Saturday, 29 October 2011

La Janda Food Frenzy For All...

La Janda was once one of the richest feeding grounds for migratory and resident birds alike up until the end of the 1950's. Sadly this perfect stopover on one of the busiest bird migration routes from Europe to Africa was drained and the rich land turned to agriculture. True to say that poverty and famine as well as malarial outbreaks plagued the resident population around such a vast inland freshwater lake, but after the lake was 'sterlised' with DDT, the rest regrettably is history.

Hen Harrier pass through on migration. This lovely sub-adult male bird was seen this week

From the large Griffon Vulture colony at Aciscar, this young bird passes very close to the camera as it descends to a carcass feed near Sierra de Retin

Early flowering narcissus - Narcissus serotinus

Always a great sight to see, flocks of White Storks in every corner around the cut rice-fields

We saw a few Purple Herons this week and a Great Bittern was also seen

White Wagtails have been arriving in their hundreds this week

Black-winged Kite one of perhaps twenty birds in and around the La Janda area

A closer view of this beautiful raptor

Stone Curlews. Up to forty-five birds were seen this week at La Mediana

Always present and always tricky to photograph, the Common Kingfisher makes a dash along one of the many canals between the rice-fields

A few Spanish Imperial Eagles have been seen almost daily this week

This one has a radio transmitter and is part of the local Junta de Andalucia's monitoring programme in Cadiz province

Increased arrivals of Common Cranes from the Baltic and N Germany and Denmark have been seen this week. I counted approximately 180 cranes and there could be more in places I couldn't access due to the condition of the muddy tracks after the rain. The Cranes normally stay with us until the beginning of March. Many more pass through and head to N Africa. The largest wintering group on the Iberian peninsular is in Extremadura where up to 80,000 Common Cranes winter!

Great Egrets, looking large and splendid whether it's a contrast of white against the green rice-fields or a cloudless blue sky. They have spread in steady numbers westwards across central and southern Europe in recent years. Quite a remarkable expansion, but like Grey Herons they can decimate populations of ground nesting birds around wetland areas

More scenes from La Janda

Red Kites passing, hunting and watching all the massed bird activity

A juvenile Bonelli's Eagle from this weeks raptor photos

Top side of the Bonelli's Eagle. See how perfectly formed the trailing edge of the wings appear. In the coming months these lighter, softer first feathers will be replaced or moulted by stronger ones. Just like any youngster, good diet is essential for bone and feather development and during the the first years, larger birds of prey are quite vulnerable to all kinds of hazards including lack of essential nourishment. The arrival of thousands of duck from the north will help sustain them and other large eagles during the coming months

This photo shows the Bonelli's youngster at full stretch, ready to push down hard and launch foward into the wind to gain lift

The second and third flaps are equally vigorous to gain speed and height

A young Marsh Harrier surveys the landscape below. There are hundreds of Marsh Harriers, mainly juveniles here and lots will stay over winter

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Andalucia Bird Society Outing - Guadalquivir

Andalucia Bird Society Field Visit to the Guadalquivir
Saturday 22 October 2011

By Bob Wright - Membership Secretary

Up before daybreak and in time to see the Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls feeding on the shore as I breakfasted but it was not long before Micky Smith and I were on our way to Jerez to meet up with the other members of the Society for a day's birding along those marvelous sites adjacent to the eastern bank of the Guadalquivir. The journey produced a pair of Carrion Crows and a Buzzard plus a few Cattle Egrets before we twenty members, including three officers of the Society, set off in four vehicles under the impressive guidance of fellow member Stephen Daly from Andalucian Guides.

The previous night, local television had predicted thunderstorms, lightening, rain and all sorts of tempests. In the event, whilst we saw distant cloud and rain, the little cloud quickly cleared, there was no wind and the day grew warmer and warmer as each hour passed. What a cracking way to spend a day birding at terrific sites and in good company.

Travelling via Trebujena to the river we had many Northern Wheatears and Spotless Starlings plus a small party of Red-legged Partridges, Common Buzzard and Willow Warblers. The first pool produced the expected Little Grebes and Little Egrets and even a departing Snipe. Then, in the clear waters adjacent to the road, our first stop and the chance to see a wide range of water birds and waders; we even had a Red Kite pass over to see what was happening below. Lots of Mallards and Shovelers and, of course, very many Flamingos.

The great majority of the last were juveniles in their dull brown and white feathering but we were to see hundreds of handsome adults a little later on when we reached the salt pans. There were scores of Avocets and Black-winged Stilts plus Coots and Moorhens. More searching produced a sleeping Pintail, a pair of Black-tailed Godwits and a couple of Teal. Meanwhile, behind us in the fields, there was a very large flock of Calandra Larks and regular sightings of Stonechat.

Then it was on to the track that took us down past the salt pans and all the way through to Bonanza. Before long we were recording a variety of waders including Redshank and Common Sandpiper with Marsh Harriers all around and numerous small flocks of both Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks. A Green Sandpiper flashed by and then, as well as both Little Egrets and Grey Herons, a solitary Great White Egret made its way over the fields. A small number of Spoonbills were disturbed up ahead and then we found our first of many Ospreys of the day. Rather lovely to see the bird perched on top of a dead tree and, later, flying, fishing and eating. No sooner had we tuned in than we had both a resting Kestrel followed by a rather leisurely departing Peregrine Falcon. Wow! The next raptor was a Booted Eagle, more of a "mid-range" rather than either light or dark morph.

Nearing the end of the grass and sand mix, as we approached the working salt pans, the first Black Storks. Not many but after lunch we were to see a flock approaching 90 in number plus a very large flock of Spoonbills. Also in the area was a small flock of feeding Lapwings whilst, over the river, we had first a Caspian Tern quickly followed by a Slender-billed Gull, Whiskered Tern and a Sandwich Tern.
The last stop before a well-deserved lunch in La Algaida was at a couple of near-empty salt pans which were heaving with small waders. Dunlin, Little Stint, Ringed and Kentish Plovers plus a couple of Grey Plovers for good measure soon had us drooling through our bins. The fact that we also had Black-headed Gulls, Greenshank and lots of Black-tailed Godwits seemed almost incidental!

Lunch at La Algaida was also impressive – and tremendous value for money. I am not sure when I last saw so many servings of fresh fish and chips! However, the lunch stop did produce one proverbial fly-in-the-ointment that needs to be addressed at future meetings. On sorting out the transport to keep car numbers to a minimum, we need to make sure that the birding expertise is also equally shared out. On this occasion, it would appear that some members were left without sufficient experience in their particular car given the expertise available on the day. My apologies to those members and it is certainly some thing that we need to be aware of on future visits.

Following lunch, we moved on to the back of the Laguna de Tarelo rather than view the water from the hide accessed through the woods.

This certainly gave a much better impression of the whole pool (I always thought, based on viewing from the hide, that it was a relatively small sheet of water) and revealed just how much was to be seen. Not only Mallards, Teals and Wigeon but, to cap the lot, at least ten Marbled Ducks.

All three Grebes (Little, Black-necked and Great Crested) were present along with the Moorhens and Coots and in the reed at the back a couple of individual Night Herons. Barn Swallows fed over the water and a Kingfisher flashed by on two occasions. There were both Yellow and White Wagtails plus Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers in the trees at the side of the water. Some were fortunate enough to see the Spanish Sparrows in the tree on the island whilst others had a good view of a small number of Common Waxbills. Back to the water and we were able to locate a Shoveler plus a few Gadwall and, as hoped for, a number of White-headed Ducks!

A Penduline Tit was heard by a few and seen by one member; the rest of us content with more Goldfinches and Lapwings. But all the time, the ever-present Ospreys and Marsh Harriers circling around. One little extra; just to make a change from the birds we all had a very close-up with a rather large Mediterranean Chameleon(Chamaelon chamaeleon) which Steve had found in a nearby bush. Lots of photographs taken so there may even be full body shots out there waiting to be published...

Our final stop took us back to the pools where we had seen all the waders just before lunch. Whilst many of the birds had moved on, we soon found more at a neighbouring pan. Much the same as before until we found a Redshank, Greenshank and Whimbrel together; great for comparing sizes, etc. At this point, a male Hen Harrier, having completed his slow flight along the top of the fence bordering the road, decided it was time to cross the track. Never mind close, if Stephen Fletcher had left his back doors open the bird could have easily flown straight through! For most of us, it was as if the bird was too close to even get into the camera's view finder. But for me, watching a Sardinian Warbler feeding on the bank is one thing but when the bird is suddenly replace by a Dartford Warbler then things can only get better. We even managed to find the missing Little Ringed Plover in a mixed plover flock and a group of a dozen Bar-tailed Godwits feeding in front of us.

But, eventually, for most of us, all good things must come to an end and it was time to work our way back to Jerez, collect our respective cars and start the long journey home. But, all was not finished. No sooner had Micky and I got on to the new motorway south towards Los Barrios than we had another Carrion Crow and then, about half way, a quartet of Griffon Vultures passing overhead followed by a Jay near the reservoir at Medina. Finally, approaching Los Barrios, most of the stork nests seemed to have a pair of White Storks in residence.

Excellent birding with a final tally of 88 species seen during the day by the combined group.

Birds seen:

Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler, Pintail, Teal, Marbled Duck, White-headed Duck, Red-legged Partridge, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Black Stork, White Stork, Spoonbill, Night Heron, Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Great White Egret, Little Egret, Cormorant, Osprey, Red Kite, Griffon Vulture, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Kestrel, Peregrine, Moorhen, Coot, Back-winged Stilt, Avocet, Lapwing, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Redshank, Greenshank, green sandpiper, Common sandpiper, Knot, Sanderling, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Slender-billed Gull, Back-headed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Caspian Tern, Sandwich Tern, Whiskered Tern, Rock Dove, Collared Dove, Kingfisher, Jay, Jackdaw, Crow, Penduline Tit, Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Crested Lark, Barn Swallow, Cetti's Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Dartford Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Spotless Starling, Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, House Sparrow, Spanish Sparrow, Common Waxbill, Blue-headed Wagtail, White Wagtail, Goldfinch and Corn Bunting.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Pallid Harrier - Circus macrourus

Pallid Harrier (circus macrourus), adult male at La Janda today...
The reason for such frequent and increasing sightings could be attributed to changes in agricultural use in the former eastern block countries, particularly those countries formerly controlled within the old Soviet empire.
The steady progression of new and available breeding areas for Pallid Harriers to the West is a direct result of such agricultural change.
Open steppe land has increased dramatically on what was formerly semi-usable farmland in areas along the great rolling plains of Kasakstan, Ukaraine, Poland Slovakia and Hungary. We can expect to see a progressive shift of breeding area and subsequent migratory birds taking routes southwards through Germany, France, Portugal and Spain via The Strait of Gibraltar to their wintering grounds in Africa.
In short, we will probably see more birds coming through this area in Spain, later than Monty's and perhaps like last year's Pallids may spend some time in Andalucia. I suppose the weather will have lot to do with such. Rain is on the way...

The Pallid, like the Montagu's Harrier has a very light and agile flapping flight, a bit like a long-tailed paper aeroplane when it glides. It's not as 'bouncy' as the Monty's and seems slightly more muscular.
Their size is: Length 40–50 cm (15.5–19.5 in), wingspan 97–118 cm (38–46 in), weight 315–445 g (12.5–18). The female larger than male as in most birds of prey

Pallid Harriers have very long and narrow wings and tails. Their fifth primary feather is shortened. They look light and lanky and although their flight is light it is heavier than a Montagu’s Harrier’s. Mature males resemble male Hen Harriers in colouring at a distance, except that the black markings near their wingtips are narrower and wedge-shaped (only black on primaries 2–6), and less glossy on their upper wings. Males also have light bellies with young males showing a grey shadow on the head with a light collar. This fades the older the adult male becomes.

Although I'm showing an adult male on this page, there is a blog entry covering another juvenile Pallid in Cadiz province last winter here, that shows a juvenile bird.

Mature Pallid Harrier females also resemble Hen or Montagu’s Harriers. They are best separated in the field from female Hen Harriers by their general structure, and from female Montagu’s by their almost uniformly dark brown primary coverts and the denser dark streaking across their underwings. The lighter colouring beneath the markings on their wing coverts also darkens gradually towards their body.

Juvenile Pallid Harriers are darker than mature females, and their underparts are an almost unmarked reddish brown (compared to brown and streaked in juv. Hen Harrier). They are best distinguished from similar young Montagu’s by their pale yellowish unstreaked neckbands. The sides of their necks are a uniform dark brown, contrasting clearly with the lighter markings around their eyes, although this is often not as pronounced as in juvenile Montagu's Harrier.

Descriptive ID tips of how to separate and identify birds in the field are often very difficult to put into words. It's all very personal and some of us can pick up on differences and comparison of similar species in structure, colouration, and all the other aspects of flight and bird behaviour. Quite honestly there is no substitute for seeing the same bird time after time and having the opportunity to relax, breathe and take in all aspects of the bird and try and store the image. If you do have time to watch a species for longer periods, you can then pick up on say, with a Pallid, the collar around the neck; the slightly more broader secondaries on the wing width, the more muscular wing-beats. Having watched endless numbers of juvenile Montagu's Harriers in flight over the years, that when a Pallid comes along even miles off, you just know that it isn't a Monty's...

Oh yes, there was something else of rarity value on this post that Brian Cox photographed when we were down amongst the scrub juniper and other bushes around Cape Trafalgar. I was walking ahead looking for migrant warblers when Brian and Anne heard a 'cheee-cheee' sound. Looking around they found this lovely bird perched in a bush. To me it looked like one of the many yellow and black weaver/bishop species that have colonised parts of Portugal and Spain. Sorry that there aren't any more photos. It could be a Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) which are common in the Brazo del Este area, south of Seville.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Different Habitats, other birds...

Hoopoe cottage, our small guest house has been occupied most of the year. True to say we attract many birders and lovers of nature from all over the globe, but of course friends and family like to visit as well, especially if there hasn't been too much of a summer to rave about in northern Europe. Our year's weather has been pretty good although rains do come in winter and wind can come at any time during warmer periods, but all in all we have a wonderful climate with fresh air coming off the Atlantic Ocean and lots and lots of warm sun!

Pied Avocets at Bonanza

A few years ago I met Brian and Anne who were with a group that came on a week's tour to Extremadura and the Coto Doñana in spring. This autumn they booked a week with us at Hoopoe cottage and I have been showing them some great birds and other wildlife during the continuing migration on The Strait of Gibraltar.

Greater Flamingoes on the Guadalquivir basin

We visited most of the 50 km coastline of SW Cadiz province from Cape Trafalgar to Gibraltar and saw much of the visible migration of Short-toed and Booted Eagles crossing or attempting to cross the narrow stretch of water to Africa. Huge numbers of Griffon Vultures and a couple or rarer Rüppell's Vultures were seen and we even came across a large party of 'Griffs' feeding at a carcass of a goat near Pelayo. Bonelli's Eagles both adult and the rusty tinged juveniles were watched at a few locations, Black-winged Kites too impressed us just as the dashing Sparrowhawks that are in plentiful supply.

Griffon Vultures at a carcass

Already there are around thirty-five Common Cranes at La Janda. They winter here and we can have up to two thousand from November to March

Griffon Vulture high above the land

The rice-fields of La Janda showed us the hunting techniques of Marsh Harriers as thousands of White Storks, Grey Herons, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets as well as black clouds of Glossy Ibis followed the rice harvest. Stonechats, Zitting-Cisticolas, Corn Buntings, Spanish Sparrows, Reed Buntings, Kingfishers, Green Sandpipers, Ruff, Common Snipe, Northern Lapwings, Yellow Wagtails and White Wagtails. Lesser and Common Kestrels caught crickets and grasshoppers while Common Buzzards flew around in search of a meal or sat on top of an electric pylon.

Black-tailed Godwits

A day to the huge river area called the Guadalquivir basin gave us a huge insight into the diversity of both habitat as well as the bird and insect species. Our drive cross-county started after a quick coffee stop at Trebujena, one of the inland agricultural towns specializing in growing the Palimino grape that is used for sherry production.
This huge grey-clay area from Jerez to Sanlucar de Barrameda specializes in sherry production and the undulating hillsides are covered in vines. Most of the larger Bodegas are in the bigger towns but there are still private ones out in the countryside as well as many co-operatives in towns like Trebujena, where you can bring your own bottle and buy the local sherry at a very reasonable price.


We descended over the back of the town of Trebujena where the mighty Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean at Sanlucar de Barrameda. Set out like a historical map before us we could see the towns of Algaida and Bonanza down river and Sanlucar on the river mouth. Columbus set off from Bonanza on one of his voyages of discovery and today the river is still navigable by ship to Seville, some 80 kms up river. On the west bank lies the Coto Doñana with it's many Parque Naturales including one large section on the east (Cadiz) side and other protected areas on both sides, but the National Park or Parque National is over on the Huelva side.

Black Storks, Great Egrets, Eurasian Spoonbills and Grey Herons feeding

Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers were the first smaller passerines we saw, flitting through the now dried stems of fennel, searching for and feeding on aphids and other insects as the pressed south. Little and Black-necked Grebes were next, seen on the fish ponds as were some Greylag Geese, Black-winged Stilts, Redshanks and Common Sandpipers. A few Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls sat on posts at the river. Black-headed Gulls fed nearby on the water allowing themselves to be taken downstream by the current only to fly back to where they started. Some late migrant Whiskered Terns passed us by and the commoner Crested Larks were overshadowed by small flocks of Lesser Short-toed Larks that flew past and landed to drink. We had some great views of Greenshanks with many young birds allowing us to take some good photos. Such a lovely bird! Calandra Larks flew in the distance detected by their liquid burbling song. Great Egrets, Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingoes (too many to count) filled the many lagoons as thousands of waders that included Little Stints, Dunlins, Curlew Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, masses of Black-tailed Godwits and Pied Avocets, Ringed and Kentish Plovers all searched for food.

Parched earth. The rains are long overdue as cattle get thinner as all animals search for food

A few Red Kites and distant Ospreys were watched but one of the highlights was a group of twenty-four Black Storks feeding out on the tidal mudfalts close to the river's edge.
Brian spotted a Mediterranean Chameleon climbing along a fence shortly after we had lunch and with White-headed Ducks and Marbled Teals as well as Black-crowned Night Herons seen we felt quite satisfied with our day by the big river.

Rice harvest sees thousands of White Storks and Glossy Ibis at La Janda

Cirl Bunting

Misty morning on The Strait of Gibraltar, looking to Morocco

Juvenile Black Stork on migration

Monarch caterpillar on it's foodplant, Milkweed

Scarlet Darter, male

Skimmer sp. I thought it might be an Epaulet Skimmer? (Orthetrum chrysostigma) but feel free to let me know. It had captured a butterfly

Scarlet Darter, female

Black-winged Kite, juvenile bird

Booted Eagles are still very much active and migrating

It's a long drive from Barbate to the the limestone peaks to Grazelema then on to Montejaque. But Bonelli's Eagles en route near Grazalema and a group of seven Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica) were well worth the time and effort. We also had a flight of three Ring Ouzels heading in a southerly direction and during October and November many of these lovely birds spend time eating berries in valley from Montejaque to Llanos de Libar. It's also a place where you can easily watch Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting and a bit later in the season the Alpine Accentors arrive.
There are three races of Ring Ouzel, varying in the extent of white fringes to the (black/dark brown) body feathers. Britain and Fennoscandia have the nominate race torquatus which has the least white. The race alpestris of continental Europe have more extensive white fringes on the body and flight feathers that look like fish scales, whilst race amicorum of southern Turkey, Turkmenia and northern Iran, has a thicker white crescent and even more extensive white fringes to the feathers than the latter.
Incidentally, an old Scots name for the bird is Aiten Chackart chat of the juniper, aitionn, Gaelic for juniper and chackart, 'chacking' bird.

A few more Booted Eagle shots - not all are the commoner light form, some are dark or intermediate.

Not forgetting one of my favourites, the fabulous Short-toed Eagle. That stare says it all...

We often see Ring Ouzel migrating north in early spring after feeding mainly on the berries of Dog Rose, Hawthorn and Junipers and insects during the winter months in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. When they head back north and they land on the Spanish side of The Strait they are often exhausted after this flapping flight. To refuel they needing to feed after using up all that valuable energy and as luck would have it there are many ground junipers bearing fruit, growing wild on this side germinated from seeds in 'poop' brought across unwittingly by previous generations of Ring Ouzels and other thrushes!
On any long periods of migration, feeding on insects would be a quicker source of protein than berries or other fruits, thus re-charging their energy quicker and more effectively to enable them to continue their demanding journey and you can often see them doing just this.

Lunch at Vista Medina, Medina Sidonia, Cadiz province.

There have been lots of late Montagu's Harriers, probably due to the warm weather. Most are juveniles like this lovely youngster

Fighting Bull's line up

Black Redstart at Montejaque

There has been a huge fall of migrating Black Redstarts with hundreds of birds around in the mountains at the weekend. As the nights get cooler, particularly at higher altitude these birds will start dispersing and we already have our wintering birds at our house. A few years ago I put up a roost pole under our outside staircase to encourage Black Redstarts to roost with us and they found the perch straight away.

Male Common Stonechat

Country ruin

Other birds in the sierras included lots of Griffon Vulture, Bonelli's Eagle, Sparrowhawk, Meadow Pipit, Water Pipit, Grey Wagtail. Goldfinches Common Blackbirds, Linnets, Northern Wheatears, Mistle Thrush, Common Stonechats, Blue Rock Thrush, Crag Martins, House Martins, Barn Swallow and Red-rumped Swallow. A few distant Booted and Short-toed Eagles were also present in the areas albeit at some distance.

Penduline Tit at Laguna de Medina

Crag Martin. Essentially a mountain bird although we do have them breeding close to sea-level. Each winter hundreds of these lovely birds roost on the bridge and on the surrounding buildings at Zahara de Los Atunes

Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica)

An adult male leads away his females

Rock Bunting

The square at Grazalema (Cadiz province) last Saturday morning

Southern Grey Shrike in the mountains

Ring Ouzels at Montejaque. Lots of berries at this time of year

The track from Montejaque to Llanos de Libar

Black Wheatear

Looking down towards The Strait of Gibraltar from behind Grazalema