Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Winter's Tale

And so retribution has been cruelly dealt for having basked in unashamed glory during the autumn past! Golden sunlit days and balmy temperatures seem but distant memories as our mountains were plunged into the heaviest and most prolonged period of rainfall on record. Low temperatures, flooding and landslides conspired to keep any sane birder well locked-up in their nests, whilst optimism and unfounded faith in the law of averages soon waned with the sheer number of wet and grey days. Needless to say wading up to your neck in muck and water had a profound affect in curtailing the enthusiasm of an old warrior, who also had the cast iron alibi that leading tours to Gambia, Senegal and Costa Rica meant birding for the period could be achieved without any self inflicted hardship! Lame excuse for such behaviour, but then again you shouldn’t believe everything you read and also being birdwatchers yourselves, then you know very well what total idiots we can be by venturing out in the most appalling conditions. And so armed with soggy telescope, binoculars and clothing I put my best and most stupid foot forward and sallied forth into the grey murky mountains of the Serranía de Ronda.

I guess fortune favours the brave, or in this case a rather wet idiot. Have you noticed, no matter how tight you fasten your waist belt, rain water from your neck races down the recesses of your spinal track and ends up in the most uncomfortable of places? I am not sure why I should continue to be surprised by the fortitude and resilience of our birds, but with such harsh weather I expected to find very little activity among my birds, how daft a notion. The bumper harvest of Hawthorn berries ensured Ring Ouzel, Redwing and Song Thrush remained to squabble with competing Spotless and Common Starling, whilst the local flock of Crag Martins were accompanied by a single and one assumes lost, if not demented, House Martin. Alpine Accentor had, despite atrocious conditions, increased in numbers during December through to February and a single Fieldfare, a rare winter visitor, joined several Mistle Thrush on the scrub slopes of the lower Libar. Blue Rock Thrush were singing their song of spring in defiance of the weather and were constantly being interrupted by the aggressive and highly territorial Black Wheatear. Of course our regular residents and winter visitors appeared unaffected by the gloom and seemed to be present in their usual numbers, the only birds to be displaced were Common and Green Sandpipers, normally seen along the gentle flow of our rivers which by now had become raging torrents and higher than I have ever seen them.

On a very few clear days I managed to visit a few favoured haunts and was rewarded by excellent views of both Golden and Bonelli’s Eagle. Both of these handsome raptors are now adding materials to their nests and getting very excited by the close proximity of their chosen partners, fruity, aroused and copulating are they right now! Where the Bonelli gets very protective of their territory against all who trespass, the Golden Eagle seems remarkably uninterested and almost aloof, especially with the constant harassment from Choughs, but this mood is instantly changed when Ravens appear on the scene. It is hard not to make the larger birds anything other than the stars of my winter show; memorable sightings since December have included Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black Vulture, Rüppell's Vulture, Goshawk and most recently, admittedly not on my local patch, 18 Great Bustard near to Osuna. So bad as the weather has been, birding still provided highlights to lessen the burden of winter and now migration has already begun with Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow, House Martin and Black Kite passing in large numbers, whilst the odd Booted and Short-toed Eagle have added some extra spice along with Great-spotted Cuckoo.