09 September 2016

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition! …SPAIN (7 Sept.)

During a brief stint in Granada province of Spain, I took a day off from visiting family, and dipping in the pool, for some birding with local British birder Mick Richardson. We started out in the Moraleda Fields (near the town of Moraleda de Zafayona), where our first birds were most unexpected, and contained within two enormous aviaries, in the campo just outside of town. Around 100 falcons were being held for the local falconry trade, (most seemed to be either hybrids or Gyrfalcons).
Moving on to wild birds, I was happier watching the migrants and resident birds surging through the farm fields and almond groves close to town. During this visit, (at the start of autumn migration), and timed in the early morning, to avoid the recent, extreme high temperatures of a continuing Spanish drought (47°C/115°F), birds were abundant and conspicuous. Larks were around in their hundreds; and seemed to pulse through the fields in active “Mexican Waves”; the most evident groups were formed of the stoutly built Greater Short-toed Lark (numbering well over a hundred birds); although in smaller numbers, (though still alluding to some 60 or so birds on their own), was the stockiest of all the local larks, the butch Calandra; while the usual resident Thekla and Crested Larks regularly exposed themselves too. Further evidence of migration was provided by a series of typically restless Northern Wheatears also foraging in the “lark fields”, along with just a few Whinchats. Later in the morning Mick also picked up on the call of several Tawny Pipits, one of which allowed us to drive right up to it. 
While much of what was feeding prominently at this hour could be said to be subtle shades of brown, (and could easily be overlooked as all the same were it not for our studious surveying of them); this could not be said of the Eurasian Hoopoe, one of the Old World’s most striking, and unique birds. If you are not familiar with it, the hoopoe is essentially a soft pinkish-brown, thrush-sized bird, with striking pied wings and tail. It has the beak of a construction worker-pick axe shaped, and wears the crown of a king. In short, it is one of Europe’s most exotic looking birds. Historically, they would largely spend only the summer months in Western Europe, retiring to northern Africa for the icy winter months. As the European winter climate has softened in the last decade or so, some of these gorgeous birds have changed their winter habits; many now can be seen year-round in southern Spain. Thankfully, for one of the country’s must-see birds, it is easy to find; they typically forage on the ground in arid, open country, and often bound up on broad, piebald wings, making short, though very conspicuous flights. So, hoopoes are probably only evaded, by the most unobservant observer! We had a handful of these stunning birds littered through the local agricultural lands, one of which also exposed its prominent royal crest. Other birds that peaked my interest (for only rarely do I get to bird the Iberian Peninsula), were a few dowdy young Woodchat Shrikes, and two separate Southern Grey Shrikes standing sentry.
To many, a pile of old rocks means nothing at all, and is just that, a pile of rocks. But, to local birder Mick Richardson, one particular innocuous-looking rock pile, signifies something else: Little Owl. Sure enough, as we rolled the vehicle up alongside a rubble of red rocks, there on its zenith, sat a Little Owl, eyeing us closely, with that magnetic stare that only owls seem to capable of. We were here though, principally, for something other than larks, hoopoes, shrikes, and owls, nice as they all were; namely Black-bellied Sandgrouse, for which this is a known, local hotspot. These cryptically plumaged, ptarmigan-like birds blend in perfectly within these arid beige-toned grasslands, and so it proved; they eluded us entirely that morning.
Next we moved on to Contraembalse de los Bermajeles, where a large lake played host to plentiful ducks (60+ Common Pochard, 10+ Northern Shoveler), lots of Little Grebes, and a handful of Grey Herons, which held a lone Black Stork among them, a rarity in Granada province, and therefore the surprise species of the day. Other notable birds there included 1 Common Snipe, and a calling Water Rail, which remained hidden. Overhead, some of the best action occurred with half a dozen late Pallid Swifts (most would have been expected to have moved towards their African wintering grounds by then), a mass of Northern House Martins, with a smattering of Sand Martins (Bank Swallows) among them. However, better still were around 15-20 European Bee-eaters, one of my favourite Spanish birds. These birds are a kaleidoscope of colour; careful examination of their extraordinary plumage reveals a blood red eye, broad blazes of rich chestnut across the body, a sky-blue panel on the lower body, a golden yellow throat, and jade-green tinged wings. It is an undisputable stunner. Amazingly, these beautiful, richly coloured birds can be hard to see, when gliding in an open blue sky, that is unblemished by even a single cloud. At this time of year with skies seeming to rise infinitely overhead, the birds are happy to glide high, but betray themselves by their social nature; they like to keep in contact with each other on the wing, regularly calling softly and so letting us know they are there in the process. We looked up to see pieces of sky moving from one deep cerulean patch of sky to another-their underparts blending perfectly with the idyllic skyscape. We watched these birds for a while as they drifted effortlessly on the wing, seeming to revel in their highly skilled acrobatic, aerial antics.
Moving further along the road, the lake gave way to a deep, craggy gorge. Just the sort of place you would expect to see Eurasian Crag Martins, and this was indeed where we saw them. Mick informed me that this is also a traditional haunt of a local pair of Bonelli’s Eagles. A large, unkempt bundle of sticks on a rocky ledge opposite, betrayed where they had nested over the past 7 years. However, by this time of the year they had moved on and breeding will be forgotten for another year. All the same though, a bicolored shape on another outcrop proved to be one of the local eagles gauging its territory. It, and another bird (presumed to be its long term mate), were later seen on the wing swiftly moving from close over the gorge to the distant horizon, with barely a wingbeat required on the powerful hot thermal air available to them on this intensely hot day.

Later in the day, after lunch, and admiring some roadside butterflies that included a pretty Scarce Swallowtail (as well as finding another angry-looking Little Owl), we returned to the scene of the sandgrouse, or more appropriately, the scene of the no-sandgrouse. Mick was determined to find one, and felt we had a better chance in spite of the intense heat, for at this time, they can be confined to the shadows of the stunted almond trees, and are reluctant to leave these shady retreats. And so it proved; Mick locked on to a female Black-bellied Sandgrouse, which allowed us to sidle right alongside it, by using the car as a very effective blind. We admired this cryptic bird for a while, before we moved off and finishing off with a pale phase Booted Eagle before we retired after a very rewarding day.

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