coast. with Northern Gannets, Sandwich and Caspian Terns and a few Audouin's Gulls.
Each day brings a few more early Barn Swallows still trickling across The Strait. Meadow Pipits are slowly heading north andStonechats are nest building.

The town of Sanlucar on the Guadalquivir River, glowing in the early winter sunset

Glossy Ibis are returning in large flocks with masses of White Storks floating high above these 'flapping' partial-migrants

It won't be long before I see my first Monty's arriving back along the coast. Here's a lovely male Montagu's Harrier hunting, directly after crossing last year
The juveniles will be in part moult when they make European landfall
This is what they'll see from the African side. From the Moroccan coastline at Tanger, looking to the rock of Gibraltar at the end of The Strait and the rest of Europe beyond
A lovely fresh looking Short-toed Eagle

The blood-red bills of one of the true hunters in the gull world, the smart looking Audouin's Gull
s at Barbate

Still waders galore!

The sun brings out amongst other reptiles these wonderful Ocellared Lizards
Bee-eaters arrive mid to third week in March
White-headed Ducks scratch their bills from the beginning of February onwards to stimulate their blue-bill breeding colour. The more they scratch, the more intense it gets...allegedly
- cough!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Sun = More Raptors

A adult Bonelli's Eagle glides past

It can be quite stunning with raptor activity when the sun shines during the winter months in SW Spain, but for the last six weeks we've had more rain than usual. Perhaps this is a consequence of global warming and weather pattern changes throughout the entire planet. Last winter's torrential rain and similar bad weather this year have caused lots of flooding in Cadiz and other Andalucian provinces. The main track in La Janda that runs parrallel with main collector canal and the N340 road, which was renovated and heightened just over a year ago has been severely erroded with torrential rains and extremely strong winds. It's pouring again right now!
One positve effect is that the Spring flowers will be absolutely stunning after all the rain as they were last Spring, creating a spectacular backdrop for the spring migration, with birds returning to Europe from Africa.
Bee-eaters normally return around the 20th of March

We had three good sunny days with temperatures between 15 and 19oC were enjoyed and we went to look for raptors!
I had an interesting meeting this week with Roberto Sánchez who works for TRAGSA an environmental agency based in Madrid. Roberto has been involved in the study of Spanish Imperial Eagles and set up and manages the on-going hacking programme in Cadiz province. The project was set us in the north of Cadiz programme to re-establish a breeding population of these magnificent rare birds. Radio transmitters were attached to each bird and seven first year juvenile birds were released. Within a short time most of the birds had flown off in various directions, some travelling north and others dispersing to parts of the huge Alcornocales, the Sierra Morrena and beyond. Keeping tabs on such a large group in such a huge terrain proved difficult and only one bird signal has been located nine months later. The rest of the birds dispersed rapidly. The hacking project should see birds returning to their 'home' ground in Spring.
There is a high mortality rate with large birds, particularly withing certain large eagle species and there is also the threat of deliberate poisoning by Man, a widely practiced evil, still very much present on the Iberian peninsular. Three, possibly four Spanish Imperial Eagles were poisoned last year close to the Doñana National Park. But let's not forget other causes of death - electricution is still one big hazzard where birds perch on old and poorly insulated pylons, collisions of large eagles flying into wires and wind turbine blades. Prolonged severe cold wet weather can also be fatal with many animal species. Did I mention shooting? Yes, potshots by the 'cowboy' elements of the hunting fraternity like to shoot anything that moves. I have a collection of raptor and stork flight photos that I must publish which, over the years shows examples of peppered pellet holes in the wings of birds. The most recent example was of a Rüppell's Vulture that was shot last year. The bird was still flying after sustaining a huge loss of both primary and secondaly feathers. The photo was later published in Birdwatching Magazine.
But getting back to seeing the Spanish Imperial Eagles in SW Spain is still a challenge for me never mind taking people out for one day with a desire to see only this bird. The population increases in Andalucia have risen, it's true. In 2002 there were 45 pairs but let's not forget that it's only since 1973 that the species was given fully protected status and before and after this date
birds continued to be persecuted. Total Iberian populations of Spainish Imperial Eagles have past the 230 pairs mark, but to sustain this slow increase needs more education and an effort to instil in rural populations on the Iberian peninsular, that there is a positive side to seeing these creatures flying free and unmolested and that local people should feel proud that thousands of wildlife enthusiasts will come and visit rural areas and with it, bring a different kind of tourism to many parts, away from the traditional and wealthier costas.
Springtime would be the best time to see increased sightings of Spanish Imperial Eagles as many do hop across to Morocco and beyond following other large birds in Autumn. Hopefully these birds and all the others that migrate across The Strait, survive the winter and their hazardous journeys in Autumn and again in Spring.

A Juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle migrating back ascross The Strait of Gibraltar in March 2009

We've had an increase in Booted Eagles in the last week although there are always a few birds present throughout the year in the south.
The 'classic' form of this small eagle is always easier to identify and the darker form above, is one example where confusion of species occurs and at a distance the dark brown form tend to throw some people. Best to check out the 'landing lights' if the bird turns, head-on towards you. These are two white patches on the shoulder or leading edge of the wing close to the birds neck. They stand out quite well and will let you ID it fairly quickly.

Short-toed Eagles too winter with us and even with prolonged rain you'll see them hunting between showers. They are predominantly reptile hunters and as reptiles warm themselves when the sun comes out, so do the Short-toed Eagles. Their name is quite apt as their short toes are especially adapted to grip snakes and other thin reptiles.

I had a a few days out this week with Ian and Helen from London who wanted to see raptors in particular. We were lucky mid week with warm weather and picked up quite a few raptor species that included Golden Eagle (above), Booted, Short-toed, Bonelli's but alas no Spanish Imperial! Hen and Marsh Harriers delighted both and good views of Black-winged Kites and Lesser Kestrel at La Janda were a bonus for them.

Another Bonell's Eagle, a younger bird wintering at La Janda

Griffon Vultures can always be seen in Cadiz province and there aree substantial populations here. November sees a great movement of birds heading south acroos to Morocco and with them go most of the Rüppell's Vultures. Griffon Vultures are part migrant and do travel past the Sahara desert, usually following the Atlantic Ocean's coast as far as Liberia. On the way north they are joined by young Rüppell's Vultures of which many cross with the Griffons after lingering in Morocco and feeding there.

The same partial migration or movement south goes for Black Vultures. The largest concentrations of these large vultures are in Extremadura and through the neighbouring Alentejo region of Portugal. Andalucia has smaller populations with the nearest group being over in the Aracena area. We see visiting Black Vultures in winter down this way, in fact I saw one a week or so ago. Because of the increase of Rüppell's Vultures each autumn, there have been some winter reports of Rüppell's being seen right along the SW coastline as far as Cape St Vincent in Portugal, where in fact a lot of these could have been young Black Vultures. It is feasible to have one or two Rüppell's Vultures hanging on in winter in this area but I don't normally see any after November when the Griffons head south. If only we had the luxury of numbers of birders down this way as there are in the UK and Holland to pick up all the rarities that must be out there!

Spanish Imperial Eagle soars high above the Common Cranes at Tahivilla

A Stone Curlew shows of it's huge eyes, especially evolved for night feeding

I can't help having a soft spot for Pewits. Lapwings are of course members of the plover group and are such beautiful creatures. With the increase of Grey Herons in Northern Europe nesting Lapwings (or Green Plovers) are particularly vulnerable where the wily Grey Herons will go through an entire field eating eggs and chick alike returning day after day.

Here a Golden Plover and Lapwing are seen together

We've had some large flocks of over 300 Golden Plovers this year already

A couple of flight shots of Golden Plover near La Janda

A Bar-tailed Godwit drops in at Zahara de Los Atunes

During the wetter part of the week we managed to see Black-crowned Night Herons along the canal bank. There was also a report of Greater Bittern as well but I didn't catch up with it.

Lots of the 700 or so Common Cranes have left the La Janda area as once again the area turned into the huge natural lagoon it's supposed to be!

Marsh Harriers were around in good numbers, many were juveniles like this one showing that splodge of yellow custard on the crown and shoulders

Eurasian Spoonbills are returning from the south, stopping off at Barbate, La Janda, Laguna de Medina and the other wetland areas that are plentiful right now

White Storks have already staked their claims to nests and some birds are already sitting on eggs

Great Egrets, a bird roughly the size of a Grey Heron are still on the increase with good numbers locally. Did you know that the adult birds thighs turn bright red during the breeding season?

Squacco Herons too are returning in good numbers and a good number stay on during winter

Wet soil gives the colony of Northern Bald Ibis a better chance to get out there and find worms and other insects in the local fields. Winter is a good time to see them soaring around Barbate. Glossy Ibis on the other hand (of which there are plenty and ID in flight shows clearly their longer leg projection) are more business-like in flight and tend not to glide except on landing. 'Baldies' seem to have lots of fun in flight!

Northern Bald Ibis lying up and down along the coast - One of the rarest birds around!

At rest on the roost on the Sierra de Retin between Barbate and Sahara de Los Atunes. Be careful not to stop on the road - there have been a few birders fined for stopping to watch the birds. If you see a solid white line at the side of the road don't stop. Look for an entrance to a field or other suitable place. I know it's not easy but it will be cheaper!

Loads of Purple Swamphens are around right now and coming into their full breeding plumage

Surfers at Barbate cliffs, a huge compressed and eroded ancient sand dune and one of the most spectacular places to watch Peregrine Falcons along the clifftop walk to Los Caños de Meca.

Here's a link to a webcam at Tarifa from FRS the company that round the 35minute (on a good day) ferry service to Tanger in Morocco

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Double Mutant

It was great to get out birding again after my long and painful journey to Scotland. I needed to get some air, clear my head from a stinker of a cold and focus on other things that make me happy and lift my heavy heart.

Waine and Sue had come over, once again to Andalucia (It was lovely to see them again but don't tell...) for a break from the snow of Welsh-Wales and some good birds, happy chat and different scenery. They were staying at the Hotel El Palomar de La Breña in the pine forest above Barbate and we had a day out together looking for birds in the rain. It was a pretty dismal day weatherwise but the birding was fine. We had a look around the marshes of Barbate for two Grey Phalaropes that had been reported but with so many ponds and flooded areas to choose from the birds weren't to be seen. Instead we watched some Crested and Calandra Larks, Meadow Pipit, Audouin's Gull, Sandwich and Caspian Terns, White Wagtails and our local Stonechats. A Blue rock Thrush was also seen along the rocky coastline.
We took a drive up the coast to Novo Sancti Petri and the tidal estuaries there. En route we spotted a very strange looking mauve coloured Cattle Egret. (see below). Apparently this is a freak of nature and similar coloured Cattle Egrets have been reported elsewhere in Spain as well as in Kuwait!

Some Eurasian Spoonbills were seen and a host of waders that included Little Ringed Plove,r Kentish Plover, Grey Plover, Redshank, Greenshank, Whimbrel, Green and Common Sanddpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling, Lapwing, Little and Temminck's Stint.

Moving across the Bay of Cadiz and it's tributaries, the various fish and salt-pans, we checked out some of my special places. Here, amongst a group of feeding Little Egrets was a Hybrid Western Reef x Little Egret Egretta gularis x garzetta. A lovely and rare find - as well as being a different or new bird to both Waine and the rrecords for both Rare Birds in Spain and the Spanish Rarities Committee. My first rarity of the year on my first day back - Hoorah!

Dappled black spots on toes - (sounds like the title of Mike Weedon's next wacky dream... You see I do read his blog!)

Note the extensive white patch and mottled underwing and flanks and the almost 'piano keyboard' effect on the upper primaries and secondaries. Play it again Sam!

The mauve-pink Cattle Egret near Chiclana

I wrote to Dr Stephanie Doucet at Windsor Canada, an avaian plumage expert about possible explanations. She kindly wrote back:

"As for the unusual colour, I’m not sure what the cause is. The only way to know for sure would be to obtain feathers, eliminate other possible explanations, and conduct some pigment analyses. Pigments might not be the best explanation because the most likely type of pigment (carotenoids) don’t usually have a mauve hue (generally red, orange, yellow, or, less commonly, pink, such as in flamingos and spoonbills). The other issue with pigments is that I would expect them to colour entire individual feathers or otherwise exhibit a noticeable pattern. These feathers seem haphazardly coloured (although I would need to look into the molt patterns in these birds as there does seem to be some banding on some of the wing feathers). On the other hand, people do report unusual avian plumage colours caused by the unusual presence or absence of pigments, such as amelanotic jays and yellow cardinals: "

Shawkey and Hill 2006. Significance of a basal melanin layer to production of non-iridescent structural plumage color: evidence from an amelanotic Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Journal of Experimental Biology 209: 1245-1250.
McGraw et al. 2003. Carotenoid Pigments in a Mutant Cardinal: Implications for the Genetic and Enzymatic Control Mechanisms of Carotenoid Metabolism in Birds. Condor 105: 587-592
Carotenoids are also responsible for the pink blush found on some species of gulls and terns:
McGraw and Hardy 2006. Astaxanthin is responsible for the pink plumage flush in Franklin’s and Ring-billed gulls. Journal of Field Ornithology 77: 29-33.

Our bird list for the day included, as well as a single Black Stork, quite a few raptors that were up in the air despite the rain and low cloud. These included Griffon Vulture, Bonelli's Eagle, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Hen and Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzard and a brief view of an Osprey that disappeared behind an euycaliptus grove.

At the computer today and perhaps venturing out tomorrow for a recce