Sunday, 31 March 2013

Vultures in Spain

There are four different species of vultures breeding on the Iberian peninsula and probably the Lammergeier is the most impressive of them all. It's also one of the birds on most raptor enthusiast's wish list and not always an easy bird to see at close range. Like many people until I saw one at a reasonable distance, I didn't really appreciate this birds size, particularly in wing length. It's huge. Reading up about them from time to time when I was a child collecting a magazine called 'Birds of the World' and seeing photos taken in the Middle East and Pakistan, imagining what it must be like to see these quite special scavengers that specialise in eating bones hence their other older name of Bone breaker  as it is in Spanish, Quebrantahuesos. When my first sighting came it was over 40 years ago whilst holidaying on the Mediterranean island of Crete and those distant specks didn't really give me the impression of their huge size and I longed for better views.

As time passed I had quite a few opportunities to watch them wheeling along a high ridge or even going back to a secluded nest on a high ledge. Such sights were in the main done with the aid of a telescope and I always wanted to see them up close.
My first close encounter with Lammergeier was in the Pyrenees during a summer tour in the Val d'Aran  when I was scanning a nearby ridge for Rock Thrush when a bird popped over the top of a limestone ridge filling my bins with this fabulous image. I put down my bins and looked around for the group, some of whom were looking at butterflies and I raised my head back to the skyline and pointed in the direction of where the bird should be and saw nothing, it had disappeared out of sight within seconds and literally just as I called out 'Lammergeier!' I was the only one who witnessed the bird that afternoon and I think that telling the group that you could see the red around its eyes didn't go down too well!
We did catch up with more of them later that week but for a long time I felt privileged that I had my own close bird.

A few weeks ago I went with my friend Alistair Hill to catch up and photograph this majestic bird.  As the best opportunities are in Aragon and Catalonia we met in Barcelona and headed north. Alistair and I met some time ago when he booked a few days with Andalucian Guides to watch the spring migration here on The Strait of Gibraltar and we get on very well. He's a Nikon man and I'm Canon but no need to quibble about what's better. Both companies offer the best photo equipment that's available and it just depends on how much you'd like to pay, what you are willing to carry about on tour and lots of other factors as well of course.

Feeding stations are undoubtably the best places to watch rarer vultures like Lammergeier. The vast majority of vultures present are Griffons but a few Black Vultures can come in and like Lammergeier tend to stay to the side or back of the main flock.

The stunning colours and details of eyes, feathers and bill of the adult Lammergeier make this one of the most beautiful looking raptors on Earth.

Here a sub-adult flaps across the hillside

Black Vultures are pretty scarce here in Cadiz province. There are some in neighbouring Huelva and Seville provinces and we do see a few juvenile birds during the winter months. A good place to see them is at Los Barrios rubbish dump. Not the prettiest of places but if you want to go through the gull flocks, griffons and at present hundreds of Black Kites, you may turn up a vagrant bird. Just as a matter of interest there was a report of a Song Sparrow at Algeciras. It's a North American bird that may have been ship assisted. Close by there's a Tropical Mockingbird that was in Gibraltar and the sightings of such unusual species close to large ports do suggest that they may have had ship assisted passage across the Atlantic Ocean.

A tagged juvenile Black Vulture threatening some Griffon Vultures

A young Black Vulture gets ready to hop and flap across the feeding site

Egyptian Vultures are really quite special and are our  only true migrant species of vulture.
This is a photo I took of a young bird during the Autumn migration here on The Strait of Gibraltar

A young Egyptian Vulture comes towards me head-on.

Adults and juveniles alike do tend to roost together and these scenes are quite special and not too common. During the Autumn migration scenes like this are more common when birds are unable to cross to Morocco when wind direction is too strong and in the wrong direction. The lighter coloured birds are adults and the darker ones are younger birds.

An adult Egyptian Vulture  sweeps past an observation point during September last year.

This shot shows the full beauty and majesty of an adult Egyptian Vulture during the breeding season. Birds arrive early each year from their winter in Africa and are incubating eggs in mid March. Some birds, small numbers of them of course do spend winter on the Iberian Peninsula but it depends a lot on  weather conditions during these months.

Griffon Vultures feeding at a carcass

A flight of Griffons 

A Black Vulture looks down on three Griffons

Some Griffon Vultures taking advantage of early calving during spring at Barbate Marismas.

The other vultures that could be seen here in and around The Strait would be the Rüppell's Vulture shown here hissing!

and the much rarer and smaller White-backed Vulture. I took this photo of an adult this January in Senegal and it's important to note the both the Rüppell's and White-backed are likely to be juvenile birds from Western Africa. 
White backed markings on juveniles are not obvious as on this adult but their black faces and smaller structure would be a good indicator of an unusual bird. The Rüppell's is also a bit smaller when seen compared to the Griffon.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Migration across to Europe

It's quite a long photo post this week and please scroll down and enjoy the views we've been having. I've been quite busy and wanted to write up more but I was out in the field most days and had lots of emails and other office work to do.

The Migration Continues
Black-eared Wheatears continued to show up on the coast this last week along with lots of other migrants. The weather has been pretty poor but a constant SW breeze has been bringing birds and butterflies across The Strait of Gibraltar into Cadiz province.

The lower salt marshes on the Guadalquivir River were pretty saturated but Greater Flamingoes, Eurasian Spoonbills, Cattle, Little and Great Egrets together with Grey, some Purple and Squacco Herons had plenty of places to feed.
Greater Flamingoes over the salt marshes near Algaida last week.

Some early plants in our garden attracted quite a few of these beetles.

Black-winged Kites are quite secretive right now with nesting underway. They are here but they are not so easy to find.

Blue Rock Thrushes have been displaying and males have been having territorial tussles on the limestone crags along the coast and on the higher inland sierras.

We had lots of Booted Eagles each day with both the commoner lighter form and the dark form.

 Dark form of Booted Eagle

Corn Buntings sing all year but they have just turned up the volume this last few weeks.

 Cattle Egrets breeding at La Janda in one mass roost.

Hoopoes make great photo subjects and I like this shot so much with the diffused mixed colour background that I used it as a banner on our Hoopoe Cottage accommodation page on Andalucian Guides...

This young Hare was being chased through the fields by a male Marsh Harrier when it suddenly decided to stop and stand up on it's hind legs and show just how large it was. This action alarmed the harrier so much that it left the Hare alone. It was really interesting to watch and it's just a pity I didn't get the harrier in the same shot. You can scroll down and see the Marsh Harrier below.

It's not only the Cattle Egrets that take off the parasites from cattle, Jackdaws, Common Magpies and Starlings all profit from these large mammals.

Kentish Plover at Barbate. We have good numbers of this smart looking little wader along the coast and this male is looking very bright in his breeding plumage.

 Some shots of the Marsh Harrier that fancied his chances of taking a Hare.

Always a delight to see, the return of the Montagu's Harrier. It's such a pleasure for me and I can't help being so enthusiastic about showing this graceful raptor to our visitors. This is an adult female that came in to Europe during a storm and I was fortunate to get some light on her as she moved up and down the undulating hills covered with bright green shoots of winter wheat that's just going into flower.

 Clutching grass as she swoops down again and grasps a few strands displaying to her mate.

  This was an older female that was in the same area.

I didn't manage to get closer views of the male but here are a few shots of different birds.


Northern Bald Ibis

La Barca de Vejer is definitely on the map as the place to see free flying Northern Bald Ibis in Europe. The small colony of one of the world's rarest birds looks like increasing in size from four nests last year to nineteen this year. There's certainly a lot of activity with many of birds collecting nesting material, some of which came from the garden around Hoopoe cottage!
If you are going to La Barca, park opposite the restaurant at Venta Pinto and walk along quietly to the cliff face on the right. Take care of traffic on the busy road and remember to smile as you are on camera!

 Pallid Swift

 Red-rumped Swallow preening

Short-toed Eagle

A freighter ran aground on a sandbar in the mouth of the Guadalquivir River some time ago. The ship has broken up but still is a hazard to other shipping wishing to navigate the channel to Seville some 83 kms upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. The coastline just visible is the sand dunes of the Coto Doñana National park.
Back around the corner to The Strait of Gibraltar is this fine view on a clear day that shows where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. Morocco is clearly visible and shows why this narrow stretch of water is one of the most important avian flyways on Earth.

 Spectacled Warbler

 Spanish Festoon butterfly migrating north.

On that one clear day we could look across The Strait and it seemed as if we could almost touch Tangiers.

 Woodchat Shrikes were seen in huge numbers this week

Yellow Iris

Always a lovely bird to see, the wonderfully camouflaged Wryneck.