Category Archives: Migrant birds

The Spotted Flycatcher

July and August are not the best months to see birds in Southern Spain, but one that can still be seen in a diverse number of locations, fairly frequently and right through to mid-late September  is the Spotted Flycatcher. Although not colourful, they are very attractive and characterful and very entertaining to watch as they dart from their perch to chase acrobatically after flying insects.

Spotted Fly Catcher – Muscicapa striata

Spanish: Papamoscas gris

‘Spotted’ Flycatcher is a bit of a misnomer, as the adult bird’s head and greyish-brown throat and breast is streaked with brown rather than spotted, as suggested by the ‘striata‘ of its scientific name. Having said that, the young birds could be described as spotted, so perhaps that’s where it stems from.

Spotted Flycatchers are summer migrants to Southern Spain, and are then very common throughout the region, often staking a claim to territories that include gardens and other ‘humanised’ areas. They arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed here, sometime around the end of April to the beginning of May, as insect numbers are rising.

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

We were very lucky to have had Spotted Flycatchers return to our garden every year and I used to look forward very much to their arrival and the opportunities to watch them at very close quarters. I have no way of knowing whether any of the returned birds were the same ones that had been to this particular place in previous years; I have been informed by people that are far more knowledgeable than me on the subject that it is not very likely and that this is simply a ‘territory’, open to claim by whichever bird gets there first and can hang onto it.

I still like to think that at least for some of the years it may have been perhaps at least one of a pair that had been before, or perhaps one of the young ones that had been raised there. I also discovered from the BTO website that the maximum recorded age for a Spotted Flycatcher is 7 years 10 months 7 days (Recorded in 1963), so surely they don’t go about hunting for a new home every year!

I’ve never witnessed a territorial dispute between Spotted Flycatchers and have no idea if they arrive alone or with a mate. I also admit that I have never heard one sing, which was a bit puzzling as I spent so many hours watching their behaviour over several years. I was quite relieved to read the following on the Wildlife Sound Recording website http://www.wildlife-sound.org/journal/archive/1983wsv4n5_pr_flycatchers.html  “Sound is not a conspicuous feature as spotted flycatchers arrive in their nesting territories. It is true that the male will sing a high-pitched warble from time to time but this occurrence is far from being common and it is no disgrace for an ornithologist to admit that he has never heard the true song.”

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

Some newly returned birds made more of their arrival than others. On a couple of occasions I have become aware of them as the first thing they did was to take a bath. Others arrived quietly and were just suddenly ‘there’. The occasional one arrived with some drama. The day the bird in the photograph above arrived back I was out in the garden having just taken some photographs of a lovely Red Admiral butterfly that was posing obligingly on some blossom. I thought I had glimpsed the bird a little earlier on perched in our tall yucca tree, but was taken completely by surprise when it suddenly swooped past me, snatched the butterfly from where it was basking and swooped back to the tree with it. At least I had a photograph of the butterfly to mark its short life.

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

Within our garden there were several favoured perching spots, some of which were in open spots that were clearly visible from the house so I could watch them closely and without disturbing them; one was on the hand rail of the swimming pool, another on the top of the outdoor shower. They definitely show a preference for perches that are not too far above the ground and in other locations I often saw them on boundary fences or on top of posts.

Watching for prey from the handrail of the swimming pool

Watching for prey from the top of the swimming pool

While they wait for prey to fly into range, the bird sits upright, head slightly sunk into its shoulders. When it spots potential prey it darts out after it, then depending on the outcome it may loop around to return to the same perch or swoop to another.

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

A range of insects in addition to flies will be pursued as potential food including butterflies, bees, wasps and hoverflies.

Breeding

The birds begin breeding in May, soon after their return. In June 2006, I was thrilled to see ‘our’ pair of flycatchers together with a family of three young ones. They were all gathered on a branch of one of the cork oaks that overlooked the garden at the back of the house and the parents both worked hard at keep their offspring supplied with food. 

One of the adults perched  on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

16/6/06 One of the adults perched on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

The following day I was even more delighted to see that two of the young birds were perched together in the small fig tree that grew against the wall on the boundary with the Cork Oak plot and no more than a metre from a bedroom window.

060616TGSPN-Spotted Flycatcher young-Sotogrande, Spain

Two of three young Spotted Flycatchers in a fig tree

The young or juvenile spotted flycatchers are a more grey-brown than the adults and are prominently speckled; they remain dependent on their parents feeding them for about three weeks after leaving the nest. It must take quite a bit of practice before they become adept at catching their own.

A closer look at one of the young birds

A closer look at one of the young birds

The birds will be around until at least September, as long as there is food available, before heading back to their winter feeding grounds. They may well be joined by others on their return migration south from Northern Europe too, that stop to refuel before also heading off.

 

Tarifa

I’m not in Spain currently, but my thoughts return there often, particularly on cold grey days. To me, Southern Spain is at its absolute best in the spring and I’ve been looking back through my photo archives to remind myself of where I may be wandering if I was there now.

One of my all-time favourite places, especially at this time of year is Tarifa, which has to be one of the most spectacular places in Europe. Miles of white-golden sandy beaches are a great attraction in themselves, but  Tarifa is also known as the “wind-surf” capital of Europe due to the very high winds caused by the vortex effect created by the two land masses on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar. At weekends and during the summer months it is a hugely popular area and best avoided if you are visiting to seek out the wildlife. However, out of season, and particularly on week days it is much quieter and there is plenty of space to enjoy this beautiful and often wild and windswept place in peace.

The town of Tarifa is situated on the Atlantic shore, the Costa de la Luz, at the western end of the Strait of Gibraltar in the province of Cadiz. Being the most southerly point of Europe and a mere 16 kilometres  from the African continent makes this an area of great importance during the migration periods when an estimated half a billion birds, including thousands of storks, vultures, eagles, kites and other raptors, along with seabirds cross and pass through the strait.

The following photographs were taken in early March a few years ago, when two of my friends and I drove down to  spend  the day there. Spoilt for choice as to which part of the area to make for , on this occasion we settled on  Punta Paloma, located just a few kilometres to the west of Tarifa town.

A view towards Tarifa town from Punta Paloma

Abandoned or wrecked small boats are often found on the beaches of this part of the coast, many used by would-be migrants from North Africa

The prow of one of the abandoned boats

Wind surfer

Lines in the sand

A sculptural sandy rock

Giant sand dunes, some of the largest and most important in Europe, form the western end of the beach.  The dune ecosystem is unusual, fragile and is protected by the “habitats” directive of the network Natura 2000, but its conservation is very vulnerable. This is  due in no small part to the area’s popularity with large numbers of visitors and holidaymakers.

Lengths of wooden palings are used to help stabilise the dunes

The sand dunes of Tarifa are some of the most important in Europe

The dune habitat supports a surprising number of plant species which have evolved a number of survival strategies to counter the effects of this hostile environment, many of which produce their flowers in the early spring.

A member of the parasitic Broomrape family Cistanche - Cistanche phelypaea-grows on the dunes here

Southern Birds-foot Trefoil- Lotus creticus

One of the most beautiful plants growing on the sand dunes is Shrubby Pimpernel - Anagallis monelli. The white flower growing amongst this specimen is Sweet Alison - Lobularia maritima

The sad remains of a dead turtle

A small river, el Rio de Valle reaches the sea here and its small estuary attracts a  variety of wading birds, particularly during peak migration periods.

River meets the sea

In the spring the area around the river’s edges are covered with coarse green grass with wildflowers growing through it.

Romulea

Star of Bethlehem-Ornithogalum orthophyllum

Sticky Catchfly-Silene nicaeensis

Winged Sea Lavender-Limonium sinuatum

Birds in the hand in Gibraltar

There are many reasons to be cheerful about being able to spend time in both the UK and Spain, not least of which is the privilege of watching species of birds that migrate between northern and southern Europe or Africa in both locations at different times of the year. The location of our home in Spain, about a 20 minute drive from Gibraltar, is directly beneath one of the major migration ‘highways’, which passes over the Rock and Straits of Gibraltar to Northern Africa and beyond. As a result our avian population is boosted considerably during the main migratory periods of spring and autumn as birds take the opportunity to feed here, taking on fuel for the next stage of their incredible journeys.

Gibraltar is an important link in the chain of gaining knowledge of the movements of migrating birds and many thousands of raptors are observed and counted from vantage points as they pass overhead. Smaller birds are monitored through their initial capture in mist nests and subsequent ringing at the designated Bird Observatory, where I recently spent a fascinating morning observing the observers and their work. The main purpose of my visit was to gain an insight into the process of bird ringing so that I might write a piece for the gonhs member’s outings blog, which I have done, but it was too interesting a day not to share here too.

Gibraltar Bird Observatory 

The home of the Gibraltar Bird Observatory is a small building perched high on a ledge carved into the the Rock on its north side. It is set within the Nature Reserve at Jew’s Gate and levante mist permitting, has superb views across Gibraltar Bay to the headland of Tarifa and across the  Straits to North Africa.

A view from the bird observatory across the bay to Tarifa. The monument 'The Pillars of Hercules' represents and show the orientation of the twin mountains either side of the Straits, Gibraltar being one and Monte Hacho, at Ceuta.

The Pillars of Hercules (Latin: Columnae Herculis, Greek: Ηράκλειες Στήλες, Spanish: Columnas de Hércules) was the phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. A corresponding North African peak not being predominant, the identity of the southern Pillar has been disputed through history, with the two most likely candidates being Monte Hacho in Ceuta and Jebel Musa in Morocco.

“The function of the Observatory is the monitoring and research into passerines and non-passerines, with particular emphasis on migration.” (gonhs website)

The first stage in the process is first to catch the birds. This is achieved by setting up a series of strategically placed lengths of fine mist netting, which the birds fly into.

A Chiffchaff temporarily held in a mist net

Clearly the birds struggle to free themselves, but the strands of netting are very fine and they are not left there for long as the vigilant ‘ringers’ make frequent rounds of the nets and quickly retrieve them.

A Chiffchaff is gently and expertly extricated from a net

Once freed from the netting the bird is carefully placed into a clean cloth bag for transportation to the nearby observatory for ‘processing’. It is important that the birds are subjected to the least amount of stress possible and they stay calmer if visual stimuli are eliminated.

Back at the workbench in the observatory the bags containing the birds are hung onto hooks that are numbered to correspond with the number of the net they were taken from. Most of the birds remain still and quiet whilst awaiting their turn to be weighed and measured, although there are always the odd one or two who express their annoyance by wriggling around or chirping.

A Robin having its wing length measured

Bird ringing is carried out under the auspices of the BTO, British Trust for Ornithology, and Gibraltar uses British rings. Processing involves the careful and accurate  identification, measurement and general assessment of each bird in turn. The data taken is collated for serious scientific records and research into birds’ migration and movements and great care at each stage to ensure that those criteria are met.

A beautiful Chiffchaff fully processed is held in the appropriate 'ringer's grip' to allow me to take its picture, then released.

Once the required data is logged, the bird is free to go. Most are eager to make good their escape, but a few will sit quietly on the ringer’s hand for a moment or two before leaving.

A female Blackcap sits quietly before taking off

This was a wonderful opportunity to see some beautiful birds at very close quarters. They always appear much smaller when seen this way that when they are flying free and the subtleties in the plumage are evident.

A perfect male Blackcap

A Song Thrush eager to leave

During the course of this morning the two current resident ringers, with some assistance from two trainees processed 113 birds. The species ringed included Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Robin, Serin and Song Thrush. It was fascinating to enter into their world for a few hours and witness their work first-hand and a real privilege to have such close views of some beautiful birds.

Spring’s promise of new life fulfilled

A small very dark coloured gecko can often be found on our black-painted front gates where he is much better camouflaged than he appears to be in the photograph. Waiting until the very last moment to move as you approach the gate it suddenly dashes off rapidly: it makes me jump every time, even though I half-expect it to be there.

27/5/11-Moorish Gecko keeping guard at the gate

28/5/11-A pristine Red-veined Darter- Sympestrum fonscolombei -posed beautifully on the car aerial

Despite their size and bulk Violet Carpenter Bees manage to land on the small flower heads of the cut-leaved lavender, the stem bending under its weight. Their attentions do not benefit the flower, they can take nectar without picking up any pollen.

A Violet Carpenter Bee taking nectar from a lavender flower

The last three wet winters we have had here have done wonders for increasing the variety of wildflower species that have colonised the ‘waste’, or vacant plots of land in our locality. At the moment they are at their best and attracting a fair amount of insects, which is good news for the birds still feeding unfledged or recently-fledged young and even better for the Spotted Flycatchers that are only just beginning their breeding cycle.

8/5/11 -Sotogrande, Wild Carrot flower

Wild carrot began flowering a while ago and although continuing to flower, earlier blooms have begun to go to seed now, I love the way it bunches its florets up into a tight, lacy goblet shape.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Wild Carrot going to seed

Crown Daisies  most frequently have golden yellow flowers, but there is a  variety that produces white flowers with a yellow centre.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Crown daisy - Crysanthemum coronarium var. discolor

One of the prettiest of the wildflowers growing locally is a mallow (malva). This is the plant that can often be seen in large patches along the roadsides.

Dwarf Mallow-Malva neglecta

There are quite a few malva, or mallow species found here, and they can be difficult to name, some also hybridise.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, a chafer (oxythyrea funesta) in the flower of Common mallow-Malva sylvestris

Two Clouded Yellow butterflies passed overhead,  a  blur of golden yellow engrossed in fierce aerial combat. Suddenly breaking apart they went their separate ways, one flew up and away while the other retreated to recover on a leaf amongst the long grass.

29/5/11-TGSOTOLCL-Clouded Yellow

A butterfly I was not quite so pleased to see was a tiny Geranium Bronze. A true native of South Africa, it’s thought their first introduction to Iberia was through Majorca,via imports of their LHPs, which as the name suggests is geraniums. They have spread quickly, colonising many parts of Southern Spain where the popularity of brightly coloured pelargoniums and suitable climate provides them with ample opportunity to thrive. This is the first individual of the species I have seen so far this year, so I’ll be guarding my geraniums now, they’ve been looking so good this year too.

29/5/11-Sotogrande - Geranium Bronze

I had set out on this little wildflower expedition to try to find a particular little butterfly and just as I had decided to turn round and head home I spotted it – just one  Small Skipper on a scabious flower, a plant which is beloved by a good many species of butterfly and an important LHP to several species too.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Small Skipper-Thymelicus sylvestris on scabious

Feeling very pleased with my sighting I was walking home and heard a very strange sound coming from low down in some shrubbery beneath a cork oak tree on the boundary of two vacant plots. I began to head for the boundary fence to have a look to see if I could see what was making the sound, a sort of loud warbling, piping sound with frog-like tones, then froze as a Nightingale flew onto the fence right in front of me. It turned and headed into the vegetation in the direction of the strange noises which stopped momentarily, so I assume they were the summoning calls of one of its young. I carried on walking a little way and the Nightingale flew in front

29/5/11-Sotogrande, a young Nightingale trying to land on a grass stem (photo taken through wire fence)

of me again, this time from the other side of the vegetation into the neighbouring empty plot, heading for the cork oaks next door to our house. Spotting movement low down on a branch where the bird had flown out from I looked to see that a young one had followed it and was wobbling trying to balance itself. It flew out, attempted to land on a grass stem, then flew back into cover, piping plaintively.

I carried on home and stayed there for a few minutes to let things settle down, then set off again hoping to get more views of the Nightingales. Waiting by the gate where I had the earlier sighting I was lucky enough to see an adult that flew from very close by across the road to a cork oak, then another bird came in to the tree in front of me. Not a Nightingale, but a perfect view of a Spotted Flycatcher.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Spotted Flycatcher in cork oak

Back at home once more I could hear the almost constant and very loud piping of a young nightingale and had a couple of views of it as it perched briefly on top of the wall then perched in a small tree.

There were other recently fledged birds around too. Yesterday I heard young-bird- summoning calls emanating from the cork oaks and traced them to two Short-toed Treecreepers. It was late afternoon and too shady to try to photograph them, but hearing similar sounds this afternoon I went to investigate. I located the source of the sounds, quite high above me in a tree, but they were not those of Treecreepers, these were two lovely young Serins.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Serins, both a very young male and a female

It is wonderful to be witness to the next generation of these beautiful young birds of very different species venturing out into the world, and I’m sure if I pay due attention the next few days will bring forth even more. One thing I have noticed they all have in common is the small size of their families. The Chaffinches that fledged a couple of weeks ago had just two chicks, the Nightingales may have two, but I suspect just the one this year,there were two young Short-toed Treecreepers and just the two Serins. I can only speculate that family sizes are tailored to the amount of locally- available food; it makes sense to be able to feed two offspring well than more insufficiently.

Pied Flycatchers on migration

4 April 2011

This is my last ‘live’ posting from Spain for a few weeks as in a couple of days I will be flying out to spend some time with my family  in the UK. Spring has always been my favourite season and I have already had some of the best of it in Spain, so I’m really looking forward to being a little further north where it happens a little later. I consider myself very fortunate that I will have been able to experience some of the best of two springs this year and then be back in Spain for the latter end of the season there in early May.

One last lucky bird-spot this morning was this gorgeous male Pied Flycatcher; he would be a recently returned migrant and had stopped in the garden for a while to have a drink and to take a look around for food. I have been lucky to have had Pied Flycatchers dropping in whilst on passage every year so far, but in the past each spring it has been a female that stayed around for a few days with perhaps a few glimpses of a male, then again in the autumn often just a female.

Pied Flycatcher - Ficedula hypoleuca

20/9/06-Pied Flycatcher (f)

In May 2008 a male and a female stayed around locally for a week or so, visiting the garden to bathe and to hunt

Pied Flycatcher female taking a bath

Bee-eaters are back nesting alongside beasts

2nd April 2011 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the previous post, we had a list of birds we were hoping to see today, although we were well aware that it was still a bit too early in the season for some of them such as Woodchat Shrikes. I had however already seen and heard Bee-eaters as they passed across my locality and we do know a few places where nest sites are located, so as one is near Jimena we made a diversion on our way back to see if the birds had already returned to it. Much to our delight they had and we spent a very happy half-hour watching them there.

The nest site is on the side of a steep hill situated on farmland roamed by pigs and is devoid of any covering of vegetation such as grass or other herbaceous plants although there are bushes and small trees. At the bottom of the hill is a penned area that was full of young black pigs, every last one of which was stretched out fast asleep in the warm sunshine. 

All the piglets were fast asleep in the warm sunshine

The soil of the hillside is light and sandy, so easy for the birds to tunnel into. 

Bee-eaters close to nest holes

A pair perched at the top of an olive tree

We estimated that there were 20+ birds currently at the site, most of which appeared to be paired; a few single, younger birds were flying around, perching on power cables and on the rusty iron fencing.

Bee-eaters frequently utilize power cables as perches

Bee-eater watching for prey

Bee-eater profile and back view

Newly arrived back at the site the birds were still restless and easily spooked. Once or twice something happened to cause them all to take to the air at once: on one occasion it was as a result of the appearance of another flock of Bee-eaters that flew in over the brow of the hill, circled around a bit then flew back the way they had come. Another disturbance was brought about by the close proximity of two low-flying Short-toed Eagles that were circling slowly over the area.

FACTS ABOUT BEE-EATERS (FROM THE BTO):-

Bee-eater Merops apiaster   [Linnaeus, 1758]

Order: Coraciiformes Family: Meropidae

Length: 28cm Wingspan: 46cm

Conservation status: European: 3 concern, depleted. Most of the population are not in Europe and their global status is of least concern.

World distribution: S & C Europe, N Africa, S & C Asia. Bee-eaters winter in sub Saharan Africa and W India.The European population during the summer months is estimated at between 280-600,000 pairs. 

Habitat: Open country, woodland, farmland.

Diet: Flying insects, especially bees and wasps which are caught on the wing; stings are removed by rubbing against a perch. The birds require around 225 bees a day when they are raising their young.

Breeding: Bee-eaters nest in tunnels excavated in suitable banks or cliffsides. 6-7 eggs are laid in a single brood; incubation takes 20 days and is performed by both males and females. Both parents also feed their offspring.

The scientific name is derived from Greek: merops = the Bee-eater and Latin: apiastra= also the Bee-eater (from apis=bee)