Thursday, November 27, 2008

Autumn birds of the Serrania de Ronda & Sierra de Grazalema 2008

As summer bids a fond farewell

As I sit down in front of my computer to write my take on things for the past three months it is raining outside and temperatures are feeling decidedly cool. My local Spanish friends are jumping for joy as the last five years have been officially labeled ‘drought’ years, so these rains are much needed and already you can see the lush pale greens of vegetation renewed, emerging beneath orchard canopies and in fallow fields. I had intended writing this newsletter some two weeks earlier, but as good luck would have it, short tours to Morocco, the Doñana and local day trips have kept me away from my administrative duties! Now with these rains I am confined to the office and putting my time to good use writing various project reports, updating web pages and of course doing our autumn newsletter.

August produced some spectacular raptor migration with the most notable movements appearing towards the end of the month. Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Booted and Short-toed Eagles came through in big numbers with the odd Red Kite adding spice to the occasion. A single Marsh Harrier on the Rio Guadiaro was complemented by my first Squacco Heron for what seems like an age. Montagu’s Harrier became more frequent and by the end of the month it was rare not to see them making their way leisurely southwards. During the month I discovered a great area for Roller and Collared Pratincole with both Short-toed and Calandra Larks giving further reasons for visiting the area next spring. Apparently the area also has a small number of Great Bustard and judging by the sightings of both adult and juvenile Black-shouldered Kite, then this area will definitely be on my daily excursions next year! The month also produced a good number of Rüppell’s Vulture on coastal areas around Tarifa and later in September there were also sightings of White-backed Vulture (about time too!).

September started where August had left-off with raptor migration taking centre stage. Honey Buzzard and Black Kite numbers built rapidly through the first half and Booted Eagle numbers also increased. Of course, not to be out-done, Short-toed Eagles joined the party travelling south and their haunting calls became a feature of a birding day. The high meadow of the Sierra de Libar was now an excellent site to visit, not only were warblers abundant together with flycatchers and Common Redstart, but the area was now being visited daily by a pair of Golden Eagle and their fledged youngster. On one occasion we had the pleasure of watching the resident pair chase another adult from their hunting ground, whilst at the same time the juvenile was attracting the mobbing and playful attention of around 40 Chough! My ringing (banding) session for the month gave me the reward of many Sub-alpine and Bonelli’s Warbler, mostly juveniles and a few Firecrest, but one of my trainees managed to release an adult Hawfinch before it was ringed so a big black mark there, although considering its bill can crack a cherry stone, then I guess fear may have loosened the ringer’s grip!

I had been leading a group tour down to Jimena, Tarifa and the Doñana for the first week (trip report to follow soon in case members of the tour party were getting worried) and apart from enjoying a good bag of species it was pleasing to find the track at La Janda had been repaired and thereby making the area both accessible and more enjoyable. Being away leading a group in Morocco for twelve days meant a large slice of my autumn birding in my local area was impossible. However, life has its compensations such as seeing literally dozens of Eleonora’s Falcon hunting migrants, watching Black-crowned Tchagra and seeing several Bald Ibis – life can be tough sometimes. I think that whilst the autumn migration is a great time to be out and about birding, it also has an almost depressing affect on me. All winter I long for the return of Bee-eaters with their beautiful plumage and distinctive calls, now I watch them flocking and departing Europe for the warmer climates of Africa knowing I will not have the pleasure of their company for at least another six months, sad. As if to brighten my mood a Merlin put in an appearance towards the end of the month, I think this is my earliest sighting as I am almost certain I have not seen them in my area before sometime in October! I had been watching a couple of Lesser Kestrel and a flock of Spotless Starling hawk flying Ants, when the Merlin suddenly joined these species and appeared to be hawking along with the rest of them. After a minute the Merlin tired of Ants and made a dash for one of the Spotless Starling only to be thwarted by mobbing Lesser Kestrels! The whole episode made for great viewing and spectacular flight displays by all three falcons.

October can always be a bit of a damp squib in more ways than one; rain and periods of hard to find birds! Certainly this year the month so far has produced a fair amount of rain, but has also been warm. It has been hard work finding raptors with virtually all our Booted and Short-toed Eagles having departed to Africa. Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are still around in expanded winter territories and in family groups, but during the course of November they usually reject the juveniles and these can disperse over vast distances. I again had a period in the first week of the month when I accompanied a small group on one of our short break tours to Morocco. Later I also had a two day tour in the Doñana. Both trips were extremely rewarding and the birds obliged for these tours including such species as Marsh Owl, Caspian Tern, Great White Egret, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Great Skua, Cory’s and Balearic Shearwater, Marbled Teal, Black Stork and a whole host of other great birds. Locally we have had the arrival recently of wintering Song Thrush and so far a singleton Redwing, Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel. We have also had Long-legged Buzzard, but this has been eclipsed by a couple of firsts for the local patch i.e. Pochard (no laughing, these ducks have never been recorded here before) and the star of the show Wallcreeper just up the track behind Montejaque going towards Libar. In addition we are now seeing very large numbers of Black Redstart, some of which will remain through the winter, but most will continue southwards. Black Vulture has been seen around a feeding area near to Old Ronda, whilst a small number of Stone Curlew and Little Bustard were seen Torres Alaquim. So I guess I shouldn’t complain despite loosing our Bee-eaters and getting wet, we still live in an incredible area for birds.

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