Birding in Murcia September 2017

August/September is generally a quiet month in the birding world as most of our summer residents have finished breeding and the frenetic activity associated with raising a family has been completed.

Migration will shortly be underway, but the majority will still be enjoying a break and feeding up before starting their epic journeys to wintering grounds further south.

It is also a quiet time for me, as I avoid the excessive heat of the day that deters me from spending much time out with the binoculars, but I do a few early morning walks before it gets too hot. This normally means that I head into the pine woods on the shady northern side of my local sierra for a bit of exercise and to see what is happening with our local woodland birds.

The common species I encounter in the pine woods tend to be from the Tit family, but the species mix is a little bit different from the UK. Crested Tits are abundant and Coal, Long tailed and Great Tits fairly common. However, a familiar bird to Northern Europeans, the Blue Tit, is scarce. In the North West of Murcia it occurs in some of the cooler places and I have seen them in parts of Moratalla and a site on the Vía Verde near Bullas. In my own patch I have only seen them on a handful of occasions in the 12 years I have been here. It seems a bit surreal to get excited about seeing a Blue Tit when they have been such a common everyday bird for much of my life. It is also fairly common in much of the Iberian Peninsula, but in our corner of South East Spain it is scarce, probably because of the dry desert-like landscapes that predominate in Murcia.

The best way to find Tits is by their songs and calls as they flit around the tops of the pine trees chatting between themselves. They continually call to each other making sure they keep in touch and are alert to any dangers. If you listen to some recordings it shouldn't take too long to start recognising some of the more familiar calls of Crested, Coal and Great Tits as they all have distinctive songs. However, they do have quite a range of calls, so concentrate on the most noticeable and distinctive ones first. Great Tits particularly have a huge repertoire, but they have a noticeable metallic tone to their voice and a very striking and fairly common call which sounds like "chichipan, chichipan, chichipan". Once learnt you will always recognise it.

birding Crested TitMy particular favourite in this family is the Crested Tit (Herreillo Capuchino), because of its perky appearance and busy behaviour. It is resident here and a fairly common woodland bird in mainland Europe, but is largely absent from Great Britain except in Scottish pine forests, principally in the Cairngorms.

birding Coal TitIts close relative, the Coal Tit (Carbonero Garrapinos), is another very busy character as it searches for insects and seeds in the tree tops. If you see it well, the markings around the head are quite distinctive, especially the white stripe on the back of its head. A bit like a Mohican!

Other common birds of the pine woods are Crossbills, Jays and the ubiquitous Woodpigeon. Crossbills are a stout looking Finch with a large head and a bill which is crossed over at the tips, as its name suggests. This is an adaptation that allows it to open pine cones to get to the seeds, its principal diet, as it hangs acrobatically close to the cones. It is most often seen in noisy family groups and usually towards the tops of the trees. The males are an attractive reddish colour and the females, as is often the case in the avian world, are quite drab and a dull greenish colour.

birding JayJays are always close by as I walk through the woods and normally let me know they are about with their noisy and hoarse scream "kschaach", quite a contrast to their striking appearance, normally seen as they fly away in an explosion of black, white, blue and rosey-brown.

birding Spotless starlingChanging the theme completely, I was driving near my house recently when I noticed a murmuration of Starlings, a large group flying tightly in formation and changing direction rapidly over the adjoining field. It was very impressive formation flying; better than any aerial display by the Red Arrows or its Spanish equivalent, La Patrulla Águila! As I pulled over to watch them, I thought that it was a bit strange to see a murmuration on a bright summer morning! Normally, it is an activity that occurs in winter at dusk; the time when Starlings arrive at their communal roosts and can involve thousands and thousands of birds at the larger roost sites. However, as I continued watching, it soon became apparent that their behaviour was a response to a threat, as they were mobbing a Booted Eagle that was flying very low over the field. The tightly packed group was flying at the Eagle and turning at the last moment, continually driving the confused bird away from them. The Eagle was twisting and turning to avoid them and defend itself, but was totally outgunned by the group action, so once again David beat Goliath.

The Starlings that are resident here are a totally different species from our familiar Common Starlings (Estornino Pinto) of Northern Europe. They are Spotless Starlings (Estornino Negro) and although they look very similar, the adults in spring and summer are a uniform colour without spots. In winter they have very small spots, in contrast to the Common Starling which has very striking and noticeable spots. It is also possible to see Common Starlings here in Murcia, as some birds migrate south to spend the winter with us, so why not give Starlings a second look in winter and see if you can spot both species?

birding Booted EagleThe Booted Eagle (Águila Calzada) the Starlings were driving off is a striking looking bird. It is a little bit smaller than a Buzzard, but with the good light conditions here it appears to me larger, so size can be a bit deceptive. This bird was a light phase, but there are individuals that have darker plumage and from underneath it appears white with the rear half of the wings and the wing tips a contrasting black (see photo). If you have a good view, it can be one of the easier Eagles to identify and for this reason I think it is a good beginner's bird of prey. It is also fairly common in areas with suitable habitat, especially in the North West of the region, where there is a good mixture of woodland and agricultural land, which it favours. It feeds on small to medium sized birds, lizards, small mammals and occasionally insects. It is generally migratory and breeds here in the summer. However, there are always a few individuals that overwinter down by the coast, thus saving a long journey to Sub-Saharan Africa where the majority of our birds spend the winter months.

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