Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Guide'sTale - no one to lead but himself.

It’s been a hectic time leading various tours and day trips so far this year, but what to do on those rare occasions when you have some spare time? I mean time truly on your own, no one else at home or anyone demanding your time! I must admit the temptation is to lay back, relax, read a book or simply do nothing at all, but living where I do, between 2 UNESCO Biosphere parks here in the centre of the Serranía de Ronda, the call of the wild constantly rings in your ears. It’s a calling I am unable and unwilling to resist, so spare time is spent taking-in details of nature without constraints or demands, just strolling through wild places stopping to appreciate the comings and goings of late autumn birds in my favourite surroundings. Time too for reflecting on a hectic schedule and experiences gained over an autumn migration of wonders.
It now seems an age since the door to autumn slowly opened, the sounds of Africa escaped and weaved a spell on our summer resident birds here in Europe. The month of July may sound early for the call to return to Africa but here, near the main crossing point over the Strait of Gibraltar, evidence of migration was overhead and through our valleys. The sheer volume of birds involved in the autumn rush to leave for warmer climes was staggering. For the grand spectacle, then the larger migrants perhaps offered the audience a star attraction, but to see thousands of our smaller passerines, such as Bee eater Merops apiaster, forming colourful clouds as they left our shores was, I think, a sight that all should witness at least once in their lifetime. Here in southern Spain, we are so very fortunate to live so close to areas where we can bear witness to one of the natural wonders of our world.

Now there is a keenest to the air and a bite on the strong winds that sweep our valleys, most of our summer visitors have departed and we await the return of wintering birds. It’s a strange time of year, the lull before the storm, an in-between moment where still there are signs of migration with the fall of birds such as Black Redstart, Common Redstart and both Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, but lengthening shadows support the arrival of an ever shortening day and an air of resignation descends upon a landscape anticipating respite from the blistering heat of a long summer. The red haw berries and rosehips are ripening as leaves change colour, fall and drift across a dry landscape, soon these fruits will provide a banquet for visiting thrushes and fallen seed a feast for Alpine Accentors, truly the arrival of large concentrations of Ring Ouzel will herald a beginning to the end of our autumn.

The Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris

Family: Prunellidae Accentors
English: Accentors
Spanish: Acentores

The Alpine Accentor, Prunella collaris, is a small passerine bird found throughout the mountains of southern temperate Europe and Asia at heights above 2000 m (breeding). It is mainly resident, wintering more widely at lower latitudes, but some birds wander during winter months as rare vagrants even as far as Great Britain. This is a small-sized bird at 15-17.5 cm in length, slightly larger than its relative, the Dunnock Prunella modulari. It has a streaked brown back, adults have a grey head and red-brown spotting on the underparts. It has an insectivore's fine pointed bill, but as with all accentors it will also feed on seeds. Sexes are similar, although the male may be more brightly coloured (especially in the spring) in appearance. Young birds have browner heads and underparts.

Outside of the related Dunnock, P.modulari, this species has the most widespread, if somewhat fragmented, distribution of the accentors, although much more limited by available habitat and altitudinal range. These birds are found in mountainous areas, from the Iberian Peninsula and northwest Africa, through France and Italy and Slovenia and into the Balkans, Bulgaria and Greece. They are also found in northern and eastern Turkey, through the Caucasus and Iran and east to Turkmenistan, China, Korea and Japan. They are also found in Taiwan.

During the breeding season it is a bird of bare mountain areas with some low vegetation. It builds a neat nest low in a bush or rock crevice, laying 3-5 unspotted sky-blue eggs. It is Polygyandrous in its relationships and has a very interesting strategy. Home ranges are occupied by breeding groups of 3 or 4 males with 3 or 4 females. These are unrelated birds which have a socially polygynandrous mating system. Males have a dominance hierarchy, with the alpha males being generally older than subordinates. Females seek matings with all the males, although the alpha male may defend her against matings from lower ranking males. In turn, males seek matings with all the females. DNA fingerprinting has been used to show that, within broods, there is often mixed paternity, although the female is always the true mother of the nestlings raised within her nest. Males will provide food to chicks at several nests within the group, depending on whether they have mated with the female or not - males only provide care when they are likely to be the true fathers of the chicks.