27/03 : Sierra de María

Although I have three morning's birding to write up as my sister is out from the UK and this will get done Saturday after she's departed to the land of the long white snow, it's easier to put in Dave's at 07.40 this Thursday morning, especially after hearing a large flock of Bee-eaters passing over at 07.15 whilst out with my aging spaniel. 
Dave, my sister is enchanted by your photo of the Crested Tit and wants one for her birthday as she is still severely traumatised by not getting a water rat (vole) for her fourth birthday and '...getting a b****y red scooter' instead. She takes a long time to get over things and blames our mother for reading 'Wind in the Willows' to her at too young an age. Sad, isn't it?.
Gilly and I left home with Barn Swallows on the power line, resting from their nest building in next doors house (R). We met up with Carolyn and her mum, Ros, north of Huercal Overa and carried on to a cafe this side of Velez Rubio where we were joined by 12 other members. The intention was to have a recce around Adrian's local patch, but as the lanes were not suitable for normal cars after the floods, a change of plan was needed. We headed off to the Vulture Feeding Station beyond Velez Blanco. 
As we arrived a Thekla Lark (L) obligingly sat on a rock where we parked up. Although we were some distance from the feeding compound we could see that at least 10 Griffon Vultures were sitting inside awaiting a meal. Others could be seen over the top of the "Grandmother's Molar" mountain. I would suggest we saw at least 40 Griffons during our stay. Also seen were distant Red-billed Chough doing aerobatics by that mountain and a Peregrine Falcon. I also spotted a Green Woodpecker flying into the pine forest.
     We then headed through María and down on to the plain. There wasn't much on the way down to the hamlet, only some Linnets and Carrion Crows. There was only one female Kestrel, whether it was a Lesser couldn't be confirmed. On the way back we had a Hoopoe and another car saw a Northern Wheatear.

     We then popped into the new refurbished La Piza cafe. Here we had good views out of the window of Crossbill and Long-tailed Tit. After a coffee we headed to the chapel where we added Coal and Crested Tit (R). Brian and Mary spotted a Booted Eagle. We then saw a pair of large raptors flying near the top of the ridge....two Golden Eagles. There was a steady stream of Griffon Vultures passing overhead. We then did the short walk round the Botanical Garden, adding Serin, Blue Tit and Rock Bunting to the list. We ended with a picnic lunch by the chapel which finished prematurely as we got sprayed by a passing shower.

     A slightly disappointing day, but we ended up with 29 species. Weather could've been better. Did add our first Short-toed Eagle of the year as we approached Huercal Overa on the way home.

(Photo of Crested Tit from a previous visit to La Piza.)


20/03 : Rambla and ría de Almanzora & Vera

   First, before the birdy part, for those who replied to the query about a magazine. I was in Madrid on Tuesday for a meeting with the Spanish Ornithological Society folks about the basic planning and we had a useful and positive meeting. They will have to look at pricing, that's way above my category. We are looking at an edition zero pdf to test the water and hopefully obtain your reactions, hopefully before June. Having left here on the 0620 AVE I was back by 1530 in the afternoon and feeling pretty satisfied with the way things had gone and it looks like there is what Mission Control would have called 'a go situation'. So, thanks to all who made their feelings/ideas felt, either in writing or in person. All we need now is a name for the magazine! Any ideas, anyone?  
Spring is well on the way. Both Pallid and Common Swifts are here, the hirundines are all over the place, from the insignificant  little Sand Martins to the high speed movement of Alpine Swifts. Reports are coming in of several races of Yellow Wagtails being seen, warblers are starting to show up - Willow, Subalpine, the first Whitethroat has ben seen near Seville. Northern and Black-eared Wheatears have been reported. Down in the Strait raptors are pouring across and waders are building up, the Ruffs and the Black-tailed Godwits on their way to breeding grounds far north from Andalucía. Ducks too are moving, although have been few reports of Garganey but the same day as Dave & Co. were birding to the far east, Federico Vallés saw 7 Tufted Ducks at Fuente de Piedra. Anything can turn up anywhere so now is the time to get up and get out! 
So on to the Arboleas Group who set forth once more, this time under clearer skies, although I fear that Dave's optimism may well be misplaced.
Firstly, before I forget, the group sends their best wishes to Jan, Barrie's poorly wife. As requested by Val, today we made the rambla and estuary of the Rio Almanzora, Villaricos our birding destination. Gilly, now recovered from her bout of tonsillitis, was with me when we picked up Carolyn for the trip. As we were slightly early we took the scenic route along the side of the rambla from near the Desert Springs Golf Course entrance down towards the sea. 
Kentish Plover, male
We spotted a Woodchat Shrike, our second of the year. We stopped for a photo opportunity as we crossed the reconstructed "ford". We had close views of Kentish Plover, Dunlin and Black-winged Stilt. Adrian had already arrived. Another 14 members turned up. After a quick briefing regarding noise levels we began birding in earnest. In the waters either side of the ford, apart from the above mentioned waders we also had Redshank, Snipe, Green Sandpiper and Little Stint. A Teal was spotted, but the rest of the wildfowl were Mallard. Both Cetti's Warbler and Zitting Cisticola were heard. Alan saw a Water Pipit. Further along the rambla towards the Desalination Plant Little Ringed Plovers were seen, as were 3 Yellow iberiae Wagtails. A Southern Grey Shrike was also seen near the sewage works. 
I expected more hirundines, but there were only small numbers of Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, House and the occasional Sand Martins. As we headed down to the village for a coffee, Phil spotted a low flying Alpine Swift.
We then headed down to the beach. Mechanical rollers were flattening the ploughed area in preparation for a pop concert, so with the ever increasing wind it was very dusty. On the rocks we saw Cormorant, Audouin's Gull and Turnstone. Further out Phil spotted Balearic Shearwaters popping up above the horizon. We walked through the reeds to the far end of the beach so the sun would be behind us on the way back along the beach. Rod spotted a Grey Heron. A Great Crested Grebe was just off the estuary. I got the only Pallid Swift of the day. As we walked back a group of Sandwich Terns was on the rocks. A Whimbrel flew off towards the harbour and a Sanderling was also seen.
     We then drove in convoy towards the pool opposite the Consum supermarket at Vera. Gilly and I stopped on the way to ID a passing Marsh Harrier. At the pool were Shoveler, Common Pochard and White-headed Duck. 2 Mediterranean Gulls in full breeding plumage was a great sight. A Little Bittern flew across the pool. A young female Marsh Harrier was seen. Phil spotted a Chiffchaff and a high flying Common Buzzard.
     A good day had by all. 55 species. Hopefully the weather has now turned for the better.


16/03 : Fuente de Piedra

'black-headed' White-headed Duck
Before starting on the blog of the morning that Ron and I enjoyed at Fuente de Piedra yesterday, a bit more on 'black-headed' White-headed Ducks. Kevin Wade sent me the accompanying photo of another (or the same) bird which he took at the Guadalhorce in April 2012 and which I publish here for interest. Many thanks, Kevin. At the same time, talking with Mick Richardson from Loja yesterday evening, he told me of a flooded area in a field near him which he has never seen flooded, and apart from an assortment of waders, including 22 Green Sandpipers, there were 4 Egyptian Geese. Records of 'escapes' or 'exotics' like these are always welcome and I will ensure that records get to the Grupo de Aves Exóticas of the SEO.
RAF Tornado
I, for example, whilst fedup to the back teeth with the blasted Monk/Argentinian Parakeets which are all over the shop, have recently 'acquired' a pair of the scarcer, slightly less raucous and more attractive Rose-ringed Parakeets (formerly known as Ring-necked) which have taken up residence in the area and which flash between the apartment blocks in line astern in a way which would do credit to RAF Tornados (aircraft) on a strike mission.The photo on the left will help you to distinguish them from the parakeets.
So, on to the birding at Fuente de Pîedra. In view of the fact that La Janda is sodden and that three days since there was 1.5m of water flowing over the bridge that crosses the drainage canal and the track is apparently in a pretty rough condition more suited for a 4x4, so I was told, it seemed a long way to go for few birds and possibly a lot of water (forget that 'drops from heaven on the place beneath' stuff that Shakespeare blathered on about, if it's on me, I'm off it), so it was Fuente instead for Ron and myself and we were not to be disappointed, even though it was generally grey, definitely cool and we did get a slight sprinkling.
First, the ducks: There are still tons of Shovelers around, although I would have thought that most of them should have departed for points north by now. This included the behaviour shown in this photograph where, on the lake behind the information centre, there were two 'wheels' of Shovelers, all tightly packed and paddling around in circles (top photo). We had already been warned about this by a birding friend, Ángel, from Málaga who had witnessed it.
Neither Ron nor I had a clue what they were doing, and we weren't helped by the fact that they were actually contra-rotating at one point and Ángel suggested in a forum posting that it might be (a) some weird mating ritual, (b) a peculiar mass feeding event or (c) somebody had pulled the plug out of the pond and they were caught in the vortex of the down pipe. We discarded (c) and wondered about (a) and if they had been on extasis but according to Jorge Garzón it is (b), a documented event which has been seen in Shovelers in North America and it relates to feeding and stirring up the water and when the photo is really blown up (i.e enlarged, not as in bang) in the bottom photo it can be seen that many are indeed feeding. That apart, there are still quite a few Teal, Mallard, Pochard, a few Gadwall, and a single, normal White-headed Duck. Regrettably, there were no Garganey as we are now in the period of their passage and the males are the most splendid little ducks but there still a few Shelduck which we saw whilst walking the track in the direction of the Vicaria observatory and it was in that area too that we came across the 16 Gull-billed Terns resting.
This paragraph is not for those of a prudish disposition and shows two Flamingos doing what comes naturally in the spring to most birds, many mammals and even a few humans. The first point of interest is the size difference between male and female, and this really was a big male whilst the female was at the smaller end of the range. Another female nearby watched for a while and then sloped off, obviously disinterest evident, whilst the one on the receiving end of his attentions, which consisted of butting her stern with his sternum, put her head in the water and continued feeding which doesn't say much about the male's amorous techniques, either that or she had a headache.
These photos may also answer your question about the 'how' and 'what do they do with their legs'. With regard to the latter, they do have difficulties at times and I have seen males fall off, which brings a new twist the old phrase (and if you don't know it, don't ask me!) and also causes laughs.
Great Spotted Cuckoo
However, I digress. It was on the way to the lake behind the centre that we met Angel and he mentioned that they had seen a Great Spotted Cuckoo, which wasn't where they had seen it but after it had called a couple of times we managed to locate it. In my experience, they hide up quite well and when they do show are often surrounded by twigs and small branches to difficult their photography, usually obscuring the face and this one ran true to form! It was a beautiful bird and the colour shading on the breast a delight to see.
There were lots of swallows and martins, mostly Barn Swallows of which the numbers built up throughout the morning as the weather clamped down and there must have been going on for 1.000 in the area by the time we left, along with at least 40 Red-rumped Swallows, House Martins and 25+ Sand Martins, these so often overlooked. We saw only one swift, a Pallid, when we had hoped for more.
In the passerine line, we saw little of interest except for the first Woodchat Shrike of the year, a single Robin, the ubiquitous Stonechats - the males are gorgeous at this time of year, a single remnant female Reed Bunting and suprisingly only 3 Yellow Wagtails, 2 males of the iberiae race and a female and failed to find the Water Pipits that Ángel had seen - you win some, you lose some.
It was the waders that claimed most attention, as they usually do, and it is worth noting that going towards the Vicaria hide, either along the path or by car (parking is difficult) there is water on the right side of the road and we found this most productive, even more so than the boardwalk flashes as I suspect that the water there is a bit too deep for the smaller species (Little Stints and so on). A quick listing gave the following species with the following more or less accurate counts: Avocet (at least 25+), Black-winged Stilt (oh yes, and getting noisier!), Greenshank (1 heard), Redshank (8+ seen and heard!), Green Sandpiper (1), Common Sandpiper (1), Snipe (15+ quite easily but we didn't really look too hard), Little Ringed Plover (3), Ruff (25, of which at least 18 were males, one halfway into breeding plumage and gives a good chance to see the size differential with the Reeves (females) in what is known as sexual dimorphism. I am being educational today!), and we finished off with a flock of Black-tailed Godwits, some in beautiful plumage.
So, all in all an excellent morning's birding with some excellent views to brighten a grey day and possibly around 40 spp., although I must have missed something off.


13/03 : Cabo de Gata & Rambla Morales

Herewith the Arboleas Group again, who boldly go where others have been too, but they do it in worse conditions! By the by, Dave et al., I have never seen an all black-headed White-headed Duck, although I have seen ones with a more than normal amount, but not many. From here and the Guadalhorce there is news of an Iberian Chiff heard singing and the Common Scoter flock was logged in at 150-160 birds yesterday (12/03) and one of the Short-eared Owls was still present on Monday. There are some swifts around but, contrary to normal at this date, more Commons than Pallids with some records of Alpines moving through at mach 3 as is their wont. Reports from the Strait of Gib. indicate lots of raptors coming through, mainly Black Kites but with the first Short-toed Eagles, a few Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks and so on. Plus taking the dog down an hour since (this is being written at 23.30 and will be transferred and put online tomorrow), I heard some Curlew flight calls heading north. How long this generally inclement (or if you prefer it in my normal style, bloody awful) weather will continue remains to be seen.

     After last weeks weather disaster, I kept a good check on the forecast for a return visit to Cabo de Gata. Some cloud, but generally sunny with a strong wind. Gilly had a note excusing her due to tonsillitis, so I picked up Carolyn and her mum, Ros, and headed south. As we were early for the rendezvous point, we headed down to the tower and chapel just outside Retamar. It was windy and the breakers were crashing onto the beach. We spotted a Cormorant and Yellow-legged Gull out to sea. A Pallid Swift was also seen. We then made our way to the cafe in Pujaire, meeting up with Phil, Sue, Rod, Linda, Alan, John and Kevin for a cup of coffee.
Cattle Egret
     The wind had died down somewhat as we got to the first hide. There was a good variety of waders but none in good numbers. We saw Redshank, Greenshank, Little Stint, Black-winged Stilt, Black-tailed Godwit, Grey and Kentish Plover. Best of the bunch were a couple of Curlew Sandpipers spotted by Kevin. There were a few Shelduck and Mallard. Other birds seen were Little Egret, Slender-billed Gull, Greater Flamingo, Zitting Cisticola, Kestrel, Red-rumped and Barn Swallow, Corn Bunting, Greenfinch and Sardinian Warbler.
      A quick seawatch before we yomped to the second hide produced juvenile and adult Gannets. I was the only one to see an Eurasian Curlew flying very low along the beach away from us. A small number of Cattle Egrets were feeding on the steppes as were a couple of Black-tailed Godwits. In the salina we added Black-necked Grebe to the list. Out to sea Phil spotted a Lesser Black-backed Gull and also seen were Sandwich Terns. John spotted a Blackcap.
'black-headed' White-headed Duck
     As we began to walk from our vehicles towards the public hide Phil had a brief glimpse of Stone Curlew. From the hide it was good to see good flocks of Avocet. Also seen a Golden Plover spotted by Alan. I found a pair of Knot and also a flight of 8 low flying Spoonbills. Numerous Common Swifts were heading north. Sanderling was also added to the ever increasing list.
     We then went to the viewing spot behind the houses in the next village. This time there was shallow water in the salinas over which House Martins were trying to feed. A little flock of 14 Audouin's Gulls were at rest. A distant "Ringed" Plover species was seen.
      After another break at the Pujaire cafe we made our way, via the campsite, to Rambla Morales. Overhead, some just over our heads(!), were Common and Pallid Swifts and lesser numbers of House and Crag Martins and Red-rumped and Barn Swallows. Had confirmed sightings of Teal, Little Ringed Plover and 4 more Black-tailed Godwits. 2 Ravens down there was an unusual tick. On the water were Shoveler and White-headed Duck, one of which, spotted by John, was a 1st summer male with a pure black head. Never seen one before. Alan and John spotted an early Whinchat.

    The birding would've been so much better if the wind had subsided. Even so we got an incredible 62 species for the day. Hopefully Rod and Linda got home okay after we had to bump start their car with a dodgy starter motor. Good to see Phil and Sue back for an all too brief holiday.


06/03 : Cabo de Gata

Dave, with all due respect I really do think that you should change your web site for weather - all the ones that I looked at said heavy rain, and as it had been bucketing down all night I think the best way is to look out of the window, and if it looks damned dark, black and generally foreboding in any direction, forget it! And if you don't believe in a visual check, look at aemet.es and go to the radar, that helps. I find eltiempo.com useless. They had us for sun and showers here yesterday and I was looking for the ark building plans!

     Alan phoned me on Tuesday evening to check the trip to Cabo de Gata was still on today as  he'd seen a weather forecast stating rain. To be honest, the one I looked out said only a few showers so it was on as far as I was concerned. As Carolyn, Gilly and I headed south in brilliant sunshine I had a little smirk on my face! However about 10km from our destination there was grey skies and low clouds. We met up with Colin, Sandra, Val, Kevin, Richard, Maria and their holidaying friends, Tony and Pauline at the cafe in Pujaire for a coffee. It began to drizzle. We got to the first hide, some of us staying outside. There were numerous Shelducks and a pair of Mallards. We didn't see any Avocets, but saw Black-tailed Godwits, Black-winged Stilts, Redshanks and Dunlins. A Grey Heron and Little Egret were also observed. A few Barn Swallows flew by. A Stonechat and Sardinian Warbler were noted. And of course there were plenty of Greater Flamingos.
     The drizzle had now evolved into squally showers so the yomp to the second hide was ignored as we headed to the comparative safety of the public hide. We were greeted by the sound of Corn Buntings. Usually perched atop of bushes and easy to see, but due to the weather were intelligently hiding away for a time before showing themselves. From the hide we added Black-necked Grebe, Kentish Plover, Sanderling and Grey Plover. A suspected Black-tailed Godwit flew to prove it was in fact a Bar-tailed. On the causeway to the right were at least 35 Sandwich Terns. Kevin spotted a solitary Lesser Black-backed Gull .... the last of the winter? 
      Kevin then led us to a viewing spot behind the houses in La Almadraba de Monteleva, overlooking the far end of the salinas. Unfortunately there was very little water as it had been drained to leave only salt. A group of about 25 Audouin's Gulls sat there. Val first spotted a Kentish Plover, then a Greenshank and also a Redshank.
      The muddy track to Morales was a no no, so after a coffee we gave in to the elements. Yes Alan you were right, damn it! 15 km north, yes, you've guessed...sunshine! We ended up with 35 species and, sorry, no photographic evidence.


02/03 : Fuente de Piedra

Barn Swallow
After having originally planned to go last Thursday but as that happened to be the latter part of the night when Armageddon fell on Málaga province and a fair part of eastern Andalucía (it snowed at Fuente de Piedra!), Ron and I went this cold, grey and increasingly windy but definitely worthwhile morning apart from the mass of humanity which was there as we arrived and we quickly evaded. Some of us just love punishment - you'd think we'd know better at our age!
So, what did we see between shivers and the wind shaking the scopes?
Quite a lot, nothing rare and some of it brilliantly seen. The hirundines, mostly Barn Swallows with a few House Martins and a couple of Red-rumped Swallows were having a hard time of it, feeding low over the water and will survive little time if this bad weather continues, which it is forecast to to do. The few Chiffchaffs that there were obviously found feeding equally hard, not that it disturbed the Stonechats one whit.
We concentrated nearly all our effort on the board walk area and the path toward the Vicaria observatory, although we didn't get that far as we were well supplied with plenty to keep us occupied. We started off from the mirador in frontof the information centre to see plenty of Flamingos, with one or two groups in display, the necks extended but with little to no wing flashing. There were still hordes of Shovelers on the lake, we guesstimated somewhere in the region of 1.500 and there are still plenty of Teal, a few Mallard and a pair of Gadwall, plus well over 60 Black-necked Grebes scattered along the width of the near lake. Further round on the way to the Vicaria there were 19 Shelducks, but that was later. 
Black-tailed Godwits

Curlew Sandpipers
We had hopes of seeing some early migrant  waders, in spite of the inclement weather, and were not to disappointed as first 3 Snipe took off, the ones we saw all morning. Then the 2 Black-tailed Godwits (above) feeding on the water flash to the left of the board walk were quickly joined by a flock of 23 more, most well on the way to full breeding plumage, which literally fell out of the sky, flaring out to land but many still nervous and about half took off quickly. Ron and I were of the opinion that the flock had spotted the water from altitude and decided to land by the form of approach, a swift vertical descent.
Later on, on the far side of the road on the flooded area, there were 3 Ruff and 3 Curlew Sandpipers (R), plus a noisy Redshank which really had its knickers in a twist and was flying all over the place shouting its head off in competiton with the relatively few Black-winged Stilts which have still to work themselves up to full hysterical frenzy.
The stretch from the end of the boardwalk and along the path towards the road was incredibly productive on the left side, not that there was a great variety, but there was a large mixed flock of a few White and 40-50 Yellow Wagtails of which at least 70% were beautifully coloured male birds, all that we could see being of the iberiae race. Mixed in with these there were one or two Greenfinches, some 10 Corn Buntings and at least 10 Reed Buntings, these last including one of the most stunning males that either of us had seen for many a long year. A pity it was way out of range for the camera. There were one or two Skylarks moving around, heard rather than seen, and there was a single distant Common Buzzard and a single Kestrel which looked pretty fedup as it crouched face into the wind.
And that was it, the lake behind the information yielded nothing of interest and so it was time to push off for home, well satisfied with the splendid views that we had enjoyed.