Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Passing Overhead

Black Storks

Continued fair weather helps migratory species cross The Strait of Gibraltar and of course with clear skies gives those watching a better change to spot what's incoming.
This past week we have seen lots of Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles and Egyptian Vultures flying in all along the coastline. Black Storks too have been watched with a steady trickle of small groups and one larger party of fifteen birds.

Booted Eagle, light form

Short-toed Eagle and a Booted Eagle together in the sky

Some of the Black Storks will settle and feed before continuing their journey

Short-toed Eagles are really impressive birds

Short-toed Eagle showing quite a different pattern and colour from above

A juvenile Egyptian Vulture makes it back to Europe after wintering in Africa

A Booted Eagle (again a light form) takes off from a wild olive tree (Acebuche), showing it's 'boots' or feathered legs that are covered right down to it's feet

We've seen less White Wagtails now as they are moving north with Chiffchaffs, Robins, Bluethroats, Meadow Pipits, after their winter spent in Andalucia. My Black Redstart is still roosting under our outside staircase at night, but I think she'll move on soon...

Checking out those feathers, a White Wagtail preens itself. Great care is taken of the condition of those indispensable flight feathers, especially on migration

A few Ospreys are always to be found and the ones that travel to West Africa and beyond start arriving back in greater numbers around this time. Ospreys travel where they fancy, travelling across land for great distances as well and can turn up anywhere, not just on the coast!

Huge flocks of Lapwing are dispersing and the massive numbers of Goden Plovers that were here have been drastically reduced to smaller flocks as birds head for their breeding grounds in the north. Northern Lapwings do breed here in small numbers but the majority are from other European countries

Always an impressive bird in flight, the male Red-crested Pochard

The male (Northern) Shoveler is also a beautiful bird to watch

Purple Swapmhens are best viewed at the start of the year, although on large golf courses with fresh water, like in this photo in Portugal, birds stroll casually onto the green... They aren't so tame in other places!

We have huge numbers of Pied Avocets wintering in Andalucia, particularly on the Guadalquivir River and further west inot the Coto Doñana

Greater Flamingoes smothered in a wave of spring waders. Dunlins, Sanderlings, Black-tailed Godwits..

Glossy Ibis head to roost at sundown

'Eat me!' Red Signal Crayfish are eaten by any bird Otter or any animal that can swallow them. First ...take care of those claws!

This Great Crested Grebe was making short work of such crayfish at the Laguna de Medina. It ate four whole crayfish, claws and all, one after the other!

I've always had a great fondness for (Northern) Lapwings. Being one of the first birds I 'noticed' in my childhood, their soft 'squeaky toy' like call always makes me smile...

A nice pose from this Common Sandpiper

There are more and more Black-winged Stilts arriving. Lots of these pretty and delicate looking birds winter in Morocco

Most of the large 'rafts' of Black-necked Grebes have dispersed from their wintering quarters in the south. These birds were photographed at the start of February and the few stragglers at places like Laguna de median, Taraje and the other small lakes in the Cadiz/Jerez area, have started to show their golden coloured ear tufts that look so special during their breeding season

Greater Flamingoes flap gracefully at dusk across the old fish ponds and salt pans at San Fernando

Glossy Ibis living up to it's name...

The Third Week in February - What Birds are Around?
I went out yesterday to have alook at La Janda area. The weather was mild and at times slightly overcast, but there was plenty to be seen.
I took the route into La Janda's main collector canal at it's tunnel which runs under the busy N340 road, just down from the junction to Manzanete (Vejer end).
One Great-spotted Cuckoo flew from the (only) bushes on the other side of the bank above the tunnel entrance and a Barn Owl sat half hidden in another bush.
Mallards took off as the Land Rover slowed down and Corn Buntings sang and flitted with Zitting Cisticolas (Fan-tailed Warbler) and Common Stonechats. European Goldfinches and Common Linnets sang their tinkling, twittering (don't let them hijack the word twitter!) as I passed the lush vegetation on either side of the embankments.
Grey Herons fished on the canal as did Great Cormorants. Northern Lapwings fed on the muddy ploughed rice-fields. A few Marsh Harriers, mostly juveniles but one lovely male flew out from a willow tree and two Black-winged Kites hunted close by. I stopped and took a good look around. Scanning the far distance over dark brown and vey wet ploughed fields I picked up two Black Storks and tens of White storks a bit further on. Grey Herons and Mallards were in profusion.
Another distant Black-winged Kite flew purposely in a straight line across the open landcape and two Hen Harriers were seen. One lovely adult male following an adult female.
Two pairs of Northern Shoveler flew past and a group of seven Eurasian Spoonbills were seen in flight put up by a juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle. The eagle flew further on and landed on top of an electric pylon. Later I met up with Salvador (out in the field with his radio transmitter locator) who works for the Junta de Andalucia on the Spanish Imperial Eagle hacking programme. He said that the eagle I'd seen was one the juveniles from the project.
Continuing to the junction where the bridge turns left towards the farm with the silos, Cortijo de La Mediana (Andy Paterson always refers to this as the 'Smelly Farm'), I found a dead juvenile Glossy Ibis on the track. Looking for signs of injury I concluded that the bird had collided the wires that span the area right at the birdge. Cetti's Warblers called and a Purple Swamphen walked casually, bobbing it's white under-tail from the top of the reeds into deeper cover. A Common Chiffchaff caught newly hatched flies and danced in front of me as Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges called in the distance.
A few Common Cranes were flying overhead and some others were seen feeding on new shoots of wheat on the Las Lomas side. Little Egrets and the Cattle Egrets were busy feeding in the area behind the 'new' nesting colony on the long avenue that leads to La Mediana. No signs of Black-winged Kites here but a few more Marsh Harriers flew out as did Wood Pigeons and on the water, Common Moorhens scuttled across the surface calling as the flapped. Another two very distant Black-winged Kites were seen on top of another pylon and a lovely Male Peregrine flew past and landed on top of one of the irrigation booms. More restless calling from the cranes were heard as I rose up the incline to the farm with the sound of their call carrying on the breeze.
Near the top of the hill I saw a juvenile Bonelli's Eagle flying high overhead. They are such majestic birds and a fair bit bigger than the Short-toed Eagle. With oversized feet and massive talons in proportion to their overall body size, they are the perfect hunter taking duck, partridge and even the occasional crane!
Jackdaws - some quite large females around the farm called as a Hoopoe flew past. One Booted Eagle and a few Black Kites were seen. More Wood pigeons flew around wing clapping and displaying on all sides. No sign of the main batch of Great-spotted Cuckoos yet that are usually to be found in this area around now.
Close views were had of an adult female Hen Harrier and although looking in suitable hunting areas I haven't seen my Pallid Harrier again...
Checking the large Acebuche trees I found five Short-eared Owls in their favourite winter roost. Such a great sight to see.
Going past Los Charcones farm (Puddle Farm) I descended to meet the camino real. Left here takes you to the towen of Benalup/Casas Viejas or if you take the bare track right you would eventually come to Facinas passing the edge of the Alcornocales Parque Natural on your left. Don't try taking this at this time of the year as you will have to come back the way you came after Cortijo Las Habas. The gate that takes you through the farm to the main N340 road is more often padlocked and continuing on the camino real track from Las Habas to Facinas is pretty deeply rutted and a few sections really tested the Land Rover! If you have time then sure give it a go. As they say 'There's only one car that will go anywhere - a hire car!'
Lots of Common Kestrels were around and I didn't knowingly see a Lesser. Most of the Lesser Kestrels are in the white villages at this time of year and these are the best locations to watch them displaying and preparing for breeding.
An Ocellated lizard was trying to heat up on a large stone and more Egrets, one other Black Kite one more Booted Eagle sat on posts in the distance.
A group of about sixty Common Cranes were picked up on the rolling meadow at Cortijo La China. One more male Hen Harrier was seen above me circling, looking down with his bright yellow eyes and about one hundred White Storks rose higher and higher in a large 'kettle' over the rice fields of La Janda. Two adult Spoonbills took off from a waterlogged area beside the track. One had a colour ring but I didn't manage to take a clear photograph.
There seemed to be a lot of Calandra Larks calling across the landscape yesterday, their flight and call is one of the lovliest sound of spring in these parts. White Wagtails and Meadow pipits were down in numbers as were the normally very visible and vocal Green Sandpipers that feed in the canals and ditches of the flat La Janda plain. Black-headed Gulls, some in full summer or breeding plumage were around and a few Yellow-legged Gulls.
Heading for home I took the main N340 to the Retin turnoff for Zahara. With the military zone on my right and the Atalntic Ocean on my left I spotted a few Sandwich Terns and some juvenile Northern Gannets while Griffon Vultures were circling over the Sierra de Retin. No sign of the Northern Bald Ibis in flight, just a few juveniles sitting on top of the aviary. Further along the coast road I stopped to watch some incoming raptors. Three Egyptian Vultures and five Short-toed Eagles made a happy end to another lovely morning on The Strait of Gibraltar

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Long-legged Buzzard, (Buteo rufinus Ssp. cirtensis) in Spain

Long-legged Buzzard close to Vejer de La Frontera, yesterday (18th of February 2011)

It's well documented that the North African race (citensis) of Long-legged Buzzard has been making crossings from Africa to Europe and expanding their range into Spain for more than ten years now. It is known that they are breeding here both with other cirtensis and Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo). The overlapping of the two may lead to sterile young and other genetic complications.
Ideally, a detailed research project needs to be funded and set up to monitor breeding, offspring and bird behaviour with this phenomenon not only here but of course in Morocco where both species interact. Without such a project we will not have sufficient evidence on any dilution through hybridisation before the sub-species expands further.
The cirtensis birds North African distribution is pysically contained to that area with large deserts to the south and east, and in the west The Atlantic Ocean efffectively limiting scope for expansion in these directions. Europe is the target and the two possibilities are through Spain and Italy
It is known known that similar cross breeding or hybridisation in other buzzard species occurs. In other areas in Europe with rufinus and Common Buzzard in Italy (The island of Pantellelleria) Hungary - (Steppe Buzzard, vulpinis) and in Northern India and further east through Central and Eastern Asia (Upland Buzzard, hemilasius)

Obtaining detailed information about their current crossing patterns and presence by month, in Andalucia and particularly Cadiz province, where The Strait of Gibraltar is located, is extremely difficult to estimate. Firstly this is a huge area to cover and there isn't the same network of experienced birders here when we compare it to say the north of Spain or the UK where hundreds if not thousands can turn up at the sighting of a rare bird! Cadiz province alone is bigger than Lincolnshire and quite often in converations with other birders I try and gently point out that Andalucia is bigger than Portugal...
There has been research at both hybrid and 'pure' breeding sites where blood samples have been taken and their analysis documented.

This latest sighting may be from successful breeding pairs from the Tarifa or Los Barrios areas and there are a few other suspected breeding sites in my own area that haven't yet been properly investigated due to the terrain or just by the lack of time involved but it is clear that more information has to be collated through systematic, reasearch-based studies.

Identification guide to cirtensis. (Click to enlarge and print out)

Here are some flight photos I took some years ago of a typical bird near Guadalmesi on The Strait between Tarifa and Algeciras. The structure of the bird is subtly different from Common Buzzard and cirtensis is a much more aggressive looking bird with more powerful and longer wings

This closer flight shot show in detail the actual colouration of upperwing, body and more particularly the tail. The deep rufous colour and prominent barring towards the end of the tail is typical of cirtensis

Observations of any unusual coloured buteos should be checked out. This cirtensis was photographed below the migration observation point 'Trafico' at Tarifa in September a few years back

The Vejer bird with one of the primaries moulting. Note the long legs
If you have any photos of any unusual looking buzzards please send them to me with details (where, when etc) and I can circulate them and record other unknown records. We have quite a good collection of photos taken in Morocco.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Migration Movement

On Saturday I led a really lovely group of birders and wildlife enthusiasts from the Gibraltar Natural History and Ornithological Society (GOHNS) around La Janda and the surrounding area. We saw some good birds which included Great spotted Cuckoo, Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Kite, Griffon Vultures as well as lots of Cranes on the ground and many more in the air. Thanks for your company and great lunch! Best wishes to you all and happy birding!

Some news and sightings from last week

Fast moving subjects like this Northern Shoveler make quite a challenge out on the lake-side!

There are some great photographic opportunities at the start of the breeding season. The behavioural increases during display and bonding, together with the physical plumage change and in some cases like the bill colour change in this adult male White-headed Duck, makes for great shooting.

With head low on the water and neck stretched out this male Great Crested Grebe calls a succession of deep notes trying to attract his mate

Around the fresh-water margins of reedbeds on lakes like the Laguna de Medina, there's plenty of birding activity on the water with little and Great Crested Grebes some already with chicks.

Restless Common Cranes at La Janda
With some birds displaying and 'dancing' the day away, many have now dispersed and are slowly starting to head north

Purple Swamphens which are very visible at this time of the year are really good swimmers

A Stone Curlew hides

One of the prettiest little passerines around, the Common Stonechat male looks quite stunning in February, helping with nest building

Thekla Larks get quite vocal like most birds during spring and now is a time to listen and learn their song pattern and local dialects

A flock of Serins, one of our smallest finches, flit through wild mustard flowers near Vejer de La Frontera

This shot of a very fresh looking juvenile Marsh Harrier shows perfect plumage lines and that typical 'custard splodge' on the cap, often spilling down over the shoulders

A beautiful adult male Marsh Harrier hunts low over the fields

Little Owl with shade

One of our 'local' Spanish Imperial Eagles. This shot shows a 1st winter bird and I know by the tag and radio transmitter that it's a female

Spanish Imperial topside view

Common Kestrel revealing a very lovely and typical underwing and tail pattern

Larger Juvenile birds of prey often show a deep rust colour during the first year. This is a 1st winter Bonelli's Eagle

Last spring I was in Hungary and took this quick shot of a very fast and high flying juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle

Flying close to our house are the large flock of over 70 Northern Bald Ibis. During the last few weeks they've been feeding each morning on the long stretch of coastal road out of Barbate to Zahara de Los Atunes, at the last group of houses before the start of the huge military zone.

Bill clapping White Storks at Benalup

There are a few places left on our trip to Extremadura (2nd - 8th of May) Meeting at Madrid. Photographers and novice birders most welcome!
Send me an email if you'd like to join us. Click here to take you to the full itinerary (pdf link)