Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A morning at 'El Hondo' - postscript

As I mentioned in my last post, there were doubts over the identification of the 'Spotted' Eagle seen at El Hondo, so I contacted the other observer who had posted his sighting in 'Reservoirbirds' (JuanMa Pérez García).  It seemed that we had seen the same bird, and he had also taken some photos of it, plus a short video.  I sent him the photos I had, and he sent them all to an expert in Poland, Jan Lontkowski, who has a lot of experience with both species.

He replied:

"Upper wing is good for LSE. Underwing with double comas and blackish secondaries also indicate to LSE. The shape and size of bill is slender and typical LSE-type. We cannot see any barring on flight feathers. This is the 2cy bird and it can be still pretty dark. Contrast between dark body and paler upper-wings is diagnostic for LSE – its so called ‘dark saddle’."

"On the video" (here referring to JuanMa's video, but something I had noticed in the 'scope) "you can see the narrow white rump patch which is not good for most hybrids (and GSE, of course). There is also visible on inner primaries that barring is reaching almost very end of the feathers which exclude GSE and most hybrids, as well. So, again there is nothing for Greater Spotted Eagle and nothing against Lesser Spotted Eagle. On the other hand, though, I always say that every bird can be a hybrid, especially when all the details are seen not very well.  Anyway, in my opinion everything seen indicates 2cy Lesser Spotted Eagle."
So anyone who is up at El Hondo this winter - be aware - that 'Spotted Eagle' could just as easily be a 'Lesser' as a 'Greater'!

A morning at ‘El Hondo’

I was invited last weekend to go with Mick Brewer and his son Darren to the ‘El Hondo/Fondo’ park near Elche in neighbouring Alicante province. Something I couldn’t refuse, so Saturday morning (11th October) saw us all at the information centre carpark there at 9 am.  The day started with fairly clear skies, although it clouded over during the morning, and light wind – just enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay!

We started off from the information centre, around the wooden boardwalk, to the new Volcam hide.  We spent quite some time watching a Booted Eagle which was perched on a fencepost – it’s not usual to see them for such a long time in the same place, so we made the most of it with our scopes.  Unfortunately, it was just a bit too far to get decent photos, but here’s a link to a short video I took of the bird.

Booted Eagle

On the same fence were numerous Bluethroats which are now here for the winter – this must be one of the best places in Spain to see them, hopping up on the fences and fenceposts.  Also seen around there were our only Fan-tailed Warblers (Zitting Cisticolas if you prefer), and a few Cetti’s Warblers, as always, heard but not seen!

At the Volcam hide, we were surprised by the lack of ducks – the same time last year we’d had Wigeon, Tufted Ducks and plenty of Pochards, Mallard, Shoveler, but this time, almost nothing.  A single Black-necked Grebe in with the Little Grebes, and a number of Grey Herons with four Great White Egrets mixed in, Little Egrets and a couple of Squacco Herons still around.  We watched the antics of a Kingfisher, and found a reasonably close Wood Sandpiper to supplement the numbers of other waders (Redshank, Greenshank, Green and Common Sandpiper, Avocets and Black Winged Stilts).  In the distance over the reedbeds, we saw our first Marsh Harriers of the day.

 A record shot of Wood Sandpiper

 One of a couple of Squacco Herons fishing from the reedbeds

Returning to the information centre (not open on Saturdays!), we had a sandwich in the picnic area where we watched the birds in the small pond there – the usual crowd – Common and Red-knobbed Coots, Moorhens, Purple Gallinules, Mallard and Little Grebes, with a few Swallows swooping around.

 A couple of 'El Hondo's' specialities - Purple Gallinule (Swamphen) ...
 ... and Red-knobbed Coot (here with a Common Coot)

From here we decided to go round to the south of the reserve to have a look from the hides there.  On our way, we bumped into some other birders who had stopped at the rubbish tip where they’d had a White Stork, and mentioned that they’d seen a Spotted Eagle earlier on, but both birds had now gone – we started to think it was going to be one of those days!
Still, we had a quick look in the smelly rubbish tip area, where we saw a minimum of 200 Cattle Egrets (that’s where they’d all been hiding), but didn’t linger too long as there was not much else, and the smell was overpowering!

Carrying on towards the Vistabella area, we had more Marsh Harriers and passed a small raptor in a dead tree at the side of the road.  Deciding to turn around for a second look, we eventually found somewhere not too dangerous where we could stop, and watch a Hobby for a few seconds before it leapt out of the tree and flew off over the reedbeds.

We eventually got to the first hide on the south side of the reserve, where there was a Swiss family watching a distant eagle, but it was another Booted.  There wasn’t a lot of water visible, and once again, hardly any ducks, but there were quite a few Wood Sandpipers, plus Little Ringed Plover, Little Stints, Redshank, Greenshank, and Lapwings and Ruff hiding in the reeds opposite.

The Swiss family left and we had the small hide to ourselves, and Mick or Darren (can’t remember who) spotted another raptor.  This looked much more promising – 7 fingers, broad wings with protruding secondaries – definitely one of the larger eagles but not a Golden, got to be a Spotted as that’s all there is here!  I took a few distant record photos, more for the silhouette than anything else, and through the ‘scope, I could see it had a pale base to the tail (a bit like a ringtail harrier) and a pale base to the primaries on the upperwings – but couldn’t see much else.  It soon disappeared beyond the trees and we concentrated on other things.

Three record shots of the eagle

After a while we decided it was time for a change of scene.  We decided against walking all the way down to the second hide as due to the lack of water we thought it might also be very quiet, so we decided to have a drive around the fields on the other side of the road, looking for a flooded field.

We eventually found one, and true to form, birdlife on it – a White Stork at the bottom of the field, Marsh Harrier flying over, a Green Sandpiper, and various Blue-headed and White Wagtails.

 White Stork seen at the bottom of the flooded field

We eventually left the area at 3pm, having had a minimum of 54 bird species during the morning – not a bad total, but we did have the feeling that things were a bit on the quiet side.

In the evening, checking up on www.reservoirbirds.com to see what birds had been seen around Spain during the day; I was amazed to see that not only had Spotted Eagle been seen at El Hondo, but also Lesser Spotted Eagle as well!  This made me wonder about the bird we had seen, so checking the photos I had taken and using the Forsman European Raptor identification guide I managed to get very confused!  The silhouette of the bird we’d seen was almost typical Spotted Eagle, with the bulging secondaries, but the 7th ‘finger’ was very short, and by playing with photoshop I got some of the markings on the underside, including a double pale crescent on the underwing at the base of the primaries, both identification features of Lesser Spotted Eagle!  So I have been in contact with the people who had the other sighting, and they have sent both their and my photos to experts in Estonia, and we are awaiting the outcome!  (which could well be Greater/Lesser hybrid!).

Playing with 'photoshop', I managed to get some of the detail from one of the above photos!

And that’s all for now folks, so till my next post, happy birding!!


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Recent local outings

After the rains of the last week, some of the smaller birds have been a lot more in evidence, as have young birds in dispersal, and raptors are still passing through.

 Pale morph Booted Eagle, seen from my office doorway, on it's way to Calblanque

On  Tuesday 30th September, in the morning, I called into Marchamalo salinas, but this time on the Playa Paraiso side.  There were a few waders and gulls there - Black Winged Stilt, Avocets, Greenshank, Black-headed, Slender-billed, Mediterranean, Audouin's and Yellow-legged Gulls.

Black-headed, Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls

In the afternoon, I took part in the monthly census at the Cartagena sewage farm (EDAR Cabeza Beaza).  Apart from the normal water birds there (Little & Black Necked Grebes, Shelduck, Mallard, Pochard, Shoveler, Teal, White-headed Duck, Coot, Moorhen) there were a few surprises, such as two Ferruginous Ducks, three Pintail, still 10 Turtle Doves on overhead wires, Blue-headed Wagtail, around 80 Swallows feeding over the lagoons, and a juvenile Goshawk around the ‘cipresa’ trees that surround the lagoons.

 On the way there, I called in briefly at the farm reservoir at the ‘Los Camachos’ industrial park, where I was surprised to see the Marbled Duck/Teal that has been there for a couple of months now.  The last time I went there a week ago, it couldn’t be located, and I assumed it had gone, but no, there it was, surrounded by Mallard and Coots on the right hand bank of the reservoir.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, 1st October, I went with Tomás Garcia to have a look in the bushes at the Salinas at Marchamalo (Cabo de Palos), where we had singles of Common Whitethroat, Northern Wheatear and Chiffchaff.  On the Salinas themselves (where the water level is now very high) we only had a group of 12 Greater Flamingos and 13 Little Egrets.

Calling in afterwards at Cala Reona (Cabo de Palos), birds of note were the number of Blackbirds (at least 10), a Southern Grey Shrike, a couple of Crag Martins flying around low and a group of 13 Alpine Swifts very high up.  In the surrounding hill, we had a young Golden Eagle (the first I’ve seen in this area for many a year) and a pair of Peregrines.

An early morning visit to the lighthouse gardens at Cabo de Palos on Saturday 4th October produced a relative abundance of migrants.  A Grey Wagtail flying over, 5 Robins, 12+ Blackbirds, a Songthrush, Southern Grey Shrike, 6+ Sardinian Warblers (although these are residents, numbers are augmented by passage birds Spring and Autumn), 4 Subalpine Warblers, two Northern Wheatears, two Common Redstarts (one a stunning male), a group of 6 Goldfinches (also on passage) and a couple of Kestrels.  Singing from the lighthouse building itself was a male Blue Rock Thrush.

 Getting late now, a Common Redstart

 Giving an autumnal feel, Songthrush

 A regular visitor, question is, will it stay? Male Blue Rock Thrush

A look at Cala Reona (Cabo de Palos) afterwards, produced 15+ Blackbirds, another male Redstart, a couple of Blackcaps, AT LAST a Garden Warbler, and three Robins, with plenty of Swallows (30+) going through.  In fact that day there was a major passage of Swallows, as later in the day from the ‘desembocadura de la Rambla de Albujon’ (west of Los Urrutias)I had 500+ in half an hour, and in the old ‘EDAR El Algar’ (now renamed ‘Humedales de El Algar’) another 300+ in half an hour.  Other birds seen at the EDAR, now finally with some water in after the recent rains, 17 Black Winged Stilts, a couple of Green Sandpipers, Mallard and a Grey Heron, while on wires was a single Turtle Dove, and in surrounding fields Blue-headed Wagtails and a single Meadow Pipit (my first of the autumn).

Most impressive creature at Cala Reona was not a bird, but this butterfly - any ideas?
Calling in to the ‘encañizadas’ at the very end of La Manga strip the following day there was a definite autumn feel to the air, and in the birds seen.  Getting here before the dog walkers, cyclists and other general noise makers, apart from the usual birds, I had a couple of Great (White) Egrets, 5 Spoonbill, 13 Pintail, a couple of Gadwall, 12 Curlew, 9 Bar-tailed Godwits, 15 Little Stints, a couple of Kingfishers and a single Richard’s Pipit fly over calling, again my first of the autumn.

 Record shot of the Gadwall and one of the Pintail

 Bar-tailed Godwit kindly showing its tail ...

 ... and now waving hello!

 Winter plumaged Grey Plover

The same bird again
A visit to Cala Reona (Cabo de Palos) on the morning of Monday 6th October produced nothing new (just Blackbirds, Robins and Blackcaps), although a flock of 40+ Monk Parakeets feeding noisily added some colour to the visit.

 Monk Parakeets having a noisy pre-breakfast chat in the tree-tops
 Male Sardinian Warbler - numbers are increased by passage birds

 Also moving at the moment, Blackcaps
 Feeding time!  On the ground at least 40 noisy birds
 Normally quite timid, Sardinian Warblers are quite easy to see at this time of year

In the afternoon, I thought I’d have a look at the Rasall salinas in Calblanque as there should by now be water there.  Apart from good numbers of Swallows feeding over the lagoons, I had 20 Black Winged Stilts, three Greenshanks and two Redshanks in the lagoons, and at least six Stonechats and a single Wryneck on the surrounding fences.

Looking directly into the sun, a record shot of the Wryneck
A further visit to Calblanque on Tuesday 7th October, this time to the ‘Arboretum’ didn’t produce a lot in the way of small birds (just Stonechats, Robins, a Songthrush and Blackbirds) but in the surrounding hills was a Sparrowhawk, and presumably the same Golden Eagle that I’d seen from Cala Reona a few days previously.  At first I thought it was injured, as it was hopping up some rocks, but seeing it later this time in flight, with its crop bulging, I think it was actually after some prey (probably a rabbit), which it eventually got hold of.

 Now I know breakfast's around here somewhere ...
 ... just a matter of getting up the next step ...
 ... this'll do! ...
 ... now where was it ...

... there it is ...

 ... think I'll stay around here a while - food's good!

Later the same day, I went with Tomás Garcia to the sewage farm (EDAR) at Alhama de Murcia, and later, on to the Saladares del Guadalentín.  En route, we had about 10 Kestrels and a couple of Common Buzzards, and arriving, the EDAR was alive with small birds – Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Reed Warblers, Robins, Cetti’s Warblers, Bluethroat.  Water birds were sparse of variety however, with just Mallard, Teal, Coots, Moorhens and Little Grebes, and single Grey Heron and Greater Flamingo.  Through the valley to the west of the EDAR, a very nice adult male Marsh Harrier went through.

In the Saladares we had a good variety of birds, including a young Golden Eagle in a palm tree (I think the first time I have ever seen one in a tree); 12 Northern Wheatears, Calandra, Crested, Sky and Lesser Short-toed Larks, a late Whinchat, plenty of Stonechats, a field full of Blue-headed Wagtails (at least 50 birds), plus all the other usual birds you’d expect to see there.  On the way home, we called in at Corvera as there have been recent reports of Black-shouldered Kite around there, but we were a little too late as it was almost dark by the time we got there.  We did have 4 Little Owls on wires on the way there though.  And to round the day off, as I came home along the Mar Menor, a Barn Owl perched on a fencepost at the Marina de Carmoli.

 Record shot of the Golden Eagle in a Palm tree

 A late Whinchat

 Crested Lark singing its heart out

And that’s all for now folks, so till my next post, happy birding!!



Sunday, 5 October 2014

Raptors in Murcia

The Region of Murcia isn’t exactly famous for its raptors – in fact when I first moved here I used to think of it as being similar to my home county of Essex in those times – commonest raptor being the Kestrel, with Marsh harriers in a few places, augmented in the winter by the occasional Hen Harrier and Merlin.

Over the years however, I’ve seen most of the breeding Spanish raptors here and in the last few years with the help of local birdwatchers, I have seen an actual pattern / passage of them.  Not on the scale of places such as Tarifa, but all the same there are ‘good’ times of the year to see them, and good places to see them from.

Locally, the best places are the coastal mountains south of Cartagena towards Mazarron, and my favorite place to view from (which doesn’t involve a lot of mountain climbing and can be driven to) is Cabo Tiñoso which overlooks the bay of ‘Puerto de Mazarron’.  Actually it is quite a sightseeing location due to the massive 38 cm Vickers cannons in the fort built on top of the cliffs.  Higher up the mountain is a group of antennae.  The best viewing spot for numbers of birds is a ‘layby’ (actually just an area where the track is a little wider) on the way up to the antennae – when going to Cabo Tiñoso, instead of taking the left turn to the guns, continue straight up and the spot is on the left.

View inland, from the antennae layby - at over 300 metres above sea level,
good views can be had over the surrounding countryside 

When to go?  The best time seems to be the period from the beginning of September to mid October.  As to time of day, I’ve normally gone there from mid-afternoon (around 4pm) to dusk, but other people I know have been in the morning with just the same sort of results.

It was bearing all this in mind that when Mick Brewer asked me the week before last if there was anywhere to go for an afternoon before he returned to the UK, having heard that raptors were being seen, I automatically thought of Cabo Tiñoso. So we arranged to have a look on Thursday, 25th September.

We actually arrived at the layby and started looking at 16:45, and about 10 minutes later we saw our first raptors.  The conditions were cloudy with a north-easterly breeze, and the first few birds we saw (a small group of 5) took some effort to identify – they were high up, and were either Common or Honey Buzzards (we finally decided Honeys).  We were worried that if all the birds were so high up, we might have i.d. problems, but we needn’t have worried - as time went on and it cooled down, the birds seemed to come in (almost all from the West) lower and lower.  We noticed that they all seemed to carry on to the sea, but we couldn’t see exactly where they went due to there being a mountain in the way.  So we stayed there for a full hour, and then went down to the fort to see if they were any easier to see there.

At the fort area we remained close to the carpark (more than anything because it was by now threatening rain, and in the surrounding hills we could hear thunder) and found somewhere out of the wind to set up the ‘scopes.  In actual fact, in the end we needn’t have worried too much about the ‘scopes as some of the birds came VERY close (and seemed to be investigating us!).  We had one Honey Buzzard hang over us for quite a few seconds, and there was a Hobby that seemed to be making circuits around the fort area even though we couldn’t see what it might be feeding on – there seemed to be an absolute dearth of passerines.  There was also a pair of Peregrines making various passes around the place.

We stayed there until 7pm, by which time it was getting quite dull, and as we didn’t want to get caught in a storm, we made our way back to the Mar Menor.

In the 2 ¼ hours we spent there, we saw the following:

71 Honey Buzzard
  1 Common Buzzard
  3 Marsh Harrier
  3 Hobby
  2 Sparrowhawk
  3 Kestrel
  2 Peregrine

Other raptors that have been seem this autumn on passage from the same coastal mountain range have been Short-toed Eagle; Montagu’s Harrier; Pallid Harrier; Elenora’s Falcon; Osprey; Booted Eagle; Red Kite; Black Kite; Egyptian Vulture.

Following on, a selection of photos I was able to take before the lack of light made it impossible.

 Typically variable - Honey Buzzards
 Marsh Harrier
 Honey Buzzard
 Very rapid Peregrine!
 Typical Honey Buzzard, keeping an eye on everything, with snake-like head & neck

 The Honey Buzzard that flew low directly over us