Sunday, 31 July 2011

Fuel Stop La Janda...Raptors en route!

The very lovely Black Wheatear singing in the Sierras. One of Bob Wright's local birds at Axarquia, Malaga province

OK, the kids are off school and I am at home now certainly more than during the whole of Spring and the first part of our summer. I seemed to be away tour leading for ages and it's great to come back home. I've been catching up with lots to do around the house and garden which is also quite satisfying, although working in the summer heat in the middle of the day has to be avoided. Similarly, birding is best done at first light until midday. Our resident Tawny Owls have been really vocal these past weeks with newly fledged birds calling form the nearby woodland

Three rascals - see below for more info...
Hectic socialising takes place during the lull in birding...what am I saying! A 'flock' of invited birders descended on Bob and Jenny Wright's lovely home close to Benamargosa in the mountains above Malaga for their Golden Wedding. So, in order that you may learn how to identify us and flee before getting mixed up with us, you will now be able cast your eyes upon the photo and see what we look like!
(L to R) Dave Elliott-Binns, Mick Richardson, Andy Paterson, Stephen Daly and Bob Wright.

Our daughters, Lucia and Amelia are attending 'Summer School' for a few months which gives Patty and I some time to organise our guest house, paint, do maintenance etc while they attend the school from 10am to 2pm, then home for lunch, rest and ultimately plunge into the pool to cool off. Recently they've been showing how strong they are becoming, often ejecting their old Dad with great ease off the lilo. I don't mind their bullying as they are such lovely happy kids and bring us so much joy watching them grow up.

July is always an introduction to the forthcoming constant heat that wafts across the drying edge of the southern end of the Iberian peninsular. Ripples of heat from the scorched interior waft across the dry landscape but fortunately Atlantic breezes cool the air on The Strait. Go twenty km inland and the temperature difference is quite remarkable with another ten degrees celsius on top of our acceptable twenty-five to thirty celsius and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about! We are so glad that we live close to the sea and have a swimming pool!

Golden Eagle juvenile

The heat affects all of us warm blooded beings and birds are no different. Looking for water becomes important and most young birds quickly learn that where there's cattle, horses or other livestock, there will be water. The Rice-fields of La Janda act as a great magnet for birds, dragonflies and other wildlife at all times of the year but by the start of August things start to hot up on the birding front. The Red Signal Crayfish that were introduced in the 1950's have been emerging from the dried mud and provide a valuable source of protein for migrating birds, particularly egrets, storks and herons. The explosion of emerged dragonflies, mainly Red-veined and Scarlet Darters, Lesser Emperors and some chasers are also food for the Bee-eaters, Yellow Wagtails and of course the migrant Montagu's Harrier. The Monty's are a fairly small, light raptor that can be watched 'bouncing' across bright green the paddy-fields hunting dragonflies and other insects. They are one of the most graceful of all the birds of prey and are especially beautiful to watch . We are extremely fortunate to see most of the western European population passing through The Strait of Gibraltar and of course many stop off to feed in and around La Janda. Quite often roosts of over one hundred Montagu's Harriers can be found at La Janda during the Autumn migration. Similarly, each of the migrant European raptor species can be found at roost sites through the Alcornocales Natural Park or on slopes and valleys of the open fields around Tarifa.

Spanish Imperial Eagle, 1st calendar year

Adult Spanish Imperial Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle (Taken in Greece)

Black Kites spring to mind when we talk about behavioral patterns of raptors during the autumn migration compared to that of the spring or northerly migration. Black Kites like most raptors movement south are affected by wind conditions when they arrive on the southern coast. Their movement southwards to The Strait increases in August and thousands of Black Kites will now start to pass over our house as they follow the Strait down to Tarifa and Gibraltar. If we have a prolonged easterly wind (Levante) then the birds are unable to cross to Morocco and huge roosts of thousands of birds can be seen, their dark brown colour peppered across the light brown parched open fields as they sit and wait for more favourable crossing conditions.

Bonelli's Eagle, 1st calendar year

Red Kite

Black Kite

As more birds from the north arrive then numbers increase and each species grow tend to keep together. All need to feed, so the presence of smaller migrating birds like passerines for example isn't so visually evident. Much of the passerine migration takes place at night and there are of course reasons for this. Self-protection is one and also the physical fact that wind often dies down or stops altogether during the hours of darkness. Passerines can then use muscle power and of course their valuable fat supplies to fly across during the night, often a quite high altitude, safe from any raptor. During the day their presence is not as noticeable as other times of the year. Keeping your head down during daylight hours is necessary and understandable behaviour.

Long-legged Buzzard, now breding in Cadiz province

Common Buzzard

In the next few months we will have the pleasure of watching thousands of Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles make their way south to the same area, hoping to cross The Strait at it's narrowest point around Tarifa. Egyptian Vultures will be there as well and depending on the weather conditions you can often have a mass build up of each species and be fortunate to see three hundred Egyptian Vultures together at one roost. This kind of experience is just fantastic. The feeling you have when you witness this sight not only makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck but you have this widest smile across your face and feel so privileged to witness one of natures most visual acts of freedom

An adult Egyptian Vulture

Griffon (left) and Black Vulture

The rare Rüppell's Vulture

Other raptors make the same southerly journey and their movement and behaviour is just as fascinating. As the larger birds of prey migrate, you'll be able to see groups of eagles spiraling above your head, riding large thermals over the last strip of land on the coast. Using thermals to gain height in the warm air will give a lot of the birds a better gliding possibility over water, thus saving energy and valuable body fat. In such thermals you'd typically see other raptors like Montagu's Harrier, Hen Harrier and Marsh Harrier all looking weirdly out of context than their normal ground hugging hunting mode! With the arrival of Spanish Imperial, Golden and Bonelli's Eagles, Osprey, Sparrowhawks, Goshawks Lesser and Common Kestrels, Peregrine Falcon and Honey Buzzards as well as rarer birds that are often seen like Spotted or Lesser Spotted Eagle, Eleonora's Falcon, Lanner Falcon, Long-legged Buzzard, Rüppell's Vulture and Lammergeier.

Don't be confused with the dark form of the smallest European eagle, the Booted Eagle. There are two forms with the commoner light form being the most common and both have the tell tale landing lights on the inner shoulder should the bird turn and face you head on.

Adult Male Hen Harrier. A quick ID between this and the Montagu's male is the broader wing with five, not four primary projections and the heavier flight lacking the 'bouncing' or deeper 'v-shaped' high wing

Adult Male Marsh Harrier. Again bulkier, females can weigh four times more than the slightly built Montagu's Harrier. Strong flight, again broader wing and with males quite easy to separate

Adult male Montagu's Harrier. Slim, elegant, light and with only four primary 'fingers'

Adult female Montagu's Harrier. 1st year birds have a lovely rich ochre hue

Short-toed Eagle

I think that all who have an love for birds or other wildlife should witness this incredible sight at least once in their life.

Signal Crayfish, an import from the USA

Step back or else...

You may have to click to enlarge this shot of Eurasian Spoonbills and White Storks taking off from the La Janda rice-fields, but you'll spot a captured crayfish...

Red-veined Darter female, in our garden

Banded Groundling

Scarlet Darter male

I'll be leading only one longer Raptor Migration Tour for Limosa/The Travelling Naturalist this autumn although I will be returning to Lake Neusiedl in Eastern Austria at the end of August for eight days to lead one of their tours there. Most of September I'll be running day tours using our new VW Caravelle minibus which has nine seats and is air-conditioned at each seat! If you'd like to join a day tour then please drop me a line and I can tell you about availability. Day tour costs are shared according to the numbers that attend.
A Happy Summer to all, Stephen
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