Sunday, November 12, 2017

Black Wheatear

Passions of mine include Wheatears (Oeneanthe, a genus in the family Muscicapidae) and one of particular interest is the elegant, comic and enigmatic Black Wheatear. Here in my mountains I can connect with these friends at any time I want, through the depths of winter through to high summer. Nothing is more relaxing and holds my fascination more than observing males demonstrate strength and attraction to watching females. The males decorate nesting places with stone platforms, individual stones can weigh up to 22gms and the older the male, the heavier these stones can be. It appears these demonstrations of strength cement bonds between pairs and also advertise the superiority of some older males.

Largely resident in my area (Serrania de Ronda), with only some altitudinal dispersal noted, my Black Wheatears pair for life. The pair will defend their territories against interlopers and this more often than not involves younger birds seeking to usurp the resident pair. However, there appears to be a certain amount of tolerance displayed towards neighbouring pairs and an overlapping of territories, perhaps a recognised buffer zone between territories. Monogamy too seems to be social rather than sexual, permissiveness being observed by both male and females.

--> One of these days I hope to find time to detail my studies of this fascinating bird and share my intimate knowledge of their behaviour. Whilst my knowledge is local and confined to my local mountains, perhaps such an article might interest people and be of some value. In the meantime, see below, I have given a brief summary and by no means complete account of Black Wheatear in my area.

Study Area

With Ronda being the centre point, the study area takes in most of Parques Natural Grazalema and Sierra de las Nieves. Additional principle mountain ranges are also included. The study area chosen, see accompanying map and grid, has been determined by suitable and likely habitat for all three species of summer resident Oenanthe. The area has, to some degree, been increased to account for the more isolated populations of the localised Oenanthe leucura. Otherwise the area covered is limited by the physical possibilities to adequately trek any larger an area in the time available. As the study progresses, boundaries may change, especially if certain areas are virtually void of any Oenanthe species and other areas bordering the study area contain worthwhile numbers of principle study species. Initially the area is to be divided into populations West, Central and Eastern. Some conjecture in determining these divisions arises, but until experience teaches otherwise, then a choice had to be made as a starting point.

Typical Black Wheatear territory/habitat

Objects of The Project/Study
By the capture of adult birds for ringing and also the ringing of pullus, the main objects are to establish site fidelity of adult birds and dispersal or fidelity of young returning adult birds. In the case of Oenanthe leucura the additional objects are for monitoring any post juvenile dispersal and population exchanges between various isolated breeding areas. Of course in addition to the main objects of the study, the equally important objectives will be to establish population densities and provide a basis for monitoring future population dynamics within the area. It should prove very compatible to ring secondary study species belonging to the same family group, as these are likely to be discovered breeding within the same principle study area and habitats. Again, population densities alone should provide critical information for future reference and comparison.


For the purposes of the project’s objectives it is essential to use, in addition to standard rings, colour rings for the principle species of this study. The use of colour rings, coded for different areas within the study area, will give visual aid to monitoring site fidelity and population movements.

It is envisaged, that two colours per area are used, one for adult birds and another for pullus (essential for establishing whether juvenile displacement occurs). In all cases only one colour ring would be fitted to a single bird. In all six colours for rings will be needed, three sub-regional population studies with two colours for each area ( 1 = Adults 2 = Pullus). Each and every discovered breeding bird of all three Oenanthe species will be ringed where possible. The use of baited (mealworm) spring traps will be used for adult birds. Nestlings, where safely accessible, will be ringed at the nest. All captured breeding adult birds will be ringed, aged, overall wing measurement taken and then released. Because of the sensitivity of ringing breeding adult birds at the nesting area, then birds need to be released within the minimum time necessary. The use of colour rings would appear the only sensible way to monitor site fidelity and juvenile displacement/dispersal. Where population densities require (single pairs or small to large colonies), then individual sites will be named within any one grid reference. Each grid will be scaled into quarter sections i.e. A1, A2 northern half and A3, A4 southern half and visited, dependant on suitable habitat, during March through to the end of August. Each suitable quartered grid section will be visited at least once per month.

Initial reservations and conclusions

Without doubt the size of area within the chosen boundaries is and will remain a mammoth undertaking, not to mention physically demanding for a solitary study. With time the area requiring coverage will be less due to the absence, in certain areas, of the principle study species. Access to certain areas within the boundaries may be restricted and sometimes prohibited by landowners, which could in theory devalue the project to a degree. The zoning of the area into three parts may have to be reviewed with experience of any biased findings i.e. small distances involved for displaced first year breeding adults. However, this may be recognised and compensated for by the fragmentation of the main grids into four sections and retrapping previously ringed individuals.

It cannot be in doubt, that a study of this nature will enhance knowledge of local requirements for the three main study species. Also and as an offshoot from this main study, other species will be recorded and impressions given to overall population densities for several species. If past experience is any guide, then a few and maybe pleasant surprises could be expected. In one such experience, Oenanthe oenanthe within an area of moorland (Bodmin Moor UK) was given a population of no more than 50/60 pairs maximum. Upon species-specific study and ringing, this 10 x 10 square kilometre Moor was discovered to contain 450 + pairs! The figure was later supported by UK Nature Conservation Council funded Tetrad Study.

The Study Area is vast and fragmented in places

Collalba Negra                  Black Wheatear                                             Oenanthe leucura

Field Characters:

General. Largest of the breeding Oenanthe in Europe. Unmistakable black plumage with white rump, under tail coverts and tail. Tail broadly tipped black forming typical ‘T’ shape characteristic of Oenanthe occurring in Europe (O.hispanica not so pronounced). In flight appears heavy with typically shallow rapid wing beats, reminiscent of Stonechat S.torquata. Strong flight only observed whilst in pursuit of or chased by other territorial members of Turdidae i.e. Blue Rock Thrush, or when being chased by predator. Favours rocky and mountainous areas. Takes readily to tall scrub or tree as song or lookout post.

Adult Male    : 2nd winter males black body feathers. Wing coverts black, primaries and secondaries black with very slight rich deep brown fringing to leading edges, becoming darker with age. Upper and lower tail coverts white, central tail feathers 2/3rds black, outer tail feathers white with outer 3rd black, the black forming a typical ‘T’ shape for Oenanthe sp., but even more pronounced than O. oenanthe. 1st winter and summer males are typically brown/black body feathers and rich dark brown wing feathers (lesser coverts and some medium coverts are black), deep brown outer edges tail outer tail feathers and to 2/3rds of central tail feathers.

Adult Female     : 2nd winter females deep brown/black body feathers. Wing coverts typically the darker than colour of body feathers. Primaries and secondaries dark brown, not black. Under and upper tail coverts cream to white, central tail feathers 2/3rds deep brown, outer tail feathers white/cream with outer 3rd deep brown, pattern as male. 1st winter and summer females are typically lighter brown, almost juvenile rust coloured on head and mantle.

Juvenile              : Until post-juvenile moult, body feathering is rust brown, contrasting with  wing coverts and flight feathers, which are brown. Rust coloured fringing to body feathers abrade and slowly reveal basal brown ground colour to plumage.

Habitat. Mountain and hillside slopes, generally rocky outcrops and scree, but typically with an area of over/grazed pasture or bare area. Tolerant of sparse tree or scrub cover. Altitude of territories wide ranging i.e. 400m up to 1800m. Broader range of habitats frequented by juveniles and some adults in winter i.e. dried riverbeds, river valleys.

Distribution. Very common, where habitat is suitable, across the whole range of the study area. Becomes more widespread in autumn and early winter as juveniles disperse from breeding areas. Very few adults appear to vacate breeding territories in early winter, but those that do are normally returned by December to early January.

Population. Minimum 400 pairs with likely maximum 500 pairs. Occupation of small niche habitats contained and surrounded by highly adverse habitats i.e. woodland, suggests healthy populations in residence at all suitable and primary sites.

Map 1. Black Wheatear . Collalba Negra . Oenanthe leucura – Study Area Distribution & Population Density Map

Movements. Although some adults do move from breeding areas in late autumn and early winter see under distribution, the ever presence of adults at most known territories, indicate movement is largely confined to juvenile dispersal, with most adults remaining site faithful during winter to extended breeding territories. Birds are commonly seen at lower altitudes (river valleys etc.) during winter and around human habitation i.e. village fringes, even the centre of Ronda! No observations have been made of flocking or mass movements. Up to 8 individuals seen together and commonly 4 to 5 during postnatal period, these being family parties. Juveniles tend to leave natal site around October, with individuals returning during January to February, only to be displaced by resident adults. Occupation of niche habitats surrounded by inappropriate habitats i.e. Woodland, suggests wide ranging dispersal of juveniles displaced and forced into secondary sites.

Stone Platform constructed by the male at the nest entrance

Social Pattern & Behaviour. Appears site faithful throughout the year, with natal territory extending during autumn and winter (in some cases overlapping with adjacent and occupied territories). Normally the same pair remain together during winter, although occupying the same territory, the male and female range separately during the day, but have been observed roosting together. Both male and female appear tolerant of other Black Wheatears throughout the seasons, but use posture threats to protect their territory during early spring, very rarely have I observed actual threat and pursuit by either sex of encroaching adults occupying adjacent territories. Juveniles are tolerated up until September/October, when the male will pursue and harry until the juvenile departs, remarkably, the occupying pair appear more tolerant of juveniles entering occupied territory during February and March, when the pair are preparing the nest and the male is busy carrying small stones into the crevice containing the nest! The male will pursue and threaten all other Turdidae species when courtship begins in January, in particular, the male will endlessly harry and pursue Blue Rock Thrush which sing in their territory. Apart from Blackbird, other Turdidae are normally wary of defending male Black Wheatears, only rarely have I seen Blue Rock Thrush threaten and chase Black Wheatears and then it has usually been the female who has been pursued. The male, although appearing to remain faithful to his mate throughout the year, will display and court neighbouring females and at times pursue them until their mate appears. At all times of the year there appears to be a recognition and tolerance shown towards other Black Wheatears occupying adjacent territories, with birds often observed perching closely together with no more of a threat than tail flicking (tail flicking/fanning is common among all Oenanthe sp. in Europe).

Note: The above is a summary only and a part of an ongoing and incomplete survey. 


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Vultures need you

African & Eurasian Vultures are in severe trouble—most species perilously close to extinction. We're calling for contributions to a new 12-year Action Plan to save them. Article originally published by BirdLife International 24th March 2017.

By Shaun Hurrell

Let’s face it: vultures are special. Part of human culture, they are seen as disgusting by some, yet loved by others (including us and you). Asia’s vultures have suffered some of the fastest population declines ever recorded in a bird, and Africa’s recent severe declines mean that now most old-world vultures are on the edge of extinction. With a unique scavenging niche, this group of birds clean our landscapes and help to prevent the spread of disease—among the many reasons why we are doing all we can to save them. BirdLife’s vulture campaign has already shown how many people love and value vultures, and now there is a chance for some of you to input technical comments on the draft plan that sets out how best to conserve them.
Today we promote a public consultation on a new draft Multi-Species Action Plan to conserve African-Eurasian Vultures, launched by the Coordinating Unit of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Raptors MOU, in collaboration with BirdLife International, Vulture Conservation Foundation and the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group. (The CMS Raptors MoU is the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia—an international, legally non-binding agreement to protect migratory birds of prey.)
In total, 127 countries are lucky to have recorded vultures in their skies.
This plan, if adopted by the Parties to CMS in October this year, would mean these countries being requested to take decisive action over twelve years to save vultures. The Plan would also guide states that are not Parties to CMS, as well as many other actors. This includes actions to protect vultures across Africa, Asia and Europe from all of threats sadly faced by these birds: poisoning, persecution, collision with energy infrastructure, habitat loss, and many more.
Whilst we are doing all we can to ensure a future for these special birds it is, above all, Governments that have the resources to solve this problem at the huge scale required.
An adopted Action Plan would also guide foreign investors and international agencies on how to take vulture conservation into account in development plans and projects.
The Action Plan identifies and concerns all relevant stakeholders in vulture conservation, from the health sector to renewable energy developers, trade regulation bodies and many others. So, if you are: a national governmental authority (e.g. Environment Ministry, Wildlife and Forest Service, etc.), conservation organisation, university, research institution, consultant, technical expert, ornithologist, or someone interested in the conservation of the African-Eurasian vultures, please get in touch to contribute to this technical document.
Together, we can achieve the objectives of the Action Plan: rapidly halt current population declines in all the species it covers; reverse recent population trends to bring the conservation status of each species back to a favourable level; and, provide conservation management guidelines applicable to all Range States covered by the Plan.
The only African-Eurasian vulture species not included in the Plan is the Palm-nut Vulture, nicknamed the “vegetarian vulture”, which is not currently threatened by the largest problems faced by others. But for the rest, action must be taken immediately. Eight out of 15 African-Eurasian vulture species are Critically Endangered. Three are Endangered and two are Near Threatened.
Vultures need you, now:
The Convention on Migratory Species, together with BirdLife and partners, are calling for technical feedback on the draft Multi-Species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP). Almost 300 government officials, partners, vulture specialists and other interested individuals have already contributed to its development, but your expertise can help shape this important plan:
  • Do you have information on the status of vultures, or threats to their survival (that are not already included in the document)?
  • What new solutions to threats facing vultures do you think should also be included?
  • Or, if everything has been covered, please let us know if you support the plan in its current state.
You have less than a month to input for vulture conservation, so please be fast.
Comments on the 2nd Draft Vulture MsAP should be submitted via email to by 16 April 2017.  All comments received during the consultation period will be reviewed and, where appropriate, integrated into a final version of the Vulture MsAP, due to be completed by mid-May 2017 for formal submission to the CMS Secretariat.  The Vulture MsAP is expected to be considered by Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) at the 12th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP12), scheduled to be held in Manila, Philippines in October 2017.
Important information:

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

New Guide for the Serrania and Sierra

Hectic times with our day tours here in the Serrania de Ronda and our tours throughout Andalucia. It has been a long time in discussion, but I am so pleased to announce I now have assistance with guiding in the region. I am pleased to introduce Cristina Buendía to my many friends. Cristina and I have been friends now for around 14 years, we have shared our love of nature and on numerous occasions Cristina has accompanied me whilst I have been ringing and studying the birds of the region.

Whilst many of the local tours have been formatted by accessing various sites with a vehicle, now we can also offer hiking tours to compliment and enhance your guided experience in the Serrania and Sierras. I hope we can continue to provide the very best local tours available and you will enjoy a tour in the company of Cristina. As a local, her knowledge of the culture, as well as the nature, here is unrivalled.

Name: Cristina Buendía
Based: Ronda - Málaga Province
Areas covered: Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema.
Bio: She has worked as a sustainability environmental resources technician since finishing her degree as a biologist and has always combined her work together with volunteering for SeoBirdlife in Málaga, Extremadura, and raptor migration in the Strait of Gibraltar (Fundación Migres) for around 5 years. Nowadays Cristina works as a science teacher and combines this with guiding tours for studying the natural heritage in her area by mixing hiking with birdwatching.

Cristina looking super cool with Fuente de Piedra as a backdrop

For information on our day tours see the following webpages.

For our full nature tours worldwide, including Spain see our main Website

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shame on Birding Cadiz!

Quite a bit of shame going the way of the Cadiz Province for producing a bird guide and not acknowledging the huge contributions of non-Spanish birders and organisations. It shows them in a very bad light for not recognising such sterling efforts by so many non-Spanish nationals and the local regional Andalucia Bird Society. An opportunity missed to appeal to a wider audience and get support for encouraging more publicity to birding the province. Shame on them. For those wanting information on birding in Cadiz Province I highly recommend this blog: Birding Cadiz

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Next up wonderful Morocco

Currently my days are spent in 'my' mountains here in the Serrania de Ronda, days and more spent with intrepid explorers on wildlife adventures, but next up for me is a Moroccan Safari and I am already excited! I will be leading a group that is made-up of folk from Canada and New Zealand, it will be a challenge for me to ensure they share my love affair and will also fall in love with Morocco. Of course I will also be showing them Morocco's rich and diverse birds too.

It is actually very difficult to sit down and write an article about the birds of Morocco without also waxing lyrical regarding the scenery, people and history of this mystical country. I guess, for the uninitiated, Morocco most probably conjures-up visions of just sand and dust. Nothing could be further from the truth! Conditions here, despite its close proximity to Europe, are very different with wadis, deserts, plains, forest, mountains, coasts and islands. The diversity of these habitats are reflected in the number of bird species found in this most exotic of North African countries, with over 450 species it is a must visit country for any with a passion for our feathered friends.

Morocco has both Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, but the Atlantic side is rightly renowned for both wintering and migrant waders and gulls. The coastal wetlands are spread along the Atlantic coast and have such great birding sites as Larache marshes, Merja Zerga, the Souss and Massa estuaries, in addition to the Khnifiss lagoon and Dakhla Bay on the Saharan coast. During the summer months a visit to Essaouira can produce spectacular views of Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae as any number of over 600 pairs breeding on the nearby islets can be seen close to shore. Along the cliffs between El-Jadida and Essaouira Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, Barbary Falcon Falco pelegrinoides as well as Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus can be seen playing in the up-draughts on the high bluffs that protect the headlands from the ravages of the ocean. Of course other notable and sought after species on this coastal stretch include Marsh Owl Asio capensis, Black-crowned Tchagra Tchagra senegala and Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita. The reasons are many and varied for visiting the Atlantic coast and that is why we journey to this region with tours every September (see our autumn tour here).

Forming the backbone of Morocco is her mountain ranges. The mountains are a dominant feature that forms an almost ever presence on the visual landscape, starting in the northeast with the High Plateau bordering the Mediterranean coast, the mountains rise to form the impressive Rif range (2,456m) and further south are softened by the Central Plateau (1,627m). Dramatically the mountains climb majestically from the Central Plateau and to the south they create the High Atlas (4,167m) where the snow lingers into the summer months. As the mountains march towards the Atlantic coast another range, the Anti-Atlas (3,304m), reaches into the cold ocean waters north of Agadir. Throughout the mountain ranges, from the northeast to the southwest, many large forests survive the pressures of man and their animals. Both the forests and surrounding steppe type habitats create niches for several interesting bird species. Throughout the entire range, cliff-loving species such as Bonelli’s Eagle Hieraaetus fasciatus and Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos occur, whilst the highly prized Dupont’s Lark Chersophilus duponti can be very local in the Central Plateau. We can find many specialities in the forested areas and Levaillant’s Woodpecker Picus vaillantii is probably the most notable of these. Scrubby slopes are always worth exploring and can produce Tristram’s Warbler Sylvia deserticola, whilst the common Moussier’s Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri always reward the patient explorer. There are a number of areas in higher elevations that are accessible and a visit to the ski resort of Oukaimeden can produce good views for Atlas Shore (Horned) Lark Eremophila alpestris, Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus and the very local Crimson-winged Finch Rhodopechys sanguinea. We always include visits to the mountain areas during our main tours and during our spring safari tours we pass over the High Atlas using the spectacular Tizi-n-Tichka pass.

South of the High and Anti-Atlas Mountain ranges lies the area of Saharan Morocco. The landscape here is varied and beautiful, not at all what one might expect whilst imagining an endless desert plain! The desert areas are largely pebble, but are interspersed by river courses whose green palms and gardens contrast with their surroundings. The sand deserts, more in keeping with our own imaginings of desert, are found in the areas of Mhamid in the extreme south of the Draa Valley and to the east close to Merzouga (Erg Chebbi). The desert areas also have their share of mountains and the Jbel Sarhro (2,712m) range captures the area surrounding the Vallee du Dades, separating it from the more southerly desert region. Most notable from a bird perspective in the Dades area is the famous Tagdilt Track. Larks, wheatears, sandgrouse and many desert loving species are widespread throughout the deserts of Morocco. Birds can be hard to find on occasion, but those that are found can reward the effort with such species as Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor, Hoopoe Lark Alaemon alaudipes, Blue-cheeked Bee Eater Merops persicus, Fulvous Babbler Turdoides fulvus, Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata and Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius all good examples of what makes these deserts worthwhile for the visiting birdwatcher. Spring migration through the desert areas can be spectacular especially where wadis provide food and shelter for many species such as Rufous Bush Robin Cercotrichas galactotes, both eastern and western Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida/opaca (the former breeds in the desert areas), Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans and Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus. Searching the deserts and scrub can also produce real Moroccan specialities such as Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis, Desert Sparrow Passer simplex, Desert Warbler Sylvia nana and Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta, whilst the ever present Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti provides the constant reminder that the wheatear family is represented here by no less than 8 of their number. To add to the feeling of wonder you can also witness the somewhat bizarre sight of the desert lake at Merzouga, although temporary the lake has appeared in recent years. Here it is strange to see large numbers of waders and ducks with Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber also appearing as if summoned by some unheard whisper of water.

To present all the birds and their habitats in Morocco would require several pages and although there are so many not included in my brief introduction, I hope you will at least be tempted to visit this wonderful destination at least once in your lifetime. For as the famous American author Paul Bowles said, when describing the Sahara in Morocco:
Why go? The answer is that when man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort or money, for the absolute has no price.” Paul Bowles

If you would like to join me on future tours to Morocco, then Worldwide Birding Tours have a selection of dates and tours to choose from on this link. It would be great to have you come along on one of my Moroccan adventures.