Wednesday, October 28, 2015

An Autumn's Tale of the Serrania de Ronda

September gently passed over my mountains, it’s balmy days giving leave for many of our familiar summer birds to depart on their southern passage to Africa. Only a few, foolhardy maybe, lingered and perhaps lulled into believing autumn would never arrive. After such a hot and dry summer (the hottest since records began), you could feel the land crying for rains, dust swirled in the early autumn winds and cracks appeared where once water covered the surface. If September was a continuum of our long summer, then October was to prove the answer to the cry for change and provide life saving respite to the thirst of our plantlife. It has served to remind us how quickly things can change, how unpredictable our weather can be.

Some Autumn colour
October, love it or hate it, can be one of our most unsettled months, a day full of warmth and clear blue sky, to a sudden cooler day when storm clouds roll across the mountains. As the sun lowers in the autumn sky, so do the shadows lengthen and emphasise the contours of the landscape, softening harsh and dramatic rocky escarpments, giving the impression of cloth to the rolling countryside. Deep shadows define each tree in the Mediterranean forests, dark and pale greens glisten in the sunlight, whilst autumn shades of gold begin to appear and adorn the vast areas of sweet chestnut forests. The barking of male deer as they announce their pent-up frustration and desire for a willing consort breaks the sounds of dewdrops falling upon leaf litter.

It amazes me how quickly a parched landscape is suddenly transformed by lush greens and emerging flowers. Autumn Crocus raise their wavering blooms of pink and blue, whilst the mysterious clusters of Mandrake burst into bloom and form bouquets of blue. Hawthorns are covered in swollen haws and act as beacons on bare slopes, attracting a wide variety of migrant and wintering birds. Chattering flocks of Spotless Starling clamor among the bushes and try to gorge themselves, before arriving thrushes compete for this bountiful harvest of berries. Small warblers also skulk and conspire to steal the lower berries from under the noses of their larger brethren, while overhead a passing Sparrowhawk eyes the flocks of feasting birds.

Now is the time for arriving winter birds, a veritable mass of flocking wagtails, pipits, thrushes and finches. Despite the picture I have painted, here it is temperate in comparison to the northern reaches of Europe; mild to warm days will more often than not mark our winter. Snow is rare and is only ever present on our highest mountains, streams will run and lagoons be replenished. It becomes a land of plenty for the winter arrivals. Alpine Accentor will soon be here, escaping the cold of their breeding grounds, with Ring Ouzel gathering in large numbers to feast on berries and probe the now soft ground for invertebrates. It might surprise my fellow birders from the north to learn Redwing, Fieldfare, Siskin and Brambling also make it this far south.

Of course I still have my resident favourites to enjoy, in fact Griffon Vulture are perhaps at their most obvious now, gathering in social flocks, they seem to enjoy being together as a prelude to the start of an early breeding season. Bonelli’s Eagle are also more obvious as the pairs reinforce bonds and can regularly be seen sky dancing, a dramatic display of rapid swoops culminating in gentle close quarter synchronised flying. Then I have my Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush to lure me into the mountains, always so privileged to see, while the antics of resident Black Redstart in conflict with their visiting cousins from the north, provide endless entertainment. My mountains are my life and my saviour, welcome to my world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

International Vulture Awareness Day

Himalayan Griffon Vulture
I want to celebrate and share with you International Vulture Awareness Day. These wonderful and spectacular families of birds, which I always promote with the term 'beautifully ugly', are an essential part of our world. Feeding largely on rotting carcasses, preventing the resulting spread of deadly disease, you would think people would do everything to conserve and preserve these creatures. Well, intentional and inadvertent interference by humans has pushed many species of vulture to the very edge of extinction. #LoveVultures
European Griffon Vulture
The vultures of our planet are classified into two groups: Old World and New World. The two groups are not related, similarities between them are considered to be a result of convergent evolution rather than any close relationship. In Eurasia only Old World vultures are found and unlike New World vultures, which have a highly developed sense of smell, Old World vultures find carcasses exclusively by sight like other birds from this family do with their living prey.

So what makes vultures so special? Well, to repeat myself and strengthened their case, you have to understand they feed mostly on carcasses of dead animals, generally not killing their own prey. As scavengers they play such an important role in the ecosystem, assisting the decomposition of dead animal matter, cleansing the environment and most importantly for us, they reduce the spread of harmful diseases. In short, there is no reason to harm this group of birds and every reason to support efforts to conserve them.
Black Vulture feeding on a carcass
What are the current dangers to vultures? You may have guessed it, human interference, intentional and unintentional. Old World and New World vultures are under threat, the consequences of which has and will impact on us all. Here are just a few of the problems faced by vultures from human interference.

1. United States, the California condor has struggled to maintain a sustainable population as lead poisoning continues to be the single most important threat to its survival. Hunters using lead ammunition will at times wound target species and allow them to die in remote locations. Condors feeding on the carcass ingest the lead shot and as a result are slowly poisoned to death.
2. In Eurasia it has been found that the use of Diclofenac, a painkiller for livestock and humans in India and Nepal, has caused staggering countless thousands of vulture deaths. Recently, Diclofenac has been banned, but conservationists argue that it has come too late to allow for survival of vulture species decimated by its initial use.
3. In African countries, such as Kenya and Namibia, farmers targeting lions and other predatory species that they consider a threat to livestock and humans lace carcasses with the extremely toxic carbamate pesticide Furadan. Animals that ingest Furadan suffer horrible deaths and then themselves pose a huge health risk to other scavenger species that ingest their carcass perpetuating this deadly act.
4. Across the European Union scavengers are threatened with extinction owing to a well intended, but ill-conceived regulation introduced by the EU government in Brussels. This regulation (1774/2002) dates from the year 2002, where the fear of BSE or “mad cow disease” was rampant in Europe and the EU, which issued a number of new directives to protect the population as much as possible from exposure to the epidemic. As part of these new regulations, it was decreed that dead cows, sheep, goats and horses would need to be disposed of in a licensed animal disposal facilities. Before this new regulation it was normal that when farmed animals died in remote and inaccessible pastures, particularly in Mediterranean countries, they were either left where they were or taken to designated carcass dumps.
Greater Yellow-headed Vulture
Notes on other threats to world vulture populations.

In the EU, Diclofenac has been authorised in animals since 1993. Currently, the medicine is authorised for use in cattle, pigs and horses in five Member States. Conservation organisations, citizens and politicians have expressed their concerns over the risks that Diclofenac may present to vultures and other necrophagous bird populations in the EU. In September 2014, the European Commission asked EMA to investigate whether the use of Diclofenac in animals presents a risk to vultures and other necrophagous birds in Europe and, if a risk is identified, to provide an opinion on actions or mitigation measures that could be implemented to manage this risk effectively.

Africa's vulture population is in danger from illegal elephant and rhino poachers, a South African conservation group is warning. VulPro says poachers have been poisoning the carcasses to prevent the vultures alerting wardens.
Vulture populations are facing steep declines across Africa due to poisoning and the illegal trade in vulture body parts fuelled by traditional medicine. According to the first comprehensive analysis of African vultures, published in June in Conservation Letters, populations of seven African vulture species have declined by 80 percent or more over the last 30 years.

Vulture species in the Americas are sometimes accused of carrying anthrax or hog cholera, both livestock diseases, on its feet or bill by cattle ranchers and is therefore occasionally perceived as a threat. However, the virus that causes hog cholera is destroyed when it passes through a vulture's digestive tract. The turkey vulture also may be perceived as a threat by farmers due to the similar black vulture's tendency to attack and kill newborn cattle. The turkey vulture does not kill live animals but will mix with flocks of black vultures and will scavenge what they leave behind. Nonetheless, its appearance at a location where a calf has been killed gives the incorrect impression that the turkey vulture represents a danger to calves.

Hooded Vulture
Ruppell's Vulture
White-backed Vulture
Andean Condor

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

LA COVACHA: Turning a dream into reality

The Fund for the Stewardship and Recovery of the Salt Marsh (SALARTE) is a private non-profit entity whose purpose is to work to recover artisan coastal saltpans, to conserve biodiversity and to foster local employment based on endogenous resources.
The Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park is an amphibious territory. Down through the centuries, humans managed to reconcile conserving and enhancing its natural capital with the use of environmental services thanks to the sustainable use of the salt marshes, tidal streams, creeks and saltpans. Up until the middle of the 20th century, this territory, with a surface area of 10,522 Ha, was home to over 170 artisan saltpans, which generated biodiversity, economic resources and underpinned an exemplary social fabric. Only 4 artisan saltpans are still worked and 5,373 hectares of what had been world-famous saltpans and an example to all now lie abandoned.
The abandoning of the artisan saltpans led to a loss of environmental diversity and the degradation of key habits for migratory species of birds to rest, feed and breed along the Atlantic flyway. It also meant the squandering of countless natural resources that could help the recovery of a depressed socio-economy and, finally, the disappearance of the emotional bond between society and the territory.
After discovering this dramatic reality of territorial abandonment and loss of environmental quality in a province with a 40% unemployment rate, this team of professionals – who at the time had the advantage of working for the Public Sector – began to transform a salt marsh used for fly tipping, poaching and other illegal activities into what is now the largest Metropolitan Park in the Iberian Peninsula,   Los Toruños. We also organised two International Artisan Salt Fairs and worked to get Spanish legislation changed to ensure a level playing field to manage Spanish artisan saltpans on a par with countries such as Portugal and France. In 2012, we set up this NGO (Salarte) to recover salt marshes as a private venture.

SALARTE seeks to show that the sustainable management of salt marshes generates socio-economic benefits for the local population, fosters biodiversity, improves the functioning of natural processes and strengthens the bond between humans and their natural heritage.
Therefore, a year ago, we took over an old saltpan-island that had been abandoned decades ago. Thanks to our experience and steadfast work (with barely any resources and no public funding), we are gradually transforming it into a Natural Reserve that seeks to involve the human being in the salt marsh, increase biodiversity and showcase its wealth by organising lectures and guided visits to this legendary territory.
SALARTE is the only private NGO to manage a Reserve Zone of the Andalusian Network of Protected Natural Spaces, which is designated as a “Special Area of Conservation and is part of the European Natura 2000 Network.
La Covacha is an old saltpan with a surface area of 26.5 Ha.  It is part of the Trocadero Island and one of the main squares in Paris is named in honour of the Battle of Trocadero fought here.  Despite being a cultural, historical and ecological centre, the Trocadero Island enjoys maximum legal protection, even though it has been abandoned for decades.
Despite the numerous restoration and conversation projects by public authorities, the lack of upkeep and management of La Covacha meant that the tides and strong back wash had damaged the sluice gates and outside boundary walls that protect La Covacha from the surrounding marine environment.  This led to a dramatic drop in the numbers of spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) using the colony based in La Covacha since 1996.
Convinced that civil society needed to take up the management of the saltpans and areas in the maritime-terrestrial public domain, SALARTE sought authorisation from the Regional Government of Andalusia to take on La Covacha for its integral management as a service for aquatic and marine biodiversity.

Salarte, a private NGO, is made up of young independent professionals that do not have sufficient economic resources to invest.  However, thanks to environmental volunteer drives, agreements drawing upon the expertise of shell fishermen and the organising of bird-watching routes, we have repaired the damage to the outside boundary wall, built new sluice gates and are managing the water inside the island to foster biodiversity and recover the island as a spoonbill breeding area.
During the spring and summer of 2014, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) chose La Covacha as the site for the first attempt of non-assisted reproduction in the Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park since it was declared extinct as a breeding bird halfway through the 20th century.  Our aim is to use management resources to encourage osprey breeding in 2015 and future years.
Therefore, at the end of this winter and early spring, we made significant improvements to this island, which were urgently needed, and involving an investment of 7,000 euros. Even though the association lacked the funds, the SALARTE members decided to undertake the work even with the risk of having to donate the money themselves.  The construction company has been highly supportive of the project, lowered the cost of the works and agreed to allow us to pay in instalments.
Thanks to a successful crowdfunding initiative, we have managed to raise nearly half the cost of the works and La Covacha has welcomed spring and its nesting birds with a series of small but exciting improvements, consisting of:

  • Two nesting platforms and several artificial perches for the osprey.
  • A raised hide to monitor the spoonbill colony.
  • A refurbished tool room for the management and maintenance of the island.
  • A jetty to make it easier to access the island.
  • A photo/video camera to monitor the osprey.

Despite being quite common in the UK, land stewardship is a tool that is practically unknown in Andalusia.  We aim to set an example to show how important it is for civil society to get involved in restoring the natural environment and how it generates environmental benefits, leads to social improvements for the population and recovers territorial pride.
We are striving to get the general public to be committed to improving the territory and reproduce the Anglo-Saxon environmental management model in Andalusia.  We would therefore be delighted to welcome Andalucia Bird Society and nature lovers, with whom we have such strong ties and who have done so much down through the years to showcase the birds of Andalucia to scientists, nature lovers and enthusiasts around the world.
We would be delighted to welcome you to the Bay of Cadiz. SALARTE technicians will show you the secrets of the last traditional saltpans, explain how they work and let you discover the mythical La Covacha Island for yourselves.  The support of ABS members is fundamental for this project as an impetus to help this small organisation continue working on our common goal: knowledge about and respecting nature.

During a visit, some of the many birds you are likely to see include ospreys and spoonbills, flamingos, several species of gulls, great cormorant, caspian terns, gull billed terns, common redshanks, spotted redshanks, common greenshanks, common sandpipers, wood sandpipers, green sandpipers, curlew sandpipers, marsh harriers, hen harriers, booted eagles, common kestrels, turnstones, oystercatchers, grey plovers, European golden plovers, sanderlings, red knots, dunlins, black-tailed godwits, bar-tailed godwits, Eurasian curlews, whimbrels, kentish plovers, little ringed plovers, common ringed plovers. You will also be able to discover the seagrass meadows, which are home to many species of fish, shellfish, shrimp, prawns, sea horses and other important species.
A traditional fishing boat can take you through the tidal reed beds and sea grass meadows to disembark –at the brand-new jetty– on the island that the Hundred Thousand Sons of St. Louis seized during the Peninsular Wars. You will there learn how the marshland water is managed using sluice gates and walls, along with having time for bird-watching and to take in this unique scenery.
We look forward to welcoming you to the Bay of Cadiz and take you to La Covacha where you will discover the legacy of centuries of converging evolution between humans and nature.

Author: Juan Martín Bermúdez - Salarte. Bay of Cadiz - 2015
Edited: Peter Jones - Andalucia Bird Society. Andalucia - 2015