Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wheatears, glorious Wheatears

Without doubt wheatears of the genus Oenanthe are among the most popular model objects studied in ornithology. I guess one of the reasons for this is they live in open landscapes where they can be easily observed, although their bold markings and often confiding nature must surely also add to their attraction. Some of the most prominent world ornithologists have dealt with these birds discussing such things as wheatear taxonomy and a range of biological problems i.e. genetic polymorphism and evolutionary origin. Some 14 species of wheatear inhabit the Paleartic region, 15¹ if you count Oenanthe seebohmi as a separate species.

My introduction to this remarkable family began with various studies concerning Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. For me, this species will always stand apart from its relatives as something very special, for instance it has the most extensive breeding range of any of the wheatears and is regarded by many as a pioneer species and has even colonised new continents! It is a species which is astonishing for its ability to cover huge distances during their seasonal migrations; birds nesting in Alaska and wintering in Equatorial Africa complete a twice yearly journey of not less than 20 to 30 thousand kilometres, staggering for such a small bird!

In more recent times I have been fortunate to travel to various countries throughout the world and this has allowed me to see a wide range of wheatears. With Spanish Nature, excursions to Morocco occur on a regular basis and, for me at least, seeing several wheatear species in this exotic destination is a constant source of excitement. Observing Red-rumped Wheatear O.moesta in spring and again in the autumn is a privilege with such fine colours and birds always confiding, although constantly busy! These large sized wheatears are readily distinguished from all other Oenanthe by the unusual and considerable amount of white on the median and greater wing coverts, clearly visible both when perched and in flight. During a good tour of Morocco it is not unusual to see no less than 8¹ species of wheatear and this can make any visit worthwhile.

Being based in Andalucia, I also have 3 species of breeding wheatears here on my doorstep and along with Northern and the very handsome Black-eared Wheatear O.hispanica, the largest among all the Paleartic representatives of the genus, Black Wheatear O.leucura, is an ever present and locally common resident. Untypical of wheatears in general, the Black Wheatear is heavily built and with a weight of around 40 g² it matches the size of another bird of the mountains here Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis! It is a source of amusement to see such a heavy wheatear with untypical short wings taking reluctant flight from one part of its territory to another, rather like watching an overloaded plane taking off.

So, if like me, you want to observe members of this stunning family of birds, why not join us on tours to Morocco or here in my heartland of Spain?

Suggested tours suited for observing wheatears and of course many other species of birds:

¹ The figure of 8 species does not include Seebohmi Wheatear, which the author considers a separate species.

² The author has controlled and released an individual male Black Wheatear weighing 50 g!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Andalusia my Andalusia!

Andalusia, the most southerly province in Spain, is one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe. It is a province rich in wildlife diversity, history and culture from the Phoenicians to the Spanish Civil War. It is the home of flamenco and bull fighting traditions and was the most favoured area in Spain for such characters as Hemmingway and Orson Wells. Due to an extremely pleasant climate, its natural beauty, as well as exquisite cuisine, Andalusia is one of the most attractive areas on the Mediterranean.

However, all of these great assets pale in comparison to some of the richest and most diverse natural areas in the Paleartic. As a meeting point of Europe and Africa, Andalusia offers a very impressive variety of unusual fauna and flora. Here the normally mild Mediterranean clashes, in the famous Strait of Gibraltar, with the wild and unpredictable Atlantic Ocean forming large salty lagoons and wide rivers. Extensive forests, open cultivated plains, olive trees, oaks, pinsapo (Spanish) firs, high cliffs, secluded beaches and the most important sand dunes and marshes in Europe can be found in this region. The highest mountain ranges in all of Iberia are also found here, climbing to more than 12,000 feet above sea level.

For the bird watcher the southern reaches of Andalusia hold the most fantastic opportunities to witness one of life’s natural wonders ‘bird migration’. Europe and Africa are separated by only 14kms of ocean at the Strait of Gibraltar’s narrowest point and for millions of years this has served as a short and natural crossing point for thousands of birds during autumn and spring migration periods. Most impressive of the birds crossing the Straits are thousands of raptors including Short-toed and Booted Eagles who are joined by Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, with Honey Buzzard and White Stork also flocking in their thousands. It is an exciting spectacle that all should see once in their lifetime. The area is also significant for its geology, where Africa still pushes north towards Europe, also where the visitor can take timeout to explore Roman ruins such as the ancient city of Baelo Claudia and old Moorish lime kilns and water cisterns.

Westwards, further along the coast from the Strait of Gibraltar, lies the famous Doñana National Park, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Here in these wetlands such endangered species as the endemic Spanish Imperial Eagle and the emblematic Spanish Lynx maintain a foothold and are complimented by a wonderful variety of wading and water birds. The large breeding colonies of various heron species such as Squacco Heron and Purple Heron make this ‘a must visit area’ in spring, but with so many species congregating here in large numbers during all seasons, then a visit is recommended at any time of year!

Inland, but within easy reach from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, is the Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema. The central town here is the historically famous Ronda and could make for the perfect base for exploring the wonderful mountain areas that surround the town. Typical birds of the area are the rare Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Wheatear and one of the largest resident populations of Griffon Vulture, a spectacular bird with a wingspan of 9ft. During late spring and summer many of the regions breeding birds and wildflowers (over 2000 species) attract a large number of enthusiasts and with such colourful birds as Bee Eater, Hoopoe and Golden Oriole then this is hardly surprising. The number of warbler species taking up summer residency is very impressive and together with the high number of raptors species breeding in this area, then it can be a favourite time for many to visit. Some of those hard to find warblers include Iberian Chiffchaff, Western Olivaceous and Western Orphean Warbler, Sub Alpine and Spectacled Warblers. The old town also has so much of historical and cultural interest including Spain’s first ‘round’ bullring, like both Hemmingway and Orson Wells, you should not miss Ronda.

Each province within Andalusia has its own appeal and the variety of landscape and climate can vary enormously between each of them. For example, from the high sierras of Jaén, home of the largest of Europe’s vultures the Lammergeier, and mountains of Granada to the open plains of Sevilla and Huelva you can experience a diversity of landscape and different climatic conditions within just a few kilometres. Even travelling from north to south along the coastal route can produce stunning changes to the landscape. In the northeast Almeria holds the only true desert in Europe and has bird species such as Trumpeter Finch normally found only in Africa, whilst Málaga province has some of the most scenic mountains in all of Iberia. Cordoba with its softer landscape has much of the famous Sierra Morena within its confines and is well worth a visit at any time of year. It goes without saying Granada and its world renowned Alhambra and surrounding Sierra Nevada are very popular with visitors, whilst Cordaba has an equally famous architectural site La Mezquita (Great Mosque of Cordoba) and of course Seville was the scene in 1492 when Christopher Columbus set-off on his expedition of the New World from Seville Port.

Winter sees many birds from the north favouring the temperate climate of the region and none are more impressive than the vast flocks of waterfowl that can be observed here, particularly on coastal wetlands. Other birds too are perhaps relatively easier to find such Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel in the mountains near to the coast and even some raptors are now choosing to winter here such as Booted and Short-toed Eagles. Some of the area’s specialities including Spanish Imperial Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Great Bustard and White-headed Duck remain for the winter and add to the attraction at a time of the year when there are fewer tourists. During late winter and spring the wildflowers form carpets of colour and change constantly depending on the area, nothing is as evocative as seeing the blood red Poppy covering huge tracks of land. To sum-up, any time of year is a good time to visit this marvellous and compelling region of Spain.