Tag Archives: Marsh Harrier

Gibraltar Spring-Early Morning on the Upper Rock

March 20th-Day 2-Bird Observatory, Jew’s Gate, Upper Rock

07.30- We reached the Bird Observatory on the Upper Rock a little before it was properly light. Through a shroud of mist, dawn was subtle, washing the buildings of Algeciras, the hills beyond Gibraltar Bay and the Moroccan coast with diffused shades of amber.

The first thing I noticed was the absence of the Pillars of Hercules Monument directly below the Obs building. Apparently there had been a problem with the concrete roof of the public loos that forms its base and the Monument has been taken down and is currently propped up against nearby railings. I’m not sure how they got it there, it must be pretty weighty. Below is a photograph of the more usual view:

07:45 -We were here for birds as my friend and wonderful host Jill, is in training as a bird-ringer and was hoping for some practice in this highly skilled art, but thus far this morning had been  disappointing for the current resident ringers. Not only was it cool and misty, but also and worse was that the cold wind was blowing in the wrong direction to bring migrating birds over the Strait in this direction, so the mist nets were very sparsely populated. If there are no birds to process and record, a day with a dawn start can seem very long up here, despite the amazing views.

Gibraltar has long been recognised as a key location for observing the migration of birds and the Bird Observatory, run by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS), is a highly desirable venue for bird-watchers and in the appropriate seasons, bird-ringers, from many parts of the world. Perched high on the Upper Rock the views from the front door extending across the Bay of Gibraltar, over Algeciras and across the Strait to the Moroccan coast are truly stunning. The climate is appealing too, but of course it’s the opportunity to witness birds on their migration passages, often in great numbers, that draws them here.

Inside the Field Centre, suspended on hooks above the ringing bench, a male Sardinian Warbler and a Willow Warbler were waiting in little cotton bags to be ‘processed’. Within minutes the birds were quickly and carefully weighed, measured, ringed, entered into the record book and released.

0757-Sardinian Warbler processed and ready to go. Note the manicured fingernails of a female bird ringer – it’s not a job strictly for the boys

0759-Willow Warbler with view across the Bay of Gibratar

08.00 – By way of a diversion, the moth light trap is opened up to reveal last night’s bounty. There were a good number in there of an interesting variety of species ranging from tiny micro-moths to a spectacular Tiger Moth. I left it to the experts to ooh and aah at the really tiny ‘micros’ and concentrated on the bigger, showier ones that I had a hope of recognising if I ever see them again! I knew the lovely Tiger Moth with its rich red underparts and was quite taken with the Shark Moth, so-called because of its shape in profile.

08.17 – Excitement as an incoming Marsh Harrier dashes overhead-the sighting was brief, but we thought a male as has black wingtips.

08.35 Another inspection of the mist nets brings a female Goldfinch

0919-In the sheltered ‘garden’ area at the side of the Obs there is a small pool of water inhabited by frogs. As the sun gathered strength the warmth brought them out to sunbathe and the males began to sing. Their human neighbours were not as happy to hear them as I was; apparently they’d be singing loudly for most of the night. I don’t know his species, but according to the GONHS website, frogs present here in Gibraltar are introduced and of the species Rana (Pelophylax) perezi (Perez’s Marsh Frog). Maybe someone will confirm or correct me?

Other insects were also appreciating the sunshine; an interestingly coloured millipede warmed himself on a wall and little bees were gathering pollen and nectar, particularly from Rosemary and Tree germander.

There are wildflowers here too, including some elegant and highly fragrant Freesia blooms. Not a native plant, but one-time introduction originating in South Africa, it is now naturalised in a variety of locations around the Rock. It’s much tougher than it looks, here it competes for headroom with other native plants, but it is also found pushing up through cracks in paving and against walls.

Freesia refracta

Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea-Psoralea bituminosa

Another plant flowering is the Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea, so called because if crushed the plant releases an aroma uncannily like that of the tar they use to repair road surfaces, which happens to be one of my life-long favourite smells, so I love this plant!

09.55 – A juvenile male Blackcap has been ringed and is released

09.44 – Busy with the wildflowers I missed a sighting of a Dark-phase Booted Eagle, so no photo, but I did catch the single Black Kite as it passed overhead.

The wind changed slightly, but was still not from the most desirable westerly direction. Mist still hangs over the Strait and the Bay, but the appearance of the Black Kite prompted scanning with binoculars as these most numerous of incoming raptors frequently travel together in variously sized flocks. There were more! In conditions such as today’s when visibility is limited, birds often fly close to the surface of the water and have to flap their wings to maintain momentum, expending precious energy. Arriving close to land again and once they can see where they are and want to be, they begin to circle seeking currents of rising warmer air. These ‘thermals’ will enable them to gain height without flapping and once they are up high they are able to glide towards their destination on the wind.

Jill retrieved a very feisty female Blackbird from the mist net. Already ringed, she was clearly a local resident bird and a brood patch on her breast showed she was nesting, so was quickly set free.

My last  pictures of the morning here was of a large Wall Lizard, that looked like it was in the process of shedding its skin.

and another wildflower, this one growing at the front of the building, White Mignonette, is also planted in gardens as an ornamental.

A cold but very varied and enjoyable morning, enhanced by several hot cups of tea and a hot-cross bun. Looking forward to a bit of a rest, lunch and a walk up to the Alameda Botanical Gardens this afternoon…….

Aftermath of a winter storm

The western end of  the Mediterranean coastline of Southern Spain, closely linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the Straits of Gibraltar, may often be battered during the winter months by storms and wind, rain and high seas can cause a lot of damage.

When I first began visiting the  Guadiaro Nature Reserve in Sotogrande in 2004, there was a boardwalk in place that began at the entrance to the beach, ran right along the edge of the reedbed and ended at a rotunda set close by the mouth of the estuary. The structure made a good viewing platform from which to look over the reedbeds as well as offering protection to the reserve area, keeping people and dogs at bay.

The boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Part of the boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Winter storms soon began to take their toll on the woodwork and repairs were made each spring until they more or less admitted defeat and/or ran out of money in 2007. I made this entry in my journal on January 30th 2007, following a particularly dramatically stormy weekend.

Keen to see the effects of the weekend’s storms and to take advantage of a sunny morning, I decided to head for the Reserve to see what was about.

The reedbeds around the lagoon have been battered and flattened by the storms; much will have been done by the wind, but I suspect that the sea may have reached over there too. At first it appeared that there were few signs of life; nothing moved on the water, although I could hear the sounds of small birds about in the reeds and shrubs around the hide. The belting calls of a Cetti’s Warbler were so close I thought that today I may have a good chance of seeing the elusive little bird, but no luck again. Then a Chiffchaff called and appeared for me to see, complete with a leg ring.

Blue tit

Blue tit with leg ring

A beautiful brightly-coloured Blue Tit arrived to feed on the reed seed-heads, again complete with leg ring.  One of my biggest bug-bears about people using this little stretch of beach is the amount of rubbish they leave behind and there’s nothing like a good storm for exposing the extent of the problem. It seems so wrong to see beautiful birds rummaging around plastic bags and bottles in what should be a natural setting; but then on the other hand, the birds are probably around the rubbish as it attracts, or gives cover to insects. Birds are quick to learn to exploit our less savoury habits and are far more concerned with survival than aesthetics.

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

Black Redstart (m)

Black Redstart (m)

A beautiful Robin appeared from low down amongst the reeds to perch on an old cut stem and a handsome male Black Redstart flew in to take up a higher viewpoint; both had their feathers well fluffed out against the chilly breeze.

A pair of Moorhen emerged from the cover of the reeds at the water’s edge to investigate the area in front of the hide. They too are in their breeding- best now, with glossy, colourful plumage and bright shiny yellow-tipped red beaks.

A moorhen looking in peak condition

A moorhen looking in peak condition

Breaking the peace, a flock of about ten or so Snipe  flew in fast and explosively, scattering themselves and rapidly settling into various spots around the edges of the water, where perfectly camouflaged, they effectively disappeared from view in seconds. From over the top of the hide, almost simultaneously with the Snipe, a Marsh Harrier swooped over the water, landing in on a low shrub a short distance away in the midst of the long reeds; maybe chasing the snipe? Surprised,  I didn’t even think to grab my binoculars. I watched and waited for quite a while to see if it would move again, but it seemed content to stay put.

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Outside the hide the sun was bright and it was warm but there was a definite nip in the air; the best winter weather, although it didn’t look set to last as there was plenty of cloud around too.

Walking towards the beach, I heard Fan-tailed Warblers, saw more Chiffchaffs and a Sardinian Warbler, I heard the Cetti’s again and watched a Moorhen that was swimming about close to the nearside edge of the lagoon, it was flicking its wings and flashing its white tail-end; perhaps the Marsh Harrier was still about.

Arriving at the boardwalk it began to become apparent that the storms had once again wreaked their havoc on this ill-fated construction. The ramp to the new rotunda had separated from it, leaving a wide gap to step across to get onto it. But that was minor damage compared to what had happened further along. Much of the new length of boarding that was only put in place last year has been shattered and incredulously, whole sections have been lifted and hurled piecemeal back to the edge of the reedbed.

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

It’s such a shame after all the time and effort that went into rebuilding it, but you do have to question why previous experience hasn’t led to a more substantial structure being built. I wonder how long it will be before it will be repaired this time, if at all? The major problem now is that it leaves the reserve open and vulnerable once more as there is no fencing to protect it either.

A lot of pebbles have been dredged up from the seabed and piled up in places to cover a lot of the previously sandy beach. Large numbers of cockle shells have also been thrown up and mainly scattered randomly along the sea edge, but in a few places there are piles of them. Some were evidently alive when wrenched from their rocky homes and now the poor dead animals await being eaten by gulls or flies. It’s quite a gory sight to see them like that, but its surprising how differently we view them when they’re cooked and on a plate!

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cymbium shells

Cymbium shells

Unusually, there were quite a number of Cymbium shells of varying sizes, with one of them also still containing the animal. I have only ever found two of these lovely shells before, one sun-bleached one on the sand on the water-works side of the beach and the other here a short while ago, but broken. Research I have done puts these as native to the seas around the coast of Portugal, but I suppose that’s not so far away and they could easily be carried through the Straits to arrive here. It is interesting that they were all thrown up in the same spot though, I wonder if they are, or maybe were, living in one of the reefs close to the shore?

Cymbium, body exposed

Cymbium, body exposed

There were dozens of oranges scattered along the length of the beach as there often are after stormy weather. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine they arrive here after being carried downriver out into the sea and are then washed back in again. 

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

More Chiffchaffs flitted back and forth between the shrubs at the back of the beach, where there was also a Sardinian Warbler, a Robin and several Goldfinches. Cutting across towards the estuary there were Cormorants flying hurriedly to and from the sea and the usual host of Yellow-legged Gulls. There were more on the water together with a smaller number of Black-headed Gulls. A  Grey Plover, a Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling were resting behind some debris.

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water's edge

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water’s edge

The water level of the estuary has risen  considerably and the sand around it was still very soft and waterlogged so walking further around was not going to be easy, so I turned round and took a brisk walk back the way we had come.

A Grey Wagtail flew in over the reedbed to land by the water and near to the rotunda a pair of Stonechats came out to perch atop a low shrub, the male flying up and diving down; their characteristic display to a female.

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Getting back to the spot where the shells were washed up I stopped again to see if I could find anything else, I sat down on the sand at the back of the beach and lost in thought I didn’t immediately notice that there were three Turnstones very close by pecking around in the sand and taking no notice of me either. All that spoilt the moment was the plastic supermarket carrier bag immediately behind them.

Turstones- a very close-up view

Turstones- a very close-up view

Back on the path going out there seemed to be Chiffchaffs everywhere; flying around the stands of tall reeds that grow on the land in front of the buildings on the opposite side to the lagoon, perched on the wire fence and in or on almost every available shrub. It would seem that they are on the move, maybe they stopped here en route from Africa to wait for the storms to pass.

My Bird List for the morning was quite amazing, amounting to 22 species:

Cormorant; Common Moorhen; Marsh Harrier; Purple Swamp Hen (Gallinule); Grey Plover; Sanderling; Turnstone; Common Snipe; Black-headed Gull; Yellow-legged Gull; White Wagtail; Grey Wagtail; Blue Tit; Goldfinch; Robin; Stonechat; Black Redstart; Common Blackbird; Cetti’s Warbler (heard); Fan-tailed Warbler; Sardinian Warbler; Common Chiffchaff (numerous);

Wading birds – an outing to Brazo del Este, Seville

14th May 2011

This outing was arranged by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society. We have visited this site in the plains of Seville in the two years previous to this one, on 14th May 2009 and 15th May 2010, which is interesting for noting consistencies and changes in this very dynamic landscape.

The outing requires an early start from the Gibraltar/Spain border, meeting at 6am, then setting off on a journey that takes around two and a half hours if you drive directly there, or more like three if you stop for a breakfast break, as we do. It is a long drive, but easy going via the scenic dual carriageway from Los Barrios to Jerez de la Frontera, and then continuing towards Seville on the AP5. At this time of the morning there is very little traffic, but the new speed limit of 110 kph added a few minutes to our journey today – of course we kept to it – Jill set cruise control!

Brazo del Este is located 20 km south of Seville in the Guadalquivir river estuary and is an area with one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Iberian peninsula. This former branch (brazo) of the Guadalquivir is east (este) of the river and has become an extensive wetland, marsh and reedbed area that is surrounded by rice plains and farmland where a variety of crops are grown. It is an outstanding ornithological site, where over 230 species of birds have been recorded. It is noteworthy for its high numbers of waterfowl especially in winter, while in times of drought, birds from the nearby Doñana National Park flock here.

We may have witnessed more dramatic and colourful daybreaks than this morning’s, but as the light slowly brightened we saw a good few raptors, at least one Short-toed Eagle, a Kestrel, Booted Eagles and Black Kites setting off from various night-time roosts, flapping over fields or perching up on pylons and power lines. The number of White Stork’s nests on the tops of shorter pylons along the roadside seems to increase each year, the bird pairs visible in the half-light sitting or standing on their nests, most of which will now house quite well-grown young.

We stopped for breakfast, as always when heading in this direction, at the service area of las Palmeras, located at the turn off for Alcalá de los Gazules. One of the early morning features here is the cacophony of House Sparrows waking up and exchanging noisy but cheerful greetings.  Refreshed, we continued our journey, finally reaching the small town of el Palacio at around 8.45am, where Jacaranda trees in full bloom line the main street and numbers of Swifts were already racing around squealing delightedly, and where the temperature had already reached 21°C.

Common Buzzard - Buteo buteo

The road leading from the town to our target site is long, narrow and almost straight, passing through vast acres of flat cultivated landscape that is short on significant features. On its left side there are a few scattered clumps of  farm buildings surrounded by large ploughed fields, and a line of telegraph poles is set along its edge. We had our first close bird sighting of the day here; a Common Buzzard that sat enjoying the sun, ignoring us determinedly as we sat in the car looking up at it.

Chicory thrives here

For a good length of it, the land opposite is screened by a windbreak of tall eucalyptus trees fronted by a deep reed-fringed dyke that was brimful of deep water. Windows down, we heard our first birdsong, the unmistakeable loud scratchy tune of a Great Reed Warbler.

A Great Reed Warbler, singing at full throttle

It took very little effort to locate the singer, perched high on top of a bedraggled old reed seedhead. We watched him for a minute, until he flew up into a nearby tree. A Moorhen crossed the road in front of us and a Crested Lark meandered along it further ahead. We stopped again almost next to another Great Reed Warbler, enjoying very close views of him, and  spotted Reed Warblers discreetly travelling around low in the reed thicket beneath his perch. Two Black-winged Stilts flew across towards the water and a couple of Black Kites flapped past, high above the fields.

Crop spraying was underway

Inside the site, we had a few moments of concern on seeing that a large area of what was reed-bed last year had been cleared and ploughed. To add to our woes a small crop-spraying plane was buzzing across the fields discharging its cargo. The thoughts that after travelling all this way, not only would there be no birds to see but that we may also be either poisoned or fertilised for our efforts, did cross our minds. But this is a very intensively farmed area, and although a designated Parque Natural, people here have to work hard at making a living; at least there were no tractors racing up and down the track covering us with great clouds of dust as they were last year! (I’m really selling this place aren’t I?)

Our spirits soon lifted when we saw more singing Great Reed Warblers up on reeds, and driving on a short way we discovered large areas of damp and, in places, wet reedbeds. Beyond the tall reeds there were Black-winged Stilts stalking through the shallow water, Purple Gallinules skulking around its reeded edges, Moorhens and the first of several views of a flying Little Bittern. A Cetti’s Warbler threw out its song and three tiny Fan-tailed Warblers were engaged in a tight battle, two of them breaking away and spiralling up and across the road oblivious to us.

Black-winged Stilt- Himantopus himantopus

Jill set up her telescope here and picked up that there were Dunlins in the mix too, one of which had lost a leg but that seemed to be coping well. A raptor flew across and landed on a distant pylon, through the ‘scope we could see it was a Black Kite that had perched up to eat something indeterminate but bloody. The presence of the Black Kite disturbed a large flock of smallish birds that we at first thought were Dunlins, but that turned out to be Ringed Plovers. We went on to discover there were large numbers of them scattered throughout the site, clearly on passage through and feeding before setting off to their more northerly breeding areas.

Purple Heron - Ardea purpurea

Our best views of Purple Herons were of individuals flying between various parts of the site, once they land amongst the reeds they are amazingly well camouflaged and they prefer to stay that way, much less commonly seen feeding openly as their Grey Heron cousins. There were other good sightings of flying waders too,  Grey Herons were frequent spots, Night Herons were out and about too. There were a couple more sightings of Little Bittern and most unusually, one of a Common Bittern. Two Glossy Ibis flew across, their profiles unmistakeable against the increasingly bright sun, although not a great light to photograph against.

Glossy Ibis - Plegadis falcinellus

We had a superb view of a Spoonbill flying low over the reeds: last year we had wonderful sightings of a flock then of them wading as a large group with a solitary Sacred Ibis attached.

Spoonbill - Platalea leucorodia

 Collared Pratincole – Glareola pratincola

Collared Pratincoles are one of the characteristic and I think most charismatic birds of this area, resembling Plovers (charadrius) on the ground and terns in flight.

Collared Pratincole standing on a mud bank

The habitat of Brazo del Este is perfect for their needs, they favour large flat expanses of land with some shallow pools and marsh, often dried-out flood areas, grazed shore meadows and salt steppe adjoining coastal lagoons and deltas. (They also occur in the la Janda area)

Collared Pratincole in flight; they catch insects on the wing

Moving on a little further we had closer views of Ringed Plover and Dunlin feeding on the muddy shores of  a rapidly drying pool, then further back in an area with more water were Spoonbills, Grey Herons, a Purple Heron, White Storks,Little Egrets, Redshanks, Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Dunlins.

A few of the White Storks & a Little Egret that were part of a larger mixed group

Another moment of alarm occurred when we spotted ‘objects’ floating around on the surface of another pool: at first we thought they may be dead birds, but closer inspection revealed dead fish. We could only speculate as to what had killed them, but nothing was venturing to eat them.

Dead fish

There were not a huge amount of smaller birds flying around, but there were a few Whiskered Terns, Little Tern, Yellow Wagtails and Goldfinches to be seen. There were more Reed Warblers spotted and Great Reed Warblers continued to be heard, but as the heat increased were less frequently seen as they dropped lower down in amongst the reed stems.

Great Reed Warblers continued to be heard but less frequently seen

Much as I love to see birds, I am interested in habitats as a whole and am prone to becoming distracted by ‘other stuff’. The natural vegetation of the site as a whole is of course dominated by stands of Giant Reeds. The roadsides are so dry and sun-baked for most of the year that only the toughest of plants can hope to survive, so the vegetation there consists largely of thistles, plantains etc.

A hedge of thistles along part of the roadside

Aestivating snails clinging to thistle seedheads

Those in flower now attract a surprising number of insects, I saw bees, a few dragonflies, butterflies and a little diurnal moth. The most common butterflies were Clouded Yellows, I also saw mating Small Whites, Green Striped Whites and a pristine Painted Lady.

Clouded Yellow-

Green-striped White - Euchloe belemia

Another pool held an exciting find – a flock of beautiful Grey Plovers, the males in their handsome summer plumage. The sun high in the sky and reflecting off the water, together with the distance away made a decent photograph impossible, so I have included one that I took whilst on another outing on 6th May 2007, at Trebujena.

A pair of Grey Plover in summer plumage

Most of the wading birds we had come across had been on reedbeds  on the river side of the track (to our left going in), but we had one of our best collection of species sightings in a pool fairly distant from the track and on its other side. Here there were White Storks, a number of Grey Herons, (at least two of which were very young, probably of this year’s brood), Little Egrets, Grey Plovers, Dunlin, Ringed Plovers and gulls.

A variety of wading birds gathered together

A more expansive view of where the birds were showing the receding water

This was the last of the expanses of reedbed, but we decided to continue along a little further as we knew from last year there were some potentially interesting spots ahead providing a slightly different habitat and attracting some different species of birds. It was a good decision; our first spot was a Kestrel that we watched land on the bare earth of a ploughed field. There was another Kestrel already on the ground and the two of them stayed down, so had clearly found something worth eating.

We arrived at the small bridge that crosses a concrete-lined waterway, where last year we had come across the amazing spectacle of  White Storks, Grey & Purple Herons, Little Egrets & a Night Heron all feasting together on fish stranded in shallow water. There were no waders here today, but we did spot Red-rumped Swallows flying around the bridge and stopped to watch as they landed to collect mud from the bottom of the almost-dry dyke, then swooping up and under the bridge, where they are clearly building their characteristic ‘igloo- style’ nest.

Red-rumped Swallow - Hirundo daurica

On the other side of the bridge is a large pool surrounded by a grassy field, where again, last year we had seen two Squacco Herons. No Squacco’s today, but there was a Little Grebe. There were Black-winged Stilts too, actually nesting in the exact same place as they were last year in a surprisingly open spot in the field. Opposite there we had our best Purple Heron sighting of the day as it stood out in the open on the bank of a small river.

We turned back here to head for our favourite venta in the village of el Pinzón, first experiencing a bit of deja-vu as we encountered birds that we had seen in the exact same location in almost the same spots as last year. I am referring to an area of rough pasture that has pylons and cables that last year had Bee-eaters skimming over it; this year we saw only one up on the cables, but it was there. Last year a Short-toed Eagle was perched atop a telegraph pole on this bit of roadside and lo and behold, there it was again today. The final bird in the set was a Corn Bunting perched on the cable and yes, there was a Corn Bunting there today too. It’s reassuring to see that not everything changes in a hurry.

Back on the road and driving away from the site we had our most exciting bird sighting of the day. As we reached the end of the line of eucalyptus trees, a Marsh Harrier shot out from behind them then continued to fly low and fast parallel to the road. Jill adjusted her speed to keep pace with him and to try to keep him in clear view for me  to try to photograph through the open driver’s side window. Good job it’s a straight piece of road!

Marsh Harrier keeping pace with the car

At the venta there was another now-familiar sight – a Stork’s nest that is located on top of a tower on the opposite side of the narrow street where the parents were once again feeding growing young.

White Stork feeding young

Common Cranes and so much more at La Janda

12 February 2011

The first GONHS outing of this year took us to La Janda, nr. Tarifa, the place to visit during the winter to see large numbers of Common Cranes and White Storks gathered together as well as a myriad of other wintering and passage birds that are attracted to this rich, open agricultural site. This trip was a little different to our usual outings as we were guided by Stephen Daly, a professional guide who knows the locality inside out, is very aware of  what may be around at any given time and where best to find it. He also has privileged access to areas that are on private land and usually closed off, so although many of us on the trip have visited the area many times before, we were able to view parts of the site that were fresh to us.

A large group of members (21 of us), met up with Stephen at the Apollo XI venta, conveniently located a short way from the entrance to the La Janda site. After coffee and breakfast there was a little shuffling around to find everyone a seat in a 4X4, as the tracks around the site are weather-worn and not particularly friendly to ‘normal’ cars. We set off as a convoy of 6 cars, showing number plates from Gibraltar, Spain and the USA which evoked quite a bit of curiosity amongst other road users throughout the day.

We began our birding quest on land belong to el Cortijo de Haba, scanning the ploughed fields either side of a track. It was cold and quite misty there, but there were still birds to be seen, albeit mostly distantly; we  saw our first Common Cranes flying and quite a few Cormorants crossing back and forth. There were Storks, Cattle and Little Egrets present, a Buzzard hunched up on a distant fence, Red-legged Partridge at the field’s edge, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. We could hear Larks in the bare muddy fields, most likely Crested, but their superb camouflage made them difficult to pick out and although there was movement amongst them flights were low and short and not at all helpful to us.

We drove on to the La Janda site and turned in to be greeted by mist that shrouded the land to either side of us. The first birds we picked out were Lapwings that were flying around despite the reduced visibility that landed in the grassy field to our left.

A damp Cattle Egret stood in the damp mist, shaking out his feathers

The sun, quickly gaining in strength began to burn off the mist and birds began to move around more freely. Perching places are sparse in this part of the site; a sizeable mixed flock of Linnets, Goldfinches & Chaffinches flew into this small bush, with more alighting on the grass stems below to feed on grass seeds.

Birds in a bush-Linnet, Goldfinch & Chaffinch

There was an interesting departure from our usual route at this point; we would have continued driving and made a left turn onto the long main track here, but Stephen had gained permission for us to pass through a post and wire gate to the right, so we left our cars and continued along here on foot.

A spider’s web beaded with water drops sparkled in the sunlight

An old wasps nest attached to the wire fence that was probably concealed by reeds or long grass when it was built

The track leads between fields with the river on one side and a dry ditch on the other. There were numerous Chiffchaffs along here amongst the reeds, Stonechats perched up  atop stems and posts and Corn Buntings sang from the wire fence. Stephen had visited the site during the last week when there were large numbers of Snipe and Common Cranes here, but the field was being ploughed this morning, moving the Cranes on. We did however see Meadow Pipits, a Green Sandpiper and more Lapwings and there were still Snipe  in the field opposite, with Calandra Larks. With binoculars it was possible to see very large numbers of Storks gathered at the back of the fields and another perched Buzzard. By the time we turned around to walk back the sun had all but burnt off the mist and it was feeling much warmer. To our delight Calandra Larks were flying up high to sing and to display flights against the clear blue sky.

Calandra Lark, male displaying & singing

Calandra LarkMelanocorypha calandra-SPANISH: Calandria común

Calandra Larks are big, heavily built larks with a large head, stout Greenfinch-like bill and a black patch on neck-side. Characteristic in flight, with dark wings (all black below) with broad white trailing edge. Display sings in circling song flight, often very high up; the long black wings and closed tail give the impression of a much larger bird. A typical Steppe species favouring fertile grasslands, widespread over much of Spain and parts of Portugal, generally below 600m. There has been a noticeable decline in numbers in recent years due to modern agricultural practises. Feeds on seeds, shoots & insects. Calandras are thought to be non-migratory.

A Spoonbill was spotted flying, seeming to be trailing a leg. Back at the bottom of the track we heard Fan-tailed Warblers ‘zitting’ amongst the long grass, heard a Cetti’s Warbler from somewhere by the water and saw a pair of Mallard flying.

Driving along the main track we had some great views, a Swamp Hen (I still prefer Purple Gallinule), Coots, loads more Cattle Egrets, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. There were Little Egrets, Grey Herons, and a distant hovering Kestrel. We stopped to photograph 3 Cranes close by in a field, that turned out to be our best view of the day of Cranes on the ground.

Three Common Cranes, our best view of the day

The convoy came to a halt to admire three beautiful Spoonbills that stood at the edge of a flooded field, settling down to take a rest.

Three Spoonbills on the edge of a distant flooded field

We stopped again a little further on as Golden Plovers, still in winter plumage and incredibly well camouflaged against the bare brown earth were spotted in a field together with yet more Lapwings. Visible only with the aid of a telescope, we may well have passed them by if they had not been pointed out to us.

There were Golden Plovers in the flat bare field beyond the reed-fringed river

Lapwings were everywhere today, flying and feeding on the ground

An elegantly poised Grey Heron alone in a stubble field

We turned right off the main track, crossed the bridge over the river and then drove down the length of straight track lined with small willow trees,  currently bearing catkins. The track surface here was full of potholes to avoid and from our position at the back of the convoy, the only birds we saw were a couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldfinch. We stopped briefly and getting out of the car inadvertently disturbed a bird we were hoping to see – a Great Spotted Cuckoo left the cover of the shrubs and flew low down, close to the hedge back along the way we had just driven.

The rest of our party had stopped a bit further on to watch a well-spotted Black-winged Kite perched at the top of a small tree. The beautiful bird then flew out across the field it had been scanning, hovered Kestrel-like over a spot on the ground then returned to its perch.

A distant view of a Black-winged Kite

The next spot was of a Little Owl that had been sitting up on one of the huge arms of one of the irrigating contraptions; it was long gone by the time we tail-enders arrived! We did see a Marsh Harrier here though,  quite distant above the hills to our left, but still good to see. Causing a little more excitement a Hen Harrier flew into view on the opposite side of the track, again distant, but it was possible to see it was a female that was then joined by another bird, probably the male. As we drove off we spotted a very tight flock of dark-coloured birds flying away from us that turned out to be Glossy Ibis.

We carried on up to the farm, leaving the cars once again to the scan around the very different terrain here. To one side there is rough pastureland where cows were grazing around clumps of flowering Asphodels; this is part of the Hen Harriers’ territory and they would have been around here when we saw them from lower down.

A huge field full of flowering Asphodels with grazing cattle, cork oaks and distant mountains – this is Hen Harrier territory

Parked close to a cow shed with a very muddy enclosed area in front of it that was full of curious cattle, the air around us was rather pungently fragranced, which some felt added to the campo atmosphere but which others found strangely offensive (townies!). But, where there are animals there are generally insects and small rodents, therefore birds. There were large numbers of Jackdaws all over the place that Stephen told us nest on the rock faces of a local quarry, and a little crowd of Chiffchaffs that were perching in the squares formed by a wire fence surrounded by yellow mustard-type flowers, diving out acrobatically to chase flies. A single Barn Swallow was spotted and a Booted Eagle that was perched up on a telegraph pole pointed out, 2 Buzzards circled, then a Hen Harrier flew in and scanned the area in front of us (pastureland surrounded with olive and cork oak trees and other scrubby vegetation). We heard the distinctive honking of Cranes flying and two separate groups headed straight for us then passed close over our heads. Lovely views of these large, elegant birds.

Cranes flying over our heads

Absorbed by the Cranes we had failed to notice that a huge flock of White Storks had gathered behind us and were beginning to wheel characteristically and drift across above us: a breathtaking display.

Wheeling White Storks

Moving along a short way we stopped again as Stephen spotted a Great Spotted Cuckoo that had been perched but that dropped to the ground, disappearing from view. Somehow someone picked up a Little Owl sitting in a tree above a bramble patch, but I could not see it, sorry.

So, onwards to lunch – which all GONHS outing regulars will know and appreciate is an essential part of the day’s proceedings. Stephen did us proud, guiding us to ‘Cortijo Los Monteros’, which is located on the Medina-Benalup road (km6). We all enjoyed our choices from the tasty and generously portioned, but very reasonably priced 3 course ‘menu del dia’, that we ate seated at a very long table in front of a huge roaring wood fire.

After lunch Stephen was taking us to a nearby reservoir. We stopped en route at a beautiful woodland spot along the road to look out for the rare Spanish Imperial Eagles that nested here for the first time last year, an unexpected event that has caused much excitement.

A cork oak tree reflected in a flower-covered pool which was well-populated with frogs

A lovely healthy-looking cow with a fearsome set of horns and dangly earrings grazed with her calf on the lush grass, guarded by her own personal ‘tick-picker’ (cattle egret).

We had no luck with the Imperial Eagles, but we enjoyed the moments of peace and tranquillity of our surroundings and while some of us were content to wander around and take it all in, others were diligently scanning the sky for the elusive raptors. Stephen heard a Green Woodpecker, or Iberian Woodpecker as he referred to it and whistled back to it, hoping to bring it to us, but it could probably see we were quite a crowd and chose not to. More Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk  were spotted and then excitement was aroused by two beautiful Red Kites directly overhead. They seemed as interested in us as we were in them and they spent some time moving around us slowly, whilst peering down.

A stunning Red Kite, looking a bit frayed around the primaries peering down at the strange gathering of humans below it

Arriving at the reservoir we got our bearings and realised we were at the far side of the huge expanse of water that lies to the left of the main AP-4 the Algeciras – Sevilla road, that we had all seen and wondered about dozens of times but had no idea how to access. Well now we know – it is the Barbate reservoir constructed in 1992 to prevent the agricultural land at the site we had just visited from flooding. That seems a little ironic as that site was historically a lake that was drained so the land could be put to agricultural use. The reservoir is absolutely huge, stated as covering 2,537 hectares, but now undoubtedly swelled by the recent heavy rainfalls. As with most reservoirs it appears to be a fairly sterile environment for birds, although apparently Osprey have nested there in previous years. There was not much to see here, we could hear Sardinian Warbler amongst the scrub growing on the bank we were standing on and some distant ducks were Mallard and possibly Pintails, but apart from a herd of goats grazing in an idyllic spot on a grassy hill near the water, there were no signs of activity. It’s a lovely spot though with views to Sierra del Algorrobo and their highest peak, el Picacho, the location for several previous GONHS outings.

A view across the reservoir

View to el Algorrobo mountains

Bird List for the day: Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, White Stork Ciconia ciconia, Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia, Glossy Ibis Plegadiss falcinellus, Mallard Anas platyrhyncos, Pintail Anas acuta,Red Kite Milvus milvus, Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus, Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Buzzard Buteo buteo, Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus,Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa, Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Coot Fulica atra, Swamp Hen (Purple Gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio, Common Crane Grus grus, Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, Snipe Gallinago gallinago, Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, Woodpigeon Columba palumbus, Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto, Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius, Little Owl Athene noctua, Green Woodpecker Picus viridis (Iberian race sharpei)(heard), Crested Lark Galerida cristata, Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra, Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, Pied(White) Wagtail Motacilla alba, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, Stonechat Saxicola torquata, Fan-tailed Warbler Cisticola juncidis (heard), Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti (heard),Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala, Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor, Jackdaw Corvus monedula, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, Linnet Carduelis cannabina, Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra (51 species)

Further information & links:

This blog has pages relating to La Janda, including directions for getting there and previous trip reports.

Stephen Daly keeps a photoblog that has loads of  stunning photographs of the many birds he encounters in the area, including Great Spotted Cuckoos, Black-winged Kite and Imperial Eagle:  andalucianguides.blogspot.com