Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Coursing your way through Africa!

Family: Glareolidae  Coursers, pratincoles
English: Coursers, pratincoles
Spanish: Corredores, canasteras
I am writing here just a short note on one of the most attractive of bird families I see on various travels throughout continental Africa. Coursers are wonderfully elegant species and also the variety of plummage adds to their appeal, at least for me! They are also very photogenic as witnessed here in this notation....

Everyone’s favourite? Judging by comments I get on various tours, coursers are certainly extremely popular and appreciated by all. Their habit of running, rather than flying, away makes them easy to observe, more so as most of them tend to live in open and arid areas. Many have cryptic plumage (see photo left Hueglin's Courser) and rely on this for concealment, those with a plain colour, like Cream-coloured Courser (see photo below right), also blend with their desert surroundings. All prefer open ground and feed much like plovers by using short runs and a peck to find insects, although members of the genus Cursorius will also use their curved bill to dig for larvae and sometimes take seeds using this technique.

It is rare for us to miss Cream-coloured Courser (photo right) on any of our main tours to Morocco, where it is most often found in desert areas. The bird’s reluctance to fly and habit of running in short bursts allows close views from our safari 4x4s and can be the day’s birding highlight. During our March safari tours pairs can have very young birds and tend to stay even closer guarding their charges, sometimes finding a small bush to crouch behind and relying on their perfectly coloured plumage to camouflage their whereabouts. On occasions when these birds fly, then their typical wader profile and long pointed wings give a spectacular display of the black wing bar and elegant shape.

In Gambia, we deliberately spend time looking for the elusive and sought after Egyptian Plover (photo left). It is allied and placed together with coursers, although it has been placed in its own family at times i.e. Pluvianidae and even subfamily Plivianinae. It is spectacularly marked and the colours and patterns make it an attractive bird, although the name can be misleading as it no longer occurs in Egypt, causing some concerns that it may be declining in some parts of its range. It is a species found in lowland river deltas with sand and gravel bars. Our own observations tend to suggest it prefers sandbars and small sandy islets on river systems where it can probe and dig soft areas for food. It is exceptional among the coursers as it prefers large tropical river systems with sandbars, whilst the remaining 8 species of this family prefer dry habitats ranging from open dry forest to extreme desert.

On our journeys further south in Africa, we can observe other species in this wonderful family, none more cryptically patterned than Hueglin’s Courser, also known as Three-banded Courser. Although it is not easy to spot, we normally can find Hueglin’s Courser on our tour to Kenya and usually in the Masai Mara reserve. It is a striking bird with large eyes that capture the hearts of fellow travellers and although elusive, once found we often spend time just revelling in their discovery! Together with our tour into Botswana, we will find other and equally appealing members of the courser family including Burchell’s and Temminck’s Courser (photo right), all so attractive in their own right and all adding to the reasons why you should join me on one or all of our tours to Africa!

Why not join Peter on one of his many tours undertaken in Africa?





Or why not join Peter on one of his famous day tours in Spain?

Serrania de Ronda - Birding in the high Sierras

Wetlands - From mountains to Lagoons

Steppe - A journey into Steppe country

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The many joys of birding in Andalucia

Collared Pratincole
"We guess ‘joy’ is a personal expression, but then anyone who knows Peter will appreciate his turn of phrase! Peter takes us on a journey through his beloved and adopted home Andalucia, his enthusiasm for this wonderful area is obvious and his knowledge of the various provinces within the region is remarkable. Many friends of Spanish Nature have been fortunate enough to have been guided by Peter, not just in his own back yard, but in many other countries throughout the world, so we hope his article will appeal to those who know him and enlighten others to the delights that are to be found in Andalucia….."

The many joys of birding in Andalusia

You would be extremely hard pressed to find another area within the whole of Europe as good as Andalucia for birdwatching. Its great diversity of habitats translate into such an array of birds, not to mention other wildlife, that frequent visitors are often surprised how, on each visit, they are able to record more and more species.

Field meeting with ABS
In recent times the province has established its very own birdwatching society, the Andalucia Bird Society, with an ever increasing membership and with monthly field meetings, Andalucia birding is going from strength to strength. The society has introduced an element of serious bird study to the area, not simply casual observation, with both resident and visiting birders encouraged to supply data of their sightings and findings¹. Their website is always worth a visit and probably of equal interest is the well established open and free Forum they operate, a truly great source of information and such a wonderful way to communicate directly with local birders with local knowledge, a real bonus for those birdwatchers intending to visit Andalucia.

Perhaps the most famous aspect for which birdwatching is renowned in Andalucia is the spectacle of migration. The Strait of Gibraltar provides the perfect short sea crossing for migrants to and from Africa. It is a route used from the early ages and the sheer numbers of raptors, storks and smaller passerines make it an attraction for birders from across the world. It is one of those natural wonders that all should make an effort to witness at least once in their lifetime! A great bonus, in recent times, has been the regular recording of the African species Rüppell's Vulture, seen annually and by many observers in the southern parts of the province.

Of course so many areas offer excellent birding in southern Spain, just up the Atlantic coast from the Strait of Gibraltar is the wetlands of the Coto Doñana and here it’s possible to witness several mouth watering birding moments! The attractive Azure-winged Magpie is common and widespread in the Doñana and is always a must-see bird whilst visiting the area, but one of the spectacles here is the large colonies of mixed heron species breeding together, with of course the increasing Glossy Ibis present which nests alongside Purple, Black-crowned Night and Squacco Heron, Cattle and Little Egret. Raptors also attract attention and in particular the elusive Spanish Imperial Eagle. It is also possible to find odd breeding pairs of local water birds such as White-headed Duck, Marbled Teal and Crested Coot.

Bonelli's Eagle
Making your way back inland and heading southeast the areas Sierra de Grazalema and the Serranía de Ronda will not only provide a range of typical mountain birds, but scenically it probably has the most to offer in all of Spain. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty with the fauna and flora of particular interest. Here Bonelli’s Eagle has one of its highest densities in the world and this resident eagle is joined by Booted and Short-toed Eagle in the summer months. The resident Golden Eagle are increasing in this part of Andalucia and vie for breeding sites with Bonelli’s. The higher mountains hold one of the largest concentrations of Griffon Vulture in Europe and these can sometimes be joined by Black and Egyptian Vulture with Rüppell's Vulture becoming more frequent in the area. Long-legged Buzzard has a toe-hold in these parts and just adds to the wonderful array of raptors seen hereabouts! Better mention it whilst I’m here, before I forget, the area is known for its rarities and the most recent to have been sighted is Red-flanked Bluetail!

Greater Flamingo
Not too far away and going in a northerly direction from the Ronda Mountains, brings you to an area that is dotted with lagoons, the most famous of these being Fuente de Piedra. The region here is rich in agriculture and much of the land is given over to Olive production, interspersed with cereal crops. In the cultivated areas we can still find birds typical of open habitats and there remain good populations of Montagu’s Harrier, Little Bustard and lark species such as Calandra Lark. A small lagoon, the Laguna Dulce, is always worth a visit and can sometimes hold large numbers of White-headed Duck as well as the odd Crested Coot, but the real star site of this region is Fuente de Piedra with the largest breeding colony of Greater Flamingo in Europe. Most years this large lagoon holds staggering numbers of Greater Flamingo, normally in excess of 30,000 individuals during the springtime, with large areas painted pink as these large birds congregate and indulge in group courtship and displays. Gull-billed Terns have a large breeding colony here and other tern species are frequently seen in good numbers including Whiskered and Black Tern. Waders also use this lagoon during periods of migration and often rarities are reported.

Onwards and upwards we travel into the province of Granada, an area dominated by the Sierra Nevada, which has the highest mountain peak (3,482 metres) in all of mainland Spain. The higher areas of the province hold breeding Alpine Accentor and within the Sierra we can find Ortolan Bunting and Citril Finch, three much sought after species. Despite the high mountainous terrain of central Granada, it is a disappointment not to find higher numbers of raptor species, but on the plains Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Little Bustard make a journey here worthwhile, with Dupont’s Lark still remaining, if only tenuously, within the province as a resident bird. From Granada province we are spoilt for choice, continuing northwards to Jaén or southwards to Almería, both excellent areas for the exploring naturalist. For the sake of a more rounded journey, assuming the visitor’s main point of entry and departure is the central airport at Málaga, it is perhaps better to first proceed to Jaén province. If the main disappointment in the Granada area is the lack of good numbers of raptors, then this area provides instant relief with Black Vulture, Spanish Imperial and Golden Eagle widespread. In fact the raptors of the area, which also include Black-winged Kite, Goshawk and Lammergeier, make a visit an absolute must for the serious birdwatcher! Whilst large areas of the province is carpeted beneath swathes of Olive plantations, the areas Parque Natural de la Sierra de Andújar and the Sierra de Cazorla are very noteworthy for their birdlife, the former is probably the best in Spain for a chance to see the rare and elusive Pardel Lynx.

Slender-billed Gull
After visiting the other main regions of Andalucia, it is appropriate to finish the route in the very distinct landscape presented by Almería. The province has Europe’s only true desert area and is the driest of all the provinces in Andalucia. Here you can find Trumpeter Finch in arid habitats and of course the area of Gabo de Gata is in stark contrast with wetland species including Greater Flamingo. The coastal site and inlets of Gabo de Gata can be good areas to search for Slender-billed Gull as well as wader and duck species. Scrub areas near to this site can be worthwhile and Dupont’s Lark has often been sighted here. Inland mountain ranges are good for Great-spotted Cuckoo and on the higher and more sparsely vegetated areas Tawny Pipit and Northern Wheatear are common. Bonelli’s Eagle is frequent in the area and the recent breeding attempts by Cream-coloured Courser just add to the attraction of the region.

Whatever your pleasure as a birder and birdwatcher, a visit to the wonderfully colourful region of Andalucia will more than reward your efforts.

Why not join Peter on a tour in Spain or his 'special' Day Tours?

Some of the Day Tours available with Peter

Serrania de Ronda - Great day in the mountains

Steppe Country - Great Bustard land with Peter

Lagoons and Steppe - Flamingo Paradise

To contact Peter direct please use this link

For tours in Spain see here

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