04 December 2010

Away with the birds

We had been looking forward to a day's birdwatching with Stephen Daly of Andalucian Guides for weeks, and the recent wet weather even compelled us to buy some wellies just in case.  But we need not have worried; the day dawned clear and bright, if nose-drippingly chilly.

We met Stephen in Benalup where we piled into his  4x4 and set off along an old drover's trail, now part of the Corredor Verde Dos Bahias hiking route from Los Barrios to the Bahia de Cadiz.  This took us into the area known as La Janda, once a vast inland lagoon but drained in the 1950s in order to grow crops (mainly rice).  Stephen was a mine of information; we learned that the work had been paid for by the Americans in a deal with Franco whereby the US established military bases at Rota and Morón de la Frontera, and the malaria-infested lagoon was drained and then drenched in DDT to kill off the mosquitos.  Fortunately the area still attracts huge numbers of migrating birds and the paddy-fields provide a larder for them over the winter.

After a few hundred yards Stephen stopped the car and lent me some sensible binoculars to replace the toy ones  I usually carry.   The flat, ploughed fields and reedbeds were just teeming with birds.  He rattled off the names as I struggled to focus the binoculars -  white wagtails, serins, meadow pipits, goldfinches, chiffchaffs, corn buntings, lapwings, several flavours of plover, red-legged partridges and the improbably named zitting cisticola, clinging to a reed like a small fluffy wren.

Sitting quietly in a vehicle you see far more birds than when you are walking along chatting.  Stephen exploited their natural curiosity by making psssst noises, which makes them pop up to see what´s going on.

Further into La Janda we pulled up to watch some large birds coming into land in a field of what looked like grey boulders.  In fact the boulders were Common cranes, hundreds of them, grazing peacefully.  Having written a post on this blog about these splendid birds recently, I was hoping we might see one or two ...

The raptors also sent us into rapture - kestrels, marsh harriers, hen harriers, a distant Bonnelli´s eagle or two, and later on a black-winged kite, a rare sight apparently, but he wheeled and glided around us long enough for Stephen to take plenty of photos.

The next delight was a series of purple swamphens, formerly known as gallinules, spaced every 20 metres or so along a drainage ditch between the paddy fields.  Like plumper, gaudier versions of the moorhens seen in the UK, their bright red legs and incredibly long toes are perfect for walking across the submerged reeds.

After lunch we drove south towards Tarifa and up into the rocky hills behind Bolonia, to a nesting site for griffon vultures.  Some of them were sitting in the rocks, preening and enjoying the afternoon sun, while others circled above on the thermals.  We had hoped to see peregrine falcons, but they were having a day off.   The soundtrack was provided by stonechats, black redstarts and Sardinian warblers.

Thanks to Stephen for a great day, despite the jokes.  And apologies to all the birds I've left out ...

I didn't take any photographs of birds, because with a pocket digital there is no point, but here are some taken by Stephen (many more can be found on his excellent blog http://andalucianguides.blogspot.com/):


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