Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Of Vultures and Cranes

I’ve always looked forward to the end of October / beginning of November because it’s the time of year when, if there are any groups around, you are likely to see good numbers of Griffon Vultures locally, especially after a period of rain and south-westerly winds as we had on the 4th.  And so when I went shopping on lunchtime last Wednesday (5th November), knowing that a few had been seen around the region, I was alert to the possibility of them being about locally.  So when I saw a ‘spot’ in the sky over the ‘Cabeza del Fuente’ mountain (Calblanque) from the ‘autovia’ from Los Belones to Cabo de Palos, shopping took second priority.  Stopping the car at the first legal opportunity, I got my bins on the bird, and yes, it was a Griffon Vulture, and it was flying with 19 others!  Deciding to investigate, it took me around 10 minutes to get to the Cabeza de la Fuente (typically, I had the car facing the wrong way and had to go halfway to Cabo de Palos to be able to turn around).  When I got there, the Vultures were nowhere to be seen!  Now I had a choice – to chase them, did I go west towards Portman, or east towards Cabo de Palos via Calblanque.  I chose Calblanque – and never saw them again!  However, travelling through Calblanque, I did see a minimum of 3 Booted and 5 Short-toed Eagles, including one Short-toed that launched itself after something at the side of the car, and I was able to take various photos.

 One of the Booted Eagles over Calblanque

 Photo sequence of Short-toed Eagle hunting prey (snakes)

The prey looks rather small - was it worth it?
As regards the Vultures, I have since heard that there were around 50 ‘large raptors’ over the golf courses of La Manga Club that afternoon, up to 500 over Cartagena, and up to 1,500 passed over Tarifa (Cadiz) to Africa that day!

Now in a total ‘birding’ frame of mind, I called in to the old EDAR (sewage farm) of El Algar, mainly so see how the water levels were there after the rain of the previous day.  Birds there were pretty much the normal (7 Lapwing, 7 Black Winged Stilts, 3 Greenshanks, 8 Cattle Egrets, a couple of Kestrels and single Common Buzzard and Marsh Harrier), but the water level looked good once again, after the sun and heat of the previous weeks had all but dried it up. 

 The EDAR El Algar, after the rains of the previous day

While there, I bumped into fellow birdwatcher Pepe Navarro, and we chatted about the Vultures.  I said (more as a joke than anything) that the last time I’d seen a big group of Vultures locally (in October 2008), in the flock had been a Black Stork, so to watch out for them.  He mentioned to me that over the weekend, the first Common Cranes had been seen in El Hondo (Elche, Alicante), and to look out for them too.  Little did we know…

Splitting up, Pepe went off to the ‘desembocadura de la Rambla de Albujon’ in the hope of getting some photos of the juvenile Osprey that seems to be staying to over winter there (he’s seen it now on several occasions), and I stayed a little longer at the EDAR and then I made my way slowly along the Mar Menor with the idea of checking out the Harrier roost from Punta Brava.  While driving alongside the ‘marina de Carmoli’ I saw two white ‘blobs’ in the distance that made me brake hard (never drive behind me!!).  Could it be – yes it was – not two white plastic bags, but two Common Cranes feeding.  Who’d have believed it, especially after we’d just been talking about them.  A quick call to Pepe and he soon arrived. They were quite distant, but we both managed a few photos, but soon had to move on as we were illegally stopped (still, that doesn’t matter here in Spain does it?, you just put on your hazard lights and everything’s OK, no?).

 The two Common Cranes at the 'marina de Carmoli'

By now it was getting towards dusk, a good time to be counting the Harriers, so we went to the famous ‘football pitch’ overlooking the ‘marina de Carmoli’ to wait for the Harriers.  While scanning over the ‘marina’, a bird caught my attention.  At first I thought it was a Cormorant flying strangely – it seemed to be all dark – but getting the ‘scope on it – yes you’ve guessed – a Black Stork!  It flew over to the Mar Menor and down and looked as if it wanted to land on the shore but all of a sudden it veered back up in the air and flew directly towards us!  A terrific photo opportunity if it hadn’t been almost dark, but we rattled off some photos as it passed over up and continued behind the house, to roost somewhere on the ‘marina’ we imagine.  What an afternoon!!  And the Harriers – well we did manage one single Marsh Harrier!

 The Black Stork as it flew over the treetops

Full of enthusiasm, the next morning I was back at El Algar looking around the fields, but there was no sign of the Stork, and neither could I find the Cranes, but it seems that they were there, just in a different part of the ‘marina’.  I did however find a Booted Eagle that was sat on the top of a lopped ‘cipresa’ tree, which allowed me to photograph it until a jogger came past and it flew off.
 Now that there are a few puddles around, good numbers of Serins drop down to drink

 Booted Eagle that posed for me ...
 ... until a jogger went by

For a change of scene I had a look around the ‘arboretum’ in Calblanque at midday.  The place seemed to be alive with Songthrushes, obviously new in, and in nearby fields, plenty of Meadow Pipits which I presume also new in.  Raptors were only represented by three Kestrels and a Short-toed eagle.

 Just the single Short-toed Eagle at Calblanque today ...
 ... but a good number of Meadow Pipits such as this one

Friday morning saw me once again at the ‘marina de Carmoli’ and once again, the Cranes were there, but further east than where I had seen them two days before – I presume that this was because there was a military helicopter doing manouvres around the short military airstrip – at least, the Cranes kept looking nervously in that direction, and kept moving to the east while I was there.  I managed a short video of them, which you can see here.

The Cranes seen once again at the 'marina de Carmoli'

Short video of the Cranes
In the afternoon, I called into the Salinas at San Pedro del Pinatar, but things were pretty quiet there, although I did manage to read a couple of colour rings on the Greater Flamingos there.  Other birds seen were Crag Martin, Jackdaw, Shelduck, Sanderling, Dunlin, Turnstone, Black-necked Grebes (around 150 of these together along the ‘La Mota walk), Black Winged Stilt, Black-headed Gull, Ruff, Common Sandpiper, Little Stint, Grey Heron, Cattle & Little Egrets, Slender-billed Gulls (a group of about 120 of these), Cormorant, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Avocet.

 Some of the birds seen at the Salinas at San Pedro del Pinatar - here Spotted Redshank ...
 ... Black-tailed Godwits ...
 ... Ruff ...
 ... immature Slender-billed Gull ...
 ... part of the group of Black Necked Grebes ...
 ... and a closer shot of the Black Necked Grebes

Saturday was a ‘RAM’ count day (Red de observación de Aves y Mamíferos marinos), but I managed to fall back to sleep after my alarm went off, and consequently I missed the best bird of the morning – a Velvet Scoter flying past not too far out.  However, for the time I WAS there, I did see good numbers of Gannets (mainly adults) heading north, and both Cory´s and Balearic Shearwaters in general heading south.  A few Sandwich Terns were also about, plus Mediterranean Gulls, and a single distant Great Skua.  A couple of surprise birds were a Grey Heron and a Great (White) Egret both coming in off the sea and heading for La Manga – the ‘Encañizadas’ I should imagine.

While there, news broke of a Hooded Crow that had been identified on the other side of Cartagena, so after the RAM and a short ‘refreshment’ break, I was heading over to Santa Ana., where after a short wait, the crow showed itself.  A bit of an enigma this bird – according to one local it had been there for about a month, according to another, since the Spring, and yet for birders who live nearby and bird the area regularly, it was the first time they’d seen it. 

Three shots of the Hooded Crow in Santa Ana, Cartagena ...

 ... and a short video

While I was in the area, I dropped into the ‘Parque de los Exploradores’ in Santa Ana.  This looks like such a good area for wintering finches and thrushes (as was shown in the Spring when there were 4 Redwings there for a while), although there was nothing too special when I called by – Grey Wagtail, Chiffchaffs, lots of Monk Parakeets, Blackcap, Blackbirds, Black Redstarts, Robins, Serins, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Crossbills.

 Part of the large group of Monk Parakeets in the park

 The 'hueet' of the Chiffchaff can commonly be heard and a few birds seen

 Surprisingly NOT in a pine tree, a pair of Crossbills

By now getting quite late, I decided to spend the last hour of light once again checking out the Harrier roost at the ‘marina de Carmoli’, where I had at least 10 Marsh Harriers and my first ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier of the winter.

Sunday morning (9th November) was an overcast one, but I still decided to go up to the cannons at ‘Monte Ceniza’, still looking for ‘sprites’ (although just a Goldcrest would have been good enough for me).  I don’t know if it was because it was overcast, but things were very quiet, with the only birds of note being a lot of Chaffinches, a couple of Crested Tits, five Dartford Warblers and four Chiffchaffs.

Female Chaffinch, one of many seen on top of 'Cenizas'

After this, I went down to Los Nietos to see if I could find the group of Common Scoter on the Mar Menor that was reported during the morning, but nothing.  Good numbers of Great Crested and Black Necked Grebes in the far distance, and a group of around 150 Cormorants just sitting in the water just off the Arenal, and a Bluethroat calling from close-by to where I was watching, but nothing else.

The black smudge on the Mar Menor, group of c150 Cormorants with Yellow-legged Gulls

And that’s it for this report, so until the next, happy birding!