Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucura leucura)

The Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura leucura

A personal tale by Peter Jones

"Wheatear a folk etymology of white and arse, or more simply put ‘white arse’, never was this more appropriate than for this LBJ (Little Black Job) the Black Wheatear, where the white arse is among the most prominent within the family of wheatears".

A dull plain bird, almost unicolour black apart from a white rump, vent and white on the tail, I wonder is this how people think of Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucura), the plain Jane of the wheatear family? Visitors to my area, La Serranía de Ronda in Andalucía, rank this bird as one of their most want to see birds, I guess not surprising given its restricted range where it is confined to the Iberian Peninsula, SW France (now very rare) and Northwest Africa. So not just an avid bird lister’s target bird, but there are actually also bird watchers who just want to see and observe this unusual wheatear, which is comforting to this self confessed and obsessed wheatear nerd.

An unusual wheatear? Well yes, in many ways too. It is our only resident wheatear in Western Europe and whilst there is some evidence to suggest partial migration of northern birds, they are largely sedentary apart from altitudinal dispersal in cold winters. Whilst those familiar with the wheatear family are used to seeing birds in short, fast dashing flight, these birds are more likened to the flight of an overloaded bomber at take-off, their short wings in relation to their large and heavy bodies produce a whirring of wings rather than short strong flaps associated with other wheatears. It is a feature that adds to the fun of watching these superb birds. Other major differences is in lifelong pairing and some unique activity whilst nest building, both of these points I will come to later.

A pair of adults can hold a wide area as their own and although the territory can be extensive it is only really defended with any serious degree during the breeding season. In fact, in my study area, I found considerable overlap in neighbouring territories and holding pairs tended to be tolerant of each other and sometimes seen feeding in close proximity outside of the breeding season. Most other territorial disputes involve younger birds seeking to usurp the resident pair; this is met with the combined efforts of the resident male and female in the defence of their territory and this defence was always successful in my experience. Rivalry with conspecifics always becomes frenetic during the breeding season, surprising the observer after the apparent lack of interest by the territorial pair at all other times of the year. In my mountains the main species to bear the brunt of this aggression is Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius, they are harried and chased from territories and sometimes well beyond, other species are also not tolerated during this period and these include Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, Black-eared Wheatear O.hispanica, Rock Thrush M.saxatilis, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros and to a lesser extent Stonechat Saxicola torquatus.

My birds appeared to pair for life and were constant companions during summer and winter, both active in defending their territory. Much of the evidence for this and a pair’s relationship with neighbouring pairs was made possible by fitting colour rings to each bird, making the identity of each individual through observation an easy task, although catching these smart birds was never easy. One of the interesting outcomes to this individual colour marking was to witness how pairs were socially monogamous, but sexually permissive. It wasn’t unusual to see either the female or the male indulge a little bit of hanky panky on the side!

Being a resident bird and holding a territory all year round has several advantages. The pair is familiar with every rock and other vantage point as well as prime feeding areas, something essential for survival and successful breeding. Interestingly the feeding areas are visited on what appears to be a rotational basis as if to preserve food stocks, especially areas containing higher densities of insect life and larvae. One of the features to watching these birds was the time they spent doing very little, even when feeding broods of young, they are the absolute masters of finding food on demand, obviously something made possible by knowing the territory well. These birds are omnivores and during the autumn will actively eat fruits such as blackberry, ground elder and the locally common haws, plus other fruiting plants. Insect wise they can catch on the wing such things as butterfly, moth and other flying insects, but will also take mantis, crickets, beetles, scorpions and spiders. I have seen them take very small young frogs, but they have a taste too for small lizards, in fact one of the most amazing strategies I have witnessed is for them to attack much larger lizards than would be possible for them to kill and eat, yet they deliberately attack these reptiles waiting for the victim to drop it’s tail and hence a free meal! It is an amazing strategy shared by its rival the Blue Rock Thrush.

Another unusual and fascinating aspect to watching these birds is to witness males demonstrating their strength and attraction to watching females. These males are the equivalent to our interior designers and decorators, they decorate nesting places with stone platforms, with individual stones weighing up to 28gms (2 thirds of their own body weight) and the older the male the more likely the heavier the stones will be, it appears these demonstrations of strength and art help to cement bonds between pairs and also advertises the superiority of some older males over potential rivals. The number of stones can vary dependent on how old a nest is, some use the same nest site each year and these are renewed annually, some with a few hundred and some with thousands, it is remarkable and another endearing feature to discovering the world of this species.

Breeding starts in my mountains at the beginning of March, with plenty of display and pair greeting leading up to this period. The male can be seen in flight display and regular song as early as January and February. It is an amusing time observing the meet and greet ceremony between the pair, a bowing and tail fanning as soon as one or the other alights near to the other. Nest building begins in early March; material being mostly carried to the nest by the male, where the female will often go after the male departs to maybe better organize the structure. Nearly all the nests I found were in crevices with the nest sometimes built upon carefully placed stones and always had the entrance decorated by many stones almost exclusively placed by the male, on one amusing encounter I saw a female taking a stone into the nest crevice shortly followed afterwards by the male, who promptly removed the stone placed by the female. Seems we are not alone in having differences of opinion on decor! The eggs are brooded almost exclusively by the female and the male frequently accompanies her when she leaves the nest to feed, she is also promptly chased back to the nest if feeding takes too long. Fledging normally takes around 15/16 days and the young are cared for after they leave the nest for a similar period. My local birds are double brooded, although I did have one instance during 2017 when I had a pair successfully raised 3 broods. I found most first clutches contained 5 eggs, but subsequent clutches were between 3 to 4 eggs. Young birds are normally tolerated in the territory until late autumn, sometimes through the winter, but are then dispersed by both parents.

I hope this brief account of the black beauty has given you a small insight into this species and why I am so fascinated by it, who knows it might even inspire you to venture out to find and spend time with this bird? Take it from me, a little time spent with these birds will more than reward you for your effort and patience. Andalucía is a particularly good region for seeing them and there are many well known sites you can visit to fill your boots with these lovelies, El Torcal, La Serranía de Ronda, Sierra de Grazalema, Sierra Nevada, Sierra Morena and so many more areas too many to name here.
For those with an interest not just to observe them at close quarters, but also to have the opportunity to take photographs, then I would recommend getting in touch with Antonio Pestana. Antonio is an official and approved wildlife guide with the Andalucía Bird Society and has a hide set-up specifically for this species. He can be contacted via Email here: or via his website here:

Distribution and status
Locally common, especially where areas are arid in mountain regions up to 2000m. Up to 4,000 to 16,000 pairs estimated in the year 2000 for Europe.  I estimated between 400 and 450 pairs in the areas of Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema.

World distribution. Scarce in France, Libya and Tunisia. Common to locally common Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Mauritania. Morocco is most probably the stronghold for this species.


Research Period 2003 to 2007 inclusive
Observation Period 2007 to 2019

Nest stone weights. 28g mentioned by Clement. My heaviest stone weight was 23g

Colour ringing always involved just a single colour ring fitted to the opposite leg to the coded metal ring. Never more than one was fitted. Varying leg side and two-tone colour rings allowed endless combinations.

More questions than answers? It is normal to start a research project with a single question, in this case why was Black Wheatear decreasing? Of course what is also normal is one question soon becomes more than a 100, then it is almost like a process of elimination working backward through all these extra questions. During and after the main study period the local population was increasing.

One mystery arose from the trapping and ringing of this species. The average male wing length recorded during the study was 92 to 100mm with an average weight of 32 to 35g. I was totally thrown by catching a male during winter with a wing length of 112mm and a weight of 50g, and yes I not only double-checked, but triple checked both measurements and measuring equipment. Could this have been a northern bird having migrated south? I will perhaps never know.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Andalucía a wildlife paradise - Part 1

Andalucía boasts the broadest diversity of habitats in Europe. It’s difficult to find a destination that offers such an unique ecological diversity in Europe whilst at the same time unveiling to us the history of Western Europe. To birdwatch in White Villages, follow the footsteps of the Phoenicians, photograph unparalleled landscapes, taste local delicacies, traditional and contemporary, discover cities and locations that are World Heritage Sites or share experiences with true, authentic locals, is a true pleasure in life!

Approaching the region from the north you could be forgiven for thinking you are entering a giant olive plantation, as orchard upon orchard reaches as far as the eye can see in Jaén. Yet even here you get a glimpse of what might be, with high mountain ranges breaking through the skyline to reveal temptation to the travelling naturalist. Surprisingly there still remains some wonderful and ancient unspoilt refuges here and areas where the rarest feline in the world still finds a niche to survive in healthy and sustainable numbers, the beautiful Pardel Lynx or Iberian Lynx Lynx pardinus. The province also holds an increasing population of Lammergeier that can be found in Spain's largest National Park Cazorla, Segura, Las Villas. Also Spanish Imperial Eagle and Black Vulture have strongholds here, so appearances are not all they seem and the whole province is worth exploring.

Jaén is one of 3 provinces that form the eastern bloc of the region, the others are Granada and Almería, if you were to travel south and east you would be struck by the sheer scale of contrast between these eastern provinces. Granada, as the southern and neighbouring province, is the first to be encountered and the scale of it's mountains, the Sierra Nevada, immediately make an impact with their tall peaks and high rolling mountain tops. The mountain range contains the highest point of continental Spain, in fact the mountain Mulhacén is also the third highest mountain in Europe at 3,479 metres above sea level. Here the area holds strongholds for such mountain species as Alpine Accentor and Citril Finch, raptors are another group of birds that brings visiting birders to these parts alongside other birds such as Common Rock Thrush. Of course the province is best known for the famous Alhambra, a hilltop fortress from the Nasrid Dynasty and a complex that comprises of royal palaces, peaceful terraces, reflecting pools and wonderful gardens, in fact a must visit heritage site if you are close to the province.

Go further south than Granada and you arrive to the province of Almería, the mountains here are less in altitude, but no less striking. The most famous aspect and attraction to the visitor here is the province holds Europe's only true desert and the fauna and flora reflects the arid conditions. Trumpeter Finch provides for the tastebuds of the avid birder and the inland areas, where low scrub blankets the plains, provides the chance to find Dupont's Lark, a real target bird for many who visit Spain, let alone the region of Andalucía. The coastal saltpans of Cabo de Gata, a Natural Park and the largest coastal protected area in the region, was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Park in 1997, it has a climate that is the driest in Europe with annual rainfall below 160 mm, thats 6.3 ins in old money! The whole area is a delight for the geologist with the Sierra del Cabo de Gata mountain range providing many points of interest, the highest peak is El Fraile and the volcanic rock formation is the largest in Spain. Almería also enjoys the distinction of being the first area on continental Europe where Cream-coloured Courser bred, although in more recent times they have successfully bred in Granada Province.

Returning to the north of the province and Jaén, we head westwards and arrive in the province of Cordoba.The Province of Cordoba presents a remarkable landscape, housing a good representation of our most unique and threatened fauna. The variety of habitats available and, many of them in good condition, make possible the coexistence between these geographical boundaries of species such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Wolf or the Spanish Imperial Eagle in the Sierras of Cardeña and Montoro, the Black Stork, the Golden Eagle or the Black Vulture in the Sierra of Honachuelos, the White-headed Duck or the Marsh Harrier in the humid areas of the south, the Peregrine Falcon and the Bonelli's Eagle in the Sierras Subbéticas and the Great Bustard, the Common Crane or the Black-Bellied Sandgrouse in the valleys of the Guadiato and the Pedroches. And of course you have for good measure the famous Mezquita Cathedral of Cordoba, a real cultural treasure and must visit site if you are in the area. The site is bordered by the Rio Guadalquivir a great place to do some birding and another incentive to visit.

Next up as we continue our journey westwards is the amazing province of Sevilla, culturally superb and home for one of Europe's best known birding hotspots the Doñana. But more of that later in part 2 of this lengthy blog.

Recommended for further information is the superb source of the Andalucía Bird Society's website. In fact if you are visiting the region why not consider joining them, you get all the perks including being able to attend a professionally led Field Meeting held each month.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

International Vulture Awareness Day

The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day. Vultures are an ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of threats in many areas that they occur. Populations of many species are under pressure and some species are facing extinction. The International Vulture Awareness Day has grown from Vulture Awareness Days run by the Birds of Prey Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England, who decided to work together and expand the initiative into an international event. It is now recognised that a co-ordinated international day will publicise the conservation of vultures to a wider audience and highlight the important work being carried out by the world’s vulture conservationists. On the first Saturday in September, the aim is for each participating organisation to carry out their own activities that highlight vulture conservation and awareness. This website provides a central place for all participants to outline these activities and see the extent of vulture conservation across the world. Additionally, it is a valuable resource for vulture workers to learn about the activities of their colleagues and to perhaps develop new collaborations or exchange information.
More information. Learn more here

Friday, August 2, 2019

Spain going to court for not adequately protecting European Turtle Dove?

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.” - Jane Goodall

The European Commission will take Spain to court for not adequately protecting European Turtle Dove. The EC has just announced an infringement procedure that may end up in court within a few months if the administrations do not take action: Brussels accuses Spain of not adequately protecting the European Turtle Dove, a beautiful bird of our countryside. The blame? Bad agricultural policies and, once again, hunting. The European Commission has opened an infringement procedure against Spain for continuing to allow hunting of the European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur and for not adequately protecting its habitat. In Spain, only four autonomous communities have approved moratoriums against hunting this species: Asturias, Cantabria, the Canary Islands and, since July 15, the Valencian Community.

Specifically, the Commission has just announced the initiation of proceedings against Spain and France for breach of Articles 3, 4 and 7 of the Birds Directive. These articles oblige Member States to maintain the population levels of bird species, especially migratory bird species, ensuring that there is sufficient diversity of habitats both inside and outside protected areas. Member States also have an obligation to ensure that hunting of any species of bird does not jeopardize conservation efforts.

Since 2018 there is a European Action Plan for the Conservation of the Turtle Dove and BirdLife International claims its instigation since then. The plan includes measures to preserve and restore favourable habitats for the Turtle Dove and, in addition, emergency actions such as establishing a temporary moratorium on hunting the species.

In addition, in compliance with the EU Birds Directive and, in Spain, with the Law of Natural Heritage and Biodiversity, the hunting of this species should not be authorized, at a minimum, until their populations recover. However, in the last season hunting was re-authorized by the Spanish Government with a level of catches similar to the previous one, which could have led to the death of some 800,000 Turtle Doves in Spain, well above what the species can withstand, an unsustainable and unacceptable scenario.

Spain has lost a quarter of it's Turtle Doves!!

Spanish hunters say they are not to blame for the European Turtle Dove population being low. They even claim that a major fault is that they are hunted a lot in Morocco..
But it turns out that it is the Spanish hunters who fundamentally go to Morocco to exterminate the species. It is about exterminating just for fun, there is no other interest other than fun for these hunters!
In Spain, the European Turtle Dove population has fallen 25% in two decades, according to BirdLife International censuses. Across the EU, the European Turtle Dove population has fallen by 50 to 70 percent and, in some countries, the crash reaches 90%, like the United Kingdom, where it has virtually disappeared. Being a migratory species, the actions or omissions of countries such as Spain affect the whole of the species throughout the continent: this species makes an impressive journey of 4,000 kilometers every year from sub-Saharan Africa, where it winters, to its breeding areas in Europe.

The threat of intensive agriculture

In addition to hunting, this species also experiences the suffering of many agricultural birds: the intensification of agriculture, the loss of fallows or the elimination of shrubs and other vegetation on the edge of farms and roads, hinder the subsistence of these and other agrarian birds.

According to the Commission's complaint, no national government has initiated the so-called “emergency agro-environmental measures” to protect these migratory species. However, on this occasion, the European Commission has considered that the breach of these agri-environmental measures deserves to be prosecuted, something quite unusual to date, since the Commission had been reluctant to admonish countries for their bad agricultural policies. The results of this process are expected to be relevant for the design and implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Companies in Europe still advertising hunting Turtle Dove.

Turtle Dove hunting is allowed in eleven of the member estates of the EU, where large numbers of turtle doves are hunted annually.

Also Morocco for Western European migrating Turtle Dove:





United Kingdom:

Background Information ( abstract from a presentation at the 33rd International Union of Game Biologist Congress. Citation ref: )

Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) is a trans-Saharan migratory species recently up-listed to Vulnerable status in the Red List of Threatened Species. Breeding populations of Turtle Doves are declining throughout Europe, declines being particularly severe in certain countries (e.g: England, where the population has declined by 93% since 1995). Current estimates attribute 75% of the global breeding population to Europe, the remainder occurring in North Africa and Asia. This fact is especially relevant since Turtle Dove hunting is allowed in eleven of the member estates of the EU, where large numbers of turtle doves are hunted annually. The European country where the greatest amount of Turtle Doves is hunted is Spain (around 701.600 birds in 2014), through which also passes the main migratory route for western European Turtle Dove populations (also Morocco). We analyzed Turtle Dove population trends for the different regions of Spain and for the whole country using available data from SACRE (Spanish contribution to the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Schemes (PECBMS) designed by the European Bird Census Council, and carried out in Spain by SEO/Birdlife International). Data from this program (kindly provided by SEO) included observations of Turtle Doves in 10x10 km quadrats in most of the Spanish regions from 1996 to 2016. Additionally, we compiled the number of birds hunted in each region from the official hunting statistics available since 2006 in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, Food and Environment (before 2006, official statistics did not separate Turtle Doves hunted from other bird species). We show that Turtle Dove abundance in Spain declined around 40% since 1996. The decline happened in most of Spanish regions and it was especially remarkable in the North, where hunting is relative unimportant. Therefore, it seems that hunting is not the main reason behind the declines. Nonetheless, annual variation in the number of Turtle Doves hunted in each region was unrelated to annual variation in turtle dove abundance. Globally, hunting pressure (numbers shot) has not significantly diminished since 2006, despite observed population declines. Thus, although hunting is not the main driver of the decline, results also indicate that it could be an aggravating factor, and that current tools to determine the number of Turtle Doves that may be hunted are not efficient enough, or not correctly applied.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Delicious Autumn!

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns. 
George Eliot

Soon. To be leaving us too soon, evoking thoughts of autumn too soon, to be missing you too soon. Signs clearly now of autumn migration and a time of excitement and regrets. Never sure whether this time of year fills me with wonder or a yearning to follow our birds south. The Woodchat Shrike pair here is one of the many species I miss during their winter's truancy.

I thought I would also take this opportunity to show you some of those birds I will miss until next spring. Soon, with just a blink of an eye, I will be welcoming winter birds. Where does time go?