Thursday, November 27, 2008

Autumn birds of the Serrania de Ronda & Sierra de Grazalema 2008

As summer bids a fond farewell

As I sit down in front of my computer to write my take on things for the past three months it is raining outside and temperatures are feeling decidedly cool. My local Spanish friends are jumping for joy as the last five years have been officially labeled ‘drought’ years, so these rains are much needed and already you can see the lush pale greens of vegetation renewed, emerging beneath orchard canopies and in fallow fields. I had intended writing this newsletter some two weeks earlier, but as good luck would have it, short tours to Morocco, the Doñana and local day trips have kept me away from my administrative duties! Now with these rains I am confined to the office and putting my time to good use writing various project reports, updating web pages and of course doing our autumn newsletter.

August produced some spectacular raptor migration with the most notable movements appearing towards the end of the month. Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Booted and Short-toed Eagles came through in big numbers with the odd Red Kite adding spice to the occasion. A single Marsh Harrier on the Rio Guadiaro was complemented by my first Squacco Heron for what seems like an age. Montagu’s Harrier became more frequent and by the end of the month it was rare not to see them making their way leisurely southwards. During the month I discovered a great area for Roller and Collared Pratincole with both Short-toed and Calandra Larks giving further reasons for visiting the area next spring. Apparently the area also has a small number of Great Bustard and judging by the sightings of both adult and juvenile Black-shouldered Kite, then this area will definitely be on my daily excursions next year! The month also produced a good number of Rüppell’s Vulture on coastal areas around Tarifa and later in September there were also sightings of White-backed Vulture (about time too!).

September started where August had left-off with raptor migration taking centre stage. Honey Buzzard and Black Kite numbers built rapidly through the first half and Booted Eagle numbers also increased. Of course, not to be out-done, Short-toed Eagles joined the party travelling south and their haunting calls became a feature of a birding day. The high meadow of the Sierra de Libar was now an excellent site to visit, not only were warblers abundant together with flycatchers and Common Redstart, but the area was now being visited daily by a pair of Golden Eagle and their fledged youngster. On one occasion we had the pleasure of watching the resident pair chase another adult from their hunting ground, whilst at the same time the juvenile was attracting the mobbing and playful attention of around 40 Chough! My ringing (banding) session for the month gave me the reward of many Sub-alpine and Bonelli’s Warbler, mostly juveniles and a few Firecrest, but one of my trainees managed to release an adult Hawfinch before it was ringed so a big black mark there, although considering its bill can crack a cherry stone, then I guess fear may have loosened the ringer’s grip!

I had been leading a group tour down to Jimena, Tarifa and the Doñana for the first week (trip report to follow soon in case members of the tour party were getting worried) and apart from enjoying a good bag of species it was pleasing to find the track at La Janda had been repaired and thereby making the area both accessible and more enjoyable. Being away leading a group in Morocco for twelve days meant a large slice of my autumn birding in my local area was impossible. However, life has its compensations such as seeing literally dozens of Eleonora’s Falcon hunting migrants, watching Black-crowned Tchagra and seeing several Bald Ibis – life can be tough sometimes. I think that whilst the autumn migration is a great time to be out and about birding, it also has an almost depressing affect on me. All winter I long for the return of Bee-eaters with their beautiful plumage and distinctive calls, now I watch them flocking and departing Europe for the warmer climates of Africa knowing I will not have the pleasure of their company for at least another six months, sad. As if to brighten my mood a Merlin put in an appearance towards the end of the month, I think this is my earliest sighting as I am almost certain I have not seen them in my area before sometime in October! I had been watching a couple of Lesser Kestrel and a flock of Spotless Starling hawk flying Ants, when the Merlin suddenly joined these species and appeared to be hawking along with the rest of them. After a minute the Merlin tired of Ants and made a dash for one of the Spotless Starling only to be thwarted by mobbing Lesser Kestrels! The whole episode made for great viewing and spectacular flight displays by all three falcons.

October can always be a bit of a damp squib in more ways than one; rain and periods of hard to find birds! Certainly this year the month so far has produced a fair amount of rain, but has also been warm. It has been hard work finding raptors with virtually all our Booted and Short-toed Eagles having departed to Africa. Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are still around in expanded winter territories and in family groups, but during the course of November they usually reject the juveniles and these can disperse over vast distances. I again had a period in the first week of the month when I accompanied a small group on one of our short break tours to Morocco. Later I also had a two day tour in the Doñana. Both trips were extremely rewarding and the birds obliged for these tours including such species as Marsh Owl, Caspian Tern, Great White Egret, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Great Skua, Cory’s and Balearic Shearwater, Marbled Teal, Black Stork and a whole host of other great birds. Locally we have had the arrival recently of wintering Song Thrush and so far a singleton Redwing, Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel. We have also had Long-legged Buzzard, but this has been eclipsed by a couple of firsts for the local patch i.e. Pochard (no laughing, these ducks have never been recorded here before) and the star of the show Wallcreeper just up the track behind Montejaque going towards Libar. In addition we are now seeing very large numbers of Black Redstart, some of which will remain through the winter, but most will continue southwards. Black Vulture has been seen around a feeding area near to Old Ronda, whilst a small number of Stone Curlew and Little Bustard were seen Torres Alaquim. So I guess I shouldn’t complain despite loosing our Bee-eaters and getting wet, we still live in an incredible area for birds.

Summer birds Serrania de Ronda & Sierra de Grazalema 2008

A summer so far!

Our day tours continue to thrive with more and more visitors choosing to spend a day with us here in our home area. It has been particularly pleasing to see so many friends returning and some of you returning for the third or fourth time! I admire all of you for your courage in being able to spend a complete day with an off-the-wall nature nut like me. Thank you all for your support and encouraging remarks, it truly is an enormous pleasure and privilege to be able to share my time and local knowledge with you all.

It has been a fairly mixed set of fortunes for our local birds. All the warblers seem to have enjoyed a good breeding season and so too our raptors (one pair of Bonelli’s Eagle raised 2 chicks this year). However, the worrying trend of declining Egyptian Vulture continues to dominate birding conversations here and no clear evidence has emerged to support various views as to the reasons for this decline. Whether it is due to poisons used in Africa, both on wintering grounds and migration routes, or persecution and poisoning here, is still under debate. The rate of decline is alarming and certainly answers and solutions need to be agreed upon as a matter of urgency.

The economics of farming practises continues to have an affect upon certain species, some benefiting and others showing signs of a gradual decline. Most noticeable in our region is the poor returns for sheep and goat herders. The reduced level of hill and mountain grazing has led to, in certain areas, a slow decline in such species as Northern and Black-eared Wheatear, whilst increased ground cover has helped other species i.e. Spectacled and Dartford Warblers. The continuing increase in boundary fencing is also having an affect on the freedom of movement for grazing herds and again this has produced ‘enclosures’ of scrub which further reduces the amount of open and grazed habitats preferred by such species as Black Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Black Redstart and Rock Thrush.

On a more positive note it is now possible to add Azure-winged Magpie to our list of resident birds. At one site the birds have been observed at all times of the year and more recently both adult and juvenile birds recorded. It is great to have this addition to our growing list of birds; they are certainly colourful and great characters. Who knows, they might even attract the odd Great-spotted Cuckoo to stop and breed! It has been a good year for White-rumped Swift and I have found a couple of new sites for the species in the local area.

Autumn migration has already begun. Golden Oriole and Bee Eater are passing through and daily counts of Black Kite are on the increase. Night Heron, mostly juveniles, are now a regular feature along the Rio Guadiaro as too are Green Sandpiper. Barn Swallows and House Martins line themselves together on the overhead wires and juvenile Woodchat Shrikes can be seen passing through. Altitudinal dispersal is also evident with large numbers of Rock Sparrow flocking on recently harvested Wheat fields. It is also possible to now see Thekla Lark together with the more common Crested Lark at drinking areas along the Rio Guadiaro (a handy gathering for those who struggle to separate these closely related species).

Birds in spring for Serrania de Ronda & Sierra de Grazalema 2008

Spring Arrives!

Our winter here has been extremely dry and the locals have welcomed recent heavy rains fearing the prospect of poor annual cereal and fruit harvests. Of course the early April rains were also important for the area’s wildlife. With some 6” inches falling in just over a week, the flowers are giving wonderful displays and many promise a flourish during May.

Wintering birds seemed to have fared well in the dry and mild conditions with a few very notable and welcome increases. Lesser Kestrels were more numerous than in previous years and Alpine Accentor continues to be discovered at more and more sites throughout the area. The later has probably been more widespread than previously thought and increased observer coverage may well have accounted for these new sites. Lesser Kestrels are divided into two main populations, those that migrate south for the winter and those which remain in the area all year round. With the succession of mild winters, the mortality rate among young Lesser Kestrel remaining here can reasonably be considered to have improved and I think this may explain recent population increases. It was also a good year for Siskin and Brambling, the former being particularly widespread and in large numbers. Wintering numbers of Griffon Vulture also continue to increase and perhaps reflect the continued availability of food at various feeding stations in the area. During recent years these large numbers of Griffons have also attracted Rüppell’s Vulture, Black Vulture and Red Kite.

Spring migration started early this year with arrivals of both Swallow and Pallid Swift during February. Bee Eater were back in late March (as opposed to late April in 2007) and the wonderful song of Nightingales could be heard in the river valleys during the final week in March. Raptor migration was poor this spring in comparison to other years, but we believe easterly and southerly winds most likely pushed most towards the plains in the West. Most notable an early bird this year was the male Whinchat seen on 30th March! The few early birds gave rise to a certain amount of expectancy for other species to also arrive a little ahead of their normal timescale, but the season proved to be a real mixed and strange one. Orphean Warbler and Bonelli’s Warbler both arrived late and Olivaceous Warbler has only now made its appearance. Another notable species for arriving late this year is Golden Oriole, males only recently being heard and rarely seen! Short-toed and Booted Eagle plus Black Kites are still passing through and on the 24th April Honey Buzzard were seen for the first time in reasonable numbers. I had my earliest ever White-rumped Swift on the 25th April, so the season has been a real mixed bag.

Each day has had its thrills and I guess the very good numbers of Wryneck seen this spring can be counted amongst my year’s highlights. Spectacled, Sub-alpine and Bonelli’s Warbler all appear to have arrived in good numbers and add to the chorus of newly arrived male birds proclaiming and establishing territories. Dippers are breeding again near to the Molino Del Santo hotel, so all seems well in my world!!! We have recently been updating our picture gallery for the birds of the area and these can be viewed by following this link:

Of possible interest to those with an interest in the flora of this stunning area, then we now do full day flower tours. More info on this link: