At least 285 bird species have been recorded on the Island, many of them rarities which mostly turn up during the migration periods of Spring and Autumn. There are several Heligoland Traps and and ringers use mist nets to capture, record and ring birds. In June though very few vagrants are expected. During our week a Grasshopper Warbler, a Chiffchaff and a Spotted Flycatcher were ringed but that was about it as I recall. I spotted a solitary Curlew, there were resident Barn Swallows, a few Sandwich Terns and Cormorants were nesting, otherwise the only birds were those in considerable numbers that I write about and post here.
Kittiwakes nest on tiny ledges clinging to sheer cliff faces which looks extremely precarious. particularly for the chicks, but there always appears to be a parent bird present to protect them from falling.
They make a fine sight as they tumble aerobatically up and down the vertical cliff faces, using the updrafts to act as an elevator.
Unlike gull chicks, which wander about at a very young age, Kittiwake chicks instinctively remain still to avoid falling. It is apparently instinctive, but one look at the sheer drop below would make me sit still too, perhaps they are just too terrified to move.
Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are very numerous. They nest on the grassy hillsides amongst the Puffin burrows. Puffins are left alone except when they return from a fishing expedition, when they are at great risk of being robbed. Gulls will not follow a Puffin down a burrow, which is narrow and over a metre in length. In there they would be at a severe disadvantage, susceptible to being bitten by a big, brightly coloured bill.
Here's a pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls engaged in a tug-of-war, no idea why but they seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps a trial of strength.
Greater Black-backed Gulls are at the top of the food chain on the Island, the apex predator. Elena was quite upset by the sight of a G B B Gull brandishing a herring gull chick at the raucous mob of gulls around it, before swallowing the chick whole. It is the largest Gull in the World. The only predators that routinely take them are large Eagles and Killer Whales, none of which are present here. In spite of their physical superiority there are far fewer of them on the Island than the other gull species.
The Fulmar Petrel is not related to the gulls even though it resembles them in appearance. It is in a group with other tubenoses, the Petrels and Shearwaters which are all allied to Albatrosses.
The Island hosts large colonies of nesting Arctic Terns. This amazing bird made a great impression on me and it has become one of my firm favourites.
The Arctic Tern was once known as the "Sea Swallow", describing its slender shape as it swoops over the water with extreme grace and speed. It is very beautiful. But there is much more to admire about this species. It is very feisty, showing no fear in defending its nesting grounds by attacking any perceived intruders, including us.
We stuck to the footpaths which wind through their nesting areas but it's necessary to wear a hat or hold something over your head as they attack quite fearlessly, screaming as they swoop in to peck at your highest point.
I discovered that my 500mm lens was quite useless when it came to photographing this bird. Instead I fitted my little extreme wide-angle Sigma 8 - 16 mm lens and held it up as the Terns came in fast and low, firing shots in multiple bursts. It was the only way to capture the action.
Occasionally I would capture on camera the bird's third weapon of attack. Apart from its sharp beak and intimidating screams, it likes to fire streams of excrement at the enemy, me in this case. A waterproof hat and jacket was the best protection.
It was not all feisty aggression however. We witnessed many instances of birds passing fish back and forth between mates, obvious signs of bonding and affection.
Perhaps the most impressive fact to consider about the Arctic Tern, is that this lovely little graceful, elegant bird travels about 90,000 km (56,000 mi) annually, by far the longest migration known in the animal kingdom. The young reared here will, once fledged, fly off to Antarctica for the the Southern Summer, and six months later will set off once again to return. They certainly clock up the air-miles!
Our friend Mike Martin invited us to spend a week at the Bird Observatory on the Isle of May. The IoM is 5 miles off the coast of Scotland at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. It is owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. Most visitors are day trippers but up to six people can stay for one week at a time in very nice accommodation in the "Low Light" (below).
The Island is a major nesting site for around 200,000 seabirds. mainly Puffin, Arctic Tern, Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Kittiwake, Fulmar and Eider, plus three Gull species and numerous resident Rock Pipits.
Instead of a daily account of our activities and sightings I have decided to deal with each major bird species in turn, providing a photographic snapshot of the avian life on the Island in June, the height of the breeding season.
The Atlantic Puffin is perhaps the biggest attraction for visitors. It Spends autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, returning to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. It nests in clifftop colonies by digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. The chick mostly feeds on whole fish, here primarily sand eels. After about six weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It swims away from the shore and does not return to land for several years. Most of those from the IoM will end up in Norwegian waters. Interestingly I once spotted a solitary Puffin off the Spanish coast near Sotogrande, while on a sailing trip out of Gibraltar. They do disperse around coastal waters all over Europe..
There are no natural predators on the Island, raptors are driven away by the Gull population and the only animals present are rabbits. However Puffins returning to their burrows with fish are regularly mugged by marauding Gulls.
If a puffin is caught a violent struggle ensues which can last for some time until the weary victim reluctantly gives up its fish in order to escape. The triumphant Gull must grab the fish quickly or it will in turn be mugged by others of its kind.
I was impressed at how dertermined the Puffins were to hold on to their fish even under extreme duress. Occasionally they would break free and find safety in a burrow, but usually the much larger Gull would prevail, as in this case shown here.
Puffins numbers in some regions have declined quite drastically for various reasons so it is officially listed as threatened, vulnerable to extinction. It is a tribute to the excellent stewardship of the Isle of May that from only five pairs of Puffins breeding here in 1958, twenty years later there were 10,000 pairs and numbers are up again this year. Great news.
I decided to write a separate post about the target birds of this trip. Savi's Warbler and Bearded Reedling would be Spanish firsts for me and lifers for Elena. Mick Richardson had photographed both species here a few days earlier which was the motivation for us to make the four hour drive to get here. It proved to be well worth it.
I was concerned that I wouldn't recognise a Savi's Warbler if we saw one. They are visually so hard to distinguish from a common Reed Warbler. In the event I needn't have worried. We spent at least half an hour watching this guy at close range continuously belting out its strange, rattling/buzzing song. Imagine the sound of a cricket or grasshopper but without pause. That's it. It continues for ages.
Once you hear the song it is relatively easy to find the singer. He likes to sit high up in an exposed position and appears to be so engrossed in making his song as loud as possible that nothing much disturbes him. Superb.
The Bearded Tit has always been a favourite of bird photographers. The adult male is a splendid sight with those black moustaches on each cheek. They are often portrayed straddling two reeds, one foot on each, but here I could not get a bead on them in the reedbed which was too dense. I was lucky enough to grab a few shots of them on some dead bush branches when the birds emerged from their cover.
Scientists have decided it is not actually related to the tit family so it is now known as the Bearded Reedling in a family of its own. I still think of it as the Bearded Tit however and will always know it as that.
It was certainly a pleasure to find them here, the only place I have seen them in Spain. I am pleased to say they seemed to be prolific, we saw mostly juveniles, a very good sign and an indication that the health of the Tablas de Daimiel has been restored from a catastrophic decline in the sixties and seventies. The nearby town of Daimiel has a Centre devoted to the water management of the region and of the National Park in particular. On our next visit I intend to visit it and discover how they managed to reconcile the insatiable thirst for irrigation with water conservancy and protection of this valuable environment. A lesson perhaps for other sensitive areas, notably the Donana.
We did not linger in Daimiel this time, it was a flying visit and we found parking in this small town to be very difficult. Accommodation near the park is non existent so we took the advice of the local restaurant owner and drove to the slightly nearer town of Villarubia de los Ojos. Here we stayed in a quite unique establishment called "La Vista de la Mancha". This is a series of wooden cabins built on very high ground above the town with magnificent views across the surrounding Plains of La Mancha. The cabins are very comfortable and amongst many other birds we had Golden Orioles singing right next to our bedroom in the morning. (Couldn't see them of course). I would advise people thinking of staying overnight to book here in advance, it is a very popular holiday destination for the Spanish. It might be noisy on a Saturday night as the disco will be going until late. There is a restaurant on site and I was a bit peckish so ordered a couple of chicken wings. In the event I was given a huge plate loaded with fourteen deep fried wings and thighs, enough to feed an army. Elena and I had observed that almost everybody around here was overweight, many morbidly obese. It must be the diet and if my deep fried mound was anything to go by it's not surprising.
Inspired by Mick Richardson's photos and report from Tablas de Damiel Elena and I drove there on Friday to see for ourselves. I had hesitated before, expecting it to be dried up and over exploited for irrigation, which is the dreary story for most natural water resources in Spain. We were very pleasantly surprised however. It had been virtually destroyed in the 60s & 70s but great efforts have been made since then to restore the water levels and now it is a little wetland paradise for birders.
From the Visitors Center there are a number of marked trails, yellow, red and blue. They are freely accessible at any time, early morning being the best. The Yellow Trail is particularly productive as it follows a superb boardwalk through the shallow wetland giving superb views of reedbed and ponds with surrounding low trees and bushes. The clear waters are teeming with fish. Purple, Grey and Night Herons are easily seen, as are egrets and a variety of waterfowl, especially Red Crested Pochard and Great Crested Grebe.
A variety of Raptors can be seen overhead, these include Marsh and Montagu's harrier, Osprey, Common Buzzard and Kestrel. I also spotted a Bonellis Eagle along the road to the Reserve from Daimiel.
A Southern Smooth Snake slithered out of the water and across the wooden debris by the riverside.
A young Barn Swallow flexing its wings while perched over the boardwalk along the Yellow Trail.
Reed Warblers and Great reed Warblers could be heard at all times in the reedbeds. Occasionally they would be visible through the tall grass stems allowing some photography.
Tablas de Daimiel is a superb little National Park/Reserve and is well worth a visit by birders. get there early and if possible avoid weekends at it can get very busy with busloads of schoolchildren and tourists. In the quiet hours around sunrise it is idyllic.
Elena and I enjoyed our visit to the Sierra de Loja so much we decided to go back for another look. The landscape up here is rocky and some might say bleak but we like the wildness, the light and the birds. It is relatively untouched by humankind except for a few grazing sheep and the placement of a number of wind turbines on the highest reaches. The views can be spectacular and I particularly enjoy spending a day without seeing another soul, except for a solitary shepherd and a couple of extremely capable mountain bikers at the very top, I take my hat off to them.
One of the birds we enjoyed seeing so much is the "Common" Rock Thrush. Formerly known as Rufous-tailed it is now officially "Common". I guess it distinguishes it from others such as the Blue Rock Thrush, but it is by no means common. For a start it is only normally found at altitudes above 1500 m. and in warmer climates. So relatively few people ever get to see one.
Common or not Rock Thrushes are a delight to watch. On our previous trip we strangely only saw males, not that I am complaining because they are by far the most striking to look at, but where were the females? perhaps they are incubating eggs or tending chicks in the nest, who knows? but it was reassuring to finally see a female or two. It was fascinating to watch the couple's behaviour. The male would take up a watchfull higher vantage point as the female foraged on the ground nearby, mainly for nesting material that we observed. Occasionally the pair would be harassed by other males who would chase the female and squabble with the attendant male. This led me to believe there may be a shortage of female birds, sad for all those young and frisky males without partners. Here's a shot of a female gathering nest material.
Rock Thrush males likes to make vertical flights. They shoot straight up in the air, usually singing loudly, then drop straight down again. It is amusing to watch them appear over a ridge in this manner as if shot up from a gun. I imagine it is some kind of display for the benefit of admiring females.
It was a very pleasant place to spend a few hours in the sun. Five Griffon Vultures were wheeling in a thermal over the ridge, Red-billed Choughs, Linnets, Black redstarts, Rock Buntings, Rock Sparrows, Black and Black-eared Wheatears were moving all around us. Red-legged partridges roamed the rocky terrain and liked to perch on conspicuously high rocks, Groups of Ibex roamed the slopes and I spotted a bright green Ocellated Lizard scurry across the track in front of the car.
We did see a few Blue Rock Thrushes up here too. I did not manage to get any decent shots unfortunately but here's a couple of archived shots for illustrative purposes.
On the way down from the Sierra I snapped a couple of quick photos of a Stonechat. Now I am not in the habit of photographing such a common bird but something about this one caught my eye. For a start it was perched quite high up in a tree in woodland, not on a low shrub or rock in open ground as usual. Second it did not look quite right, the orange on the breast was more of a central patch than an overall colour, and third the hint of pale feathers behind the eye. This bird did not have quite the same "Jizz" as a normal Stonechat. Looking in Collins Field Guide I see there is an Eastern species, saxicola torquatus maurus that fits this description, and it states that "Stragglers to W. Europe show hints of pale buff eyebrows". Could this be one of those "Eastern Stonechat Straggers"? I like to think so.
A couple of visits to Sierra Loja in Granada Province, and a walk around the Guadalhorce in Malaga produced a few nice birding moments and photographs. Perhaps the highlight was watching Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes up in the highest part of Sierra Loja.
The Rock Thrush is a summer visitor from Sub-Sahara, it inhabits and breeds here on steep rocky mountain slopes and alpine meadows above 1500 meters. Sierra Loja is one such location.
The male in Spring is a very handsome bird with a blue/grey head clearly demarcated from the orange breast and belly. Females are supposedly more anonymous in vermiculated and striped browns, but interestingly we observed perhaps four or five pairs, all of which looked like males, strange.
I was interested to see a nice male Montagu's Harrier up here, probably the same bird spotted by Kevin Wade and Ricky Owen a few days earlier. This is essentially a lowland species but I suspect the attraction up here is the number of ground nests and in particular Partridges, which are very numerous.
This bird seems to have been successful in finding a Red-legged Partridge Chick, easy pickings perhaps for a bird with such amazing eyesight and flying agility.
There are a number of other species to be seen in this habitat. Not least the Rock Bunting which is very common. I like this shot of one singing its heart out on a lichen encrusted rock.
The bird below I initially thought was a Spectacled Warbler. Bob Wright who was with us at the time thought Whitethroat. I am still undecided. Bob has more experience than me, so this, plus the relatively low forehead and rather strong legs has persuaded me it's a Whitethroat, but I am not 100% on it.
A shopping trip to IKEA gave us the opportunity for a walk around the Guadalhorce Reserve near Malaga Airport. This does not have the variety or number of birds of a few years ago but the exercise was welcome and we did see some nice Kentish Plovers which appeared to be nesting on the beach. This would be unfortunate because here they will be subject to a lot of human and canine disturbance on warm sunny days. How can you tell a bird to stick to their protected area?
The Sanderling below had me confused. They are normally very active, scurrying around dodging the surf along the waterline in small flocks. This bird was solitary and very passive, it hardly moved. Perhaps it was not well but anyway I really like the beautiful marbled wing and back Spring plumage . I posted it on Facebook as a Little Stint but John Cantelo kindly corrected my error.
Between South Africa and Morocco I did not do much birding around home, it seems quite flat as the number and variety of birds has declined drastically over the last few years and there is not much about to stir the blood. However I did get to the Charca de Suarez a couple of times and had a look at the Dipper site on the Rio Guadalfeo, so here are a few shots from those visits.
The Ferruginous Duck is classified as Near Threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Hunting, loss of habitat, drought due to climate change are some of the reasons. It was nice to see few at the Charca de Suarez in March/April.
I don't get to see many Sedge Warblers so although this is not a very good photograph I post it for the record. Charca de Suarez in April.
The Common Sandpiper is as its name suggests, very common, but I like this shot from the Charca taken in good light and fairly close.
Four Booted Eagles at once over the Charca and I captured two in this shot including the solitary dark morphed bird.
I found this Dipper inspecting the nest site on the Rio Guadalfeo but the water level is down to about half from the previous year so I'm not sure if they will actually nest this year. We shall see. The prolonged drought combined with the increase in irrigation for the explosive spread of horticulture under plastic in Andalucia has denuded water supplies drastically. The famaous Chillar River walk in Nerja will be a thing of the past from this year, all the water is being diverted to Lake Vinuela which is very low.
The Grey Wagtails at the Rio Guadalfeo make a pleasant sight as always, one of the most colourful and attractive species in Europe.
Our ferry from Motril to Tanger Med was running five hours late due to strong winds in the Straits over past few days. We eventually arrived at the Maison d'hotes Berbari near Asilah at 3 am but were ushered in and taken care of. This was our bedroom....
....and this the view of the courtyard from our breakfast table, breakfast was outstanding by the way and this country hotel was delightful, hard to find along a long dirt road but well worth the effort. We stayed two nights at a bargain rate of 50 euros per night.
We watched storks nesting in the grounds...
...and along the dirt road picked up several birds including this Bonelli's Warbler enjoying a morning bath in a puddle.
Asilah is a very picturesque Moroccan town with a thriving artistic community and a superb Medina (Old town). This was not specifically a birding trip and we stayed two days here enjoying the atmosphere and the food, which was excellent.
However I did have a target bird to find and we moved on to Moulay Bousel Ham by the Merja Zerga Biological Reserve just a bit further down the coast. This is a tidal lagoon with surrounding marshland. The lagoon hosts 100 bird species, between 15,000 and 30,000 ducks overwinter here, and it regularly holds 50,000 to 100,000 waders.
We stayed at the excellent Vila Nora hotel from where we arranged our guide Hassan Khalil who would to try to find our target species, Asio capensis. The Marsh Owl is a resident species here. A few sites like this in Northern Morocco are the only places one can see this species north of the Sahara Desert.
Hassan told us that the Owl no longer roosted near the campsite in Moulay Bousalhem, to have a chance of seeing one it would be necessary to venture out into the marshes around the head of the estuary. So that evening we drove about 10 or 15 kilometers out of town and took a rough track through some farmland, then set off on foot into the marshes. At first we saw no sign of the owl but I was very pleased to see so many Montagu's Harriers, at one point I counted ten of them all wheeling around quartering the marshes for rodents and large insects..
As we wandered through the marshes we enjoyed the Harriers and I took some photographs. As time passed and we covered more ground however it became apparent that we would probably not be lucky enough to see an owl before complete darkness set in. As the sun went down and the light faded almost completely we accepted defeat and were about to leave when Hassan thought he heard something. He gave it one last attempt and moved towards the sound and a stunning Marsh Owl flew up from its roost amongst the tall grass tussocks, and settled on a fencepost. I set my ISO and aperture to maximum (6400 at f4) and moved slowly towards the bird, taking pictures as I went.
The shot above conveys no impression of the actual light at the time. It was almost completely dark but with that high ISO setting any light would be utilised and I was getting shots at 1/20th of a second or slower. The Owl was wonderful, such a powerful and enigmatic presence. Moments like this are the essence of bird watching for me. Below is another of these low-light shots as I got quite close to the bird. Again the photo gives a completely false impression of the light but the effect of using such a high ISO imparts a soft, almost dreamlike imaget which I find quite appealing, a reminder of the feeling of being out in the wild marshes at night & coming face-to-face with this magnificent wild creature.
Hassan was keen to try again early the following morning in better light, so he and I arrived again at sunrise for another attempt. The shepherd below watched us in mild bewilderment, no doubt wondering about the strange behaviour of some foreigners. Anyway there was no sign of the owl but Hassan is not one to give up easily so we moved on to another location and with the help of a young shepherd who knew where the birds were we eventually found one which again flew conveniently onto a fencepost, allowing me to get some technically better shots from fairly close range. Superb.
It is easy to see the improvement in quality of the photos below taken in good light. The low-light shots though have value, they are a reminder of a special birding moment and convey a different feel which is nice to look back on.
After our sojourn in the marshes we returned to our hotel for a leisurely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Atlantic where we formulated our plan for the rest of the day. We would take a look at a small lake that Hassan knew of some distance from the town, then later in the afternoon we would take a boat trip around Merja Zerga Lagoon to view waders and seabirds.
The lake turned out to be superb, quite a long way out of town and there were a bunch of boys playing football close to the shore, so many of the birds had moved across to the far banks. We could see many Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers, Purple, Grey, Squacco and Night Herons, Red Knobbed Coots, three Grebe speces including G. Crested, many ducks including Red Crested Pochard and much more. However we were looking into the sun at this time and with the boys there most birds were some way off, so we decided to return in the morning when the light would be better and hopefully less disturbance.
After the lake we had a siesta before embarking on Hassan's boat for a trip around the Laguna. There were all manner of Waders present, too numerous to list them all but I enjoyed seeing so many Curlews. We were all pleased to see Lesser Crested Terns too along with Little and Caspian Terns, the Lesser Crested bring a few birders in as they are uncommon, which is good business for Hassan.
Always great to see Curlew, but this place was once the haunt of the now famous Slender Billed Curlew and many birders are still hopeful that they will discover it here once again. Alas it is highly unlikely. After a long period of steady decline the slender-billed curlew is extremely rare and possible extinct. This were thought to be fewer than 50 adult birds left in 2007 and I don't think any have been seen since then. As a result it is now listed as critically endangered and is almost certainly the first European bird species to become extinct since the last great auk died in 1852. Hassan has a copy of the last photo taken here by a British ornithologist, I forget which year it was but there will probably never be another one.
Here's another bird that I always enjoy seeing, the Slender-billed Gull. A very elegant member of the Gull family, quite unlike most of its relatives.
After our fascinating trip around the lagoon we thanked Hassan & hoped we would see him again. he is a good and hard working guide who cares about the birds and the state of the wildlife of his native Morocco..
The Common Bulbul is easily seen here, this shot taken from the terrace of our hotel. I was surprised to hear their very sonorific song. Sometimes the plainest of birds have the sweetest song.
Next morning we had decided to have another look at the freshwater lake Hassan showed us earlier. It should be quiet at this early hour and the sun would be behind us. Sure enough it was an idyllic scene spoilt only by the dreadful plastic litter strewn everywhere. The advance of the plastic greenhouse has been an environmental disaster, it's bad enough in Spain but here they seem to have no concept at all about looking after their environment, the countryside has become a huge rubbish tip.
Happily I spotted a magnificent male Marsh Harrier engaged with its partner in nest building amongst the reeds at one end of the lake. There were lots of birds about but I only had eyes for this one. The male Marsh harrier is a very handsome bird indeed, much more spectacular than its rather plain mate, and they are extremely difficult to photograph, being very shy and wary of humans.
I saw this as a great opportunity to get some decent photographs of a much admired bird, I could get reasonably close to the nest site without being seen as there was plenty of cover, so I made my way carefully to as close as I dare and for the next hour sat watching the pair bringing nest material and searching for prey.
Eventually I had my fill and collected a few good shots, so we made our way back to the car and set off for Fez and a bit of tourism. Our Moroccan birding was over for a while but I'm sure we will be back. It had been fun.
Retired seafarer living in Frigiliana, a white village in Malaga Province in southern Spain. Married to Elena. Keen bird and wildlife watchers.
More interesting sites