Monday, July 20, 2009

Flamingo success at Fuente de Piedra – Andalucía

Another year and, after the disappointment of 2008, I can report on a successful breeding season at Fuente de Piedra for Greater Flamingo Pheonicopterus roseus. 2009 saw the 25th anniversary for ringing of the Greater Flamingo chicks at Fuente de Piedra and a total of 600 chicks (only a small representative sample of the total raised) were fitted with specially coded plastic colour rings. These colour rings can be easily read through telescopes and sometimes through binoculars, allowing observers to report on the movements of these birds as soon as they gain their independence and are able to fly to feeding grounds throughout the region and North Africa.

The ringing of Greater Flamingo chicks is a highly organised affair and run with military precision. The group of volunteers, numbering somewhere over 300, embark during cover of darkness slowly and silently encircling the nursery of young. As dawn arrives the nursery is slowly and safely encouraged towards a fence line and bell mouth shaped entrance to a holding corral. For the protection of the young, the entrance and corral are lined and padded with soft fabric and the corral is circular to avoid any sharp edges. This year, from the moment the required number where successfully corralled to the moment when all had been ringed and released took a grand total of 2 hours. If you consider the operation and further that each bird is processed for weight, measurements, blood sampling and inspected by attending veterinaries, then the minimum of time taken is a huge tribute to the thorough organisation of the operation.

It’s been quite a year for the species at Fuente de Piedra with in excess of 30,000 adults being reported on occasions. As the water levels drop, many adults make the daytime journey to Huelva and the Doñana to feed and return during the night to provide necessary sustenance for their young. An undisputed burden and act of dedication with a round journey every day of at least 160km to feed their offspring! Talking with the wardens I learnt that Lesser Flamingo Pheonicopterus minor apparently attempted to breed, but they believed the eggs were accidentally broken by the brooding adult and no further evidence was discovered to suggest breeding took place with any second attempt.

(Flamingo article: Thanks for the photographs, courtesy of my friend José A. Cortés - Peter)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cold, wet, hot and sticky!

June has certainly been a month of contrasts regarding our local weather, from cold days and thunderstorms to hot days and balmy nights. It has been unusual for the month to be so unsettled. The landscape underwent its normal changes in colour going from vibrant greens, interspersed with dazzling patchworks of multi coloured flowering plants, to dry and crisp browns and beige. Harvest of the cereal crops is well underway and a hush has descended upon the normally vociferous male birds of our mountains. Many adult birds can now be seen foraging in earnest to keep pace with the demands of their broods, whilst any standing water attracts insect and bird to quench a thirst induced by warmer days. It is a time of year when you can feel the urgency in nature to procreate and take full advantage during a time of plenty.
For different people there will have been differing highlights to the month here, but certainly for me the discovery of a fine pair of adult Egyptian Vultures in the higher reaches of Llanos de Libar will remain a moment to treasure. I even had a sub-adult in the same area and it is such a good feeling to know they remain in the area and are hanging-on despite so many pressures on their very existence. The pair of young breeding Golden Eagles seem to have been unsuccessful and I have not seen them in the area of the nest for a couple of weeks now, hopefully with another year’s experience they will try again next year. Whilst both Northern and Black Wheatears seem to be enjoying a good year the very low numbers of Black-eared Wheatear in their normal breeding grounds is cause for concern. Another bird that seems to be down in numbers is Rock Thrush. Birding always seems to produce surprises and this year is no exception, I discovered a new site for the locally very rare Spanish Sparrow and after no early arrivals Western Olivaceous Warbler is back in apparently greater numbers than last year. White-rumped Swifts have obliged me more this year than any other and Lesser Kestrels are showing signs of an increase. It is heartening to be able to report the safe fledging of Bonelli’s Eagle at 4 of the nest sites I kept watch over.
June keeps me pretty busy guiding folk in the area and this year has seen most days spent out and around in my local patch. I am sure most will have enjoyed not only the birds, but also the huge variety of butterflies seen this month. We have also had many a day with good sightings of Ibex, Red Deer and an exceptional view of Mongoose. Friends have had the pleasure on most days of seeing the magnificent Ocellated Lizard, a fearsome reptile that can grow to very large proportions! Colour and high value has figured highly among the birding during the month with Roller, Golden Oriole, Kingfisher and Bee eater providing the Oooo-Aahs among fellow travellers. Elusive or more correctly skulking birds such as Dartford, Sub-alpine and Spectacled Warbler have been very obliging of late and Iberian Chiffchaff seems to be more conspicuous or plentiful this year. Thekla and Woodlark seem to have had a good year with Orphean and Fan-tailed Warblers holding their own. An area full of surprises has been the eastern end of the Zahara reservoir where both Reed Warbler and Whitethroat have colonised the luxuriant growth of Tamarisk, but the greatest surprise has been the sighting of a Rufous Bush Robin.


Time flies or is it my age?

A great plus to living and working around the Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema is to know where the birds are at any given time and where to go according to local weather conditions. The area and its surrounds have to be one of the best birding hot spots in southern Spain. The choice of sites and species, at all times of the year, make it one of the most popular sites visited by nature tour operators and individuals (with an eye for bird) in Spain. My knowledge of the area, and in particular the variable weather conditions, helped several people get the best out of their time here during the beginning of May 2009. As with April the month has, so far, not really settled and we are still getting the odd day of low cloud and rain (much to the joy of the locals). A feature of the spring migration this year has been the on and off arrival of many of our summer residents. It has been strange to watch Bee Eaters Merops apiaster going through for almost 6 weeks, but only see the occupation of breeding sites take place over the last fortnight. Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus has been very late to arrive at traditional sites and at least one star turn for the summer, Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica, has failed to occupy many known and favoured areas. After six years officially declared drought years, we had substantial rainfall this winter and the consequence has been luxuriant growth to our vegetation, great for the wildflower enthusiast, but not so good if you are a Black-eared Wheatear requiring low field layers and bare areas.

During days when conditions have made birding difficult in the high Sierras I have tended to go to a couple of lowland sites. It is so good to report here how good Fuente de Piedra has been this spring after such a disaster last year. The spring of this year has seen the lagoon and surrounding scrapes with plenty of water producing great relief for the breeding Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus (some 20/25,000 are currently there) and migrating waders. Some notable birds seen there this year are White-winged Black Tern Chlidonias leucopterus, Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotus, several Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii and up to 7 Lesser Flamingos Phoenicopterus minor (reported to be breeding this year). It has been great to watch several wader species pass through in their full breeding plumage none more colourful than the many (brick red) Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea and watching displaying Ruff Philomachus pugnax has been both amusing and a privilege. Even the gull enthusiast could find solace so far from the coast with both Mediterranean Larus melanocephalus and Slender-billed Gull Larus genei putting in appearances. A solitary drake White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala has remained at one of the lagoons for a few months now and seems to like the company of the Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina, often in the company of the males perhaps it prefers blonds! I have also managed a few excursions off the Sierras to the Jimena area and this month has been extremely good for the elusive Rufous Bush Chat Cercotrichas galactotes, always difficult I now have the perfect spot for them. In the same area I had high numbers of Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris, Melodious Warbler Hippolias polyglotta and some tremendous views of Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus wheeling their way northwards.

By now most of the summer residents are back on their familiar territories, whilst late northern migrants such as Whinchat Saxicola rubetra, Honey Buzzard and straggling Black Kites Milvus migrans continue to make their long journey to higher latitudes. A surprise sighting for me on the Rio Guadiaro was 3 Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides and all this whilst watching Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Melodious and Olivaceous Warbler Hippolias opaca! Little-ringed Plover Charadrius dubius are sat tight on their eggs and our Bonelli’s Eagle Aquila pennata are all very busy feeding young, although they continue to be easily distracted by Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus and any other raptor that has the bare cheek to wander too close to their nest. It was amusing for me to watch a male Bonelli’s Eagle getting some of his own medicine near to Cueavas by receiving the unwanted and persistent attention of 2 Raven Corvus corax. Higher in the uppermost reaches of the Llanus de Libar Woodlark Lullula arborea are now being accompanied by fledged young as too are Stonechats Saxicola rubicola. Around the villages young Swallow Hirundo rustica can be seen flying around the rooftops with both Pallid Apus pallidus and Common Swift Apus apus as company. Cuevo de Gato is always an attraction at this time of year with its large colony of Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba and large numbers of Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris, strangely absent but present further down river is Golden Oriole. Apart from the ever present Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, it has also been a feature of this site to see Dipper Cinclus cinclus and I guess this is due to the recent cleaning of the river (the sewerage plant in Ronda is at last functioning). The high area of the Alta Genal has produced great days out this month with the discovery of a pair of sub-adult Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos attempting to breed. Whether these two youngsters will be successful remains to be seen, but they certainly add to the many reasons for visiting this wonderful route. Along the rocky areas of this route is good for Blue Rock Monticola solitarius and Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis, Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura, Black-eared Wheatear, Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax and many raptors.

It will soon be time for me to get to grip once more with ringing adult Subalpine Sylvia cantillans and Bonelli’s Warbler Phylloscopus bonelli and before I know it (age has this affect) I will be concentrating on autumn migration!


All is well in my mountains

Do you ever get one of those days, when sitting quietly and surrounded by the sheer beauty of nature, that a feeling wells from inside and creates a feeling of such tranquillity as to be almost spiritual? I had this experience today. Deciding to forsake the million things to do on the dreaded computer, I set-off for a tour via the Sevilla road to Montejaque, Benaojan and then to Indiana on the Rio Guadiaro. Prior to Montejaque, near to the famous ‘I don’t work’ dam I had a small herd of Ibex and tumbling through the blue skies above were passing flocks of Black Kite. On top of the pyramid shaped monte corto sat two Short-toed Eagles, looking strangely out of place perched as they were amongst at least fifty Griffon Vultures. Lesser Kestrel were calling and busy hawking insects just above the defunct dam with Blue Rock Thrush and Black Wheatear sat in the gallery watching their mastery of the air. Crag Martins seemed more intent on playfully skipping across the contours of the many rock faces than seriously looking for food. After a brief, but highly satisfying lunch at the Bar Stop at Benaojan Station, I arrived at Indiana. Here, accompanied by the sound of water tumbling over the crafted round stones that form the riverbed, the bright sunshine reflected like jewels in the crown of the Rio Guadiaro and after some minutes I felt the hair on my neck prickle from a sensation of bliss. Little Egrets danced after fish in the backdrop of my view and Green Sandpipers ran comically along the water’s edge. From the rock outcrops of the riverbed, White Wagtails and a solitary Grey Wagtail hopped and jumped after insects as they passed over their heads. It seemed that every overhanging bush or reed had its own Chiffchaff, that would dart from their perches and join the wagtails gorging on a most perfect day for insects. Occasionally a Cetti’s Warbler would burst into song and for a brief moment drown the sound from the rushing river. A flash of blue and a Kingfisher cut through my vision and awakened me from my slumbering watch. Probably just as well as I wanted to go further up river and check for a few more birds!

Parking the car after the second bridge on the river track I unloaded the scope and focused on a nearby bluff and managed to locate a pair of Bonelli’s Eagle sat lazily on a protruding bush, looking totally disinterested in any activity. Just by this parking area a stream flows into the main river and I watched my first Red-rumped Swallows casually inspecting the under parts of the bridge. They are such an attractive bird, more glide than flap than we notice in the more common Barn Swallow. They, or at least what I take to have been the male, were calling and singing, a comical sound that is more like musical notes created electronically on a computer keyboard! I also saw half a dozen Sand Martins (again a first for my patch this year) doing a fly-by with several Barn Swallows. Feeling the sun and a tiredness induced by a more than sufficient lunch, I made my way back to park beside the river. A Water Pipit, getting its first signs of a pink blush, sat on an exposed part of the riverbed midstream. Whilst watching this fine Pipit I noticed that it kept flapping and moving around as if avoiding some unseen phantom. Training my binoculars on the bird I saw a very large Carpenter Bee literally buzzing the Pipit. It made for a highly amusing interlude and definitely a case of the ‘insect bites back’. My final sighting before heading home was a pair of Little-ringed Plover. Now here I have to admit to a very serious shortcoming. In my advanced years and after birding for more fifty of them, then I am prone to bouts of laziness and not writing things down. This deficiency brings me to a question. Little-ringed Plover breed on this river, but isn’t it a tad early for them to be back?All in all a good day and reassuring that all is well in my mountains.


Life in the Feezer

Okay, maybe it isn’t quite so cold down here in deepest south Andalucia, but if you are used to higher temperatures, then the weather so far in January has been decidedly cool. In fact, up here in my mountains, we had one night of -5, so that has to qualify as ruddy cold.

One of the great incentives to get out and about during these early months is the territorial and displaying raptors. Wandering the track at Libar the Griffon Vultures fly-by in syncronised display and those perched on ledges get excited by the performance and accompany the fly pass with noises not dissimilar to honking donkeys! Both Golden and Bonelli’s Eagle are engrossed in re-establishing their territories and pair bonding. As in all things, the Bonelli’s appear to be acting aggressively, but after a time they separate and the male stoops and dives calling to his partner and you realise this is love in the fast lane. On Monday 12th of January, accompanied by the new ABS assistant newsletter editor (Robert Luecke), we counted no less than 4 Bonelli’s Eagle, over 100 Griffon Vulture, a Golden Eagle and a Long-legged Buzzard. Near to Serrato we managed a fine female Peregrine sunbathing on a nearby limestone peak. The previous week, Robert had Black Vulture here. On the Wednesday (14th) Robert headed to the Canete area and during the course of his travels he managed no less than 5 Bonelli’s and a pair of displaying Golden Eagle!
I ventured up to Sierra de Libar in the forlorn hope of seeing Wallcreeper, but I did manage Bonelli’s Eagle, Alpine Accentor, Ring Ouzel, Rock Bunting, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Lesser Kestrel, Black Redstart and Thekla Lark. Accompanied by friends it was good to be able to point-out a stunning showy male Dartford Warbler, normally confined to skulking in low scrub, this bird sat very obligingly on top of a rock. Crag Martins skimmed the cliff tops and several flocks of mixed finches were feeding amongst the hawthorn and field layer of dried thistles.
A notable aspect of birding here at the moment is the reduced numbers of both Meadow Pipit and White Wagtail. Certainly numbers are well down on the seasonal norm and I wonder if the recent cold front has moved birds further south? I am leading a group to Morocco for 3 days next week, so it will be interesting to see if numbers there are significantly increased.


An Autumn ebbs and winter touches our mountains

With the autumn slowly, but surely, passing into winter, many of our lingering migrants have ventured further south seeking warmer climes. Now our winter visitors are increasing in number as temperatures in the northern and middle reaches of Spain begin to fall. As in northern parts of Europe, the first bird to bring news of winter’s cold front is the beautifully coloured and elegant looking Lapwing Vanellus vanellus. The Spanish call this wader Avefria and loosely translates to ‘bird of the cold’. Hopefully I won’t be seeing many Lapwings then! In Andalucia we are lucky to avoid the worst of the cold fronts and generally enjoy moderate temperatures during winter. Taking advantage of these warmer temperatures, our resident birds have now been joined by Alpine Accentor, Ring Ouzel, Siskin, Brambling and odd Black Vulture and Long-legged Buzzard. It seems that in the case of Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, sightings are becoming regular and this species has gone from being a distinct rarity to a scarce autumn and winter visitor. There are even reports of breeding near to the Tarifa area!

I am still managing the odd day’s work and visit my ‘favourite’ local area behind the white village of Montejaque as often as time allows. Here the hawthorn bushes are now frequented by good numbers of Ring Ouzel. These winter visitors arrive with a wave of migrants during October and although most pass-on to northern Africa, many stay to winter in this area. The large majority of those choosing to stay are of the race Turdus torquatus (originating from north Europe), but we also have the sub species Turdus torquatus alpestris (an alpine bird that also breeds in northern Spain), which winter in small numbers. It is remarkable that any T.t.alpestris winter here as the great majority winter mainly in north-west Africa, especially in the Atlas Saharien regions on dry and bare slopes or crests with juniper woodland. Joining these handsome birds this year are unusually high numbers of Redwing, certainly more than I have previously witnessed. The area high on this route behind Montejaque, known as Sierra de Libar, has been frequented by a family of Golden Eagle during autumn and the calls of the juvenile could often be heard resounding from the steep sided mountains that surround this high valley. More recently, and for a second time, I thought I was witnessing the pair of adults driving away another encroaching adult, but as the birds approached me, I could see the ‘other’ bird was a pale juvenile Imperial Eagle. Amazing, my first local sighting of this species for a couple of years!

I always find Black Wheatear a lot easier to observe at this time of year and reaffirming my idea on resident pairs is always a task I look forward to during this season. It is amusing to watch the antics of territorial pairs of Black Wheatear confirming their feeding rights by constantly chasing away Black Redstart, Stonechat and Blue Rock Thrush from favoured areas. Equally, a joy to the ears (cold as they might be) is the song and song flight of Blue Rock Thrush. These magnificent thrushes seem to sing at all times of year and, despite the best efforts of Black Wheatears, they can be frequently observed proclaiming their territories during winter.

Other birds which appear more confiding during this period are Rock and Cirl Bunting, although their habit of flocking outside of the breeding season obviously means you spot them more readily. Huge flocks of mixed finches are now common, feeding on fallow fields and the area near to Acinipo (old Ronda) allow close views of these and large numbers of Corn Bunting. This same area offers great chances to see Crested and Thekla Lark feeding alongside of each other. Another species which I managed to find in the almost down-land like habitat which surrounds Acinipo is Hen Harrier. The male of the species is spectacularly coloured and against an ink coloured sky, with its clear white under parts contrasting with black wing tips, can give an impression of an enormous gull species. It is also a very good time to find large flocks of Rock Sparrow, together with the huge flocks of finches; they also feed on open and fallow ground. These birds can be surprisingly difficult in the breeding season, as they tend to feed amongst Karst type habitats and you need them to pop-up on any prominent rock to see them clearly.

With further sightings of Wallcreeper behind Montejaque, this species has truly added itself to our winter bird list. Of course the bird is in winter’s dull overcoat, only joking, but you have to admit they look far more attractive in their summer’s breeding attire! I now wander the mountains here looking-up at every cliff face just to see if these super birds are present elsewhere. Apart from anything else, I now go around with a permanent neck ache!