19 July 2011

Things with wings

On the long summer evenings the skies above Alcalá come alive with an aerial ballet of swifts, swallows and house-martins.  We sit on our roof terrace and watch them swooping and soaring, hoovering up flies on the wing.  They are often chased by our resident lesser kestrels, but they rarely succeed in catching one.  White cattle egrets flap lazily along the river valley towards their nocturnal roosting tree, usually in V-shaped groups of a dozen or so, but with the occasional latecomer anxious to catch up with the flock.  Doves and pigeons are here in abundance, nesting in the special pigeon-holes made for them in the rocks of the Coracha above us.

Then just before dusk the bats appear, taking over the flycatching from the hirundines as they return to their nests.  After dark, the whoo-hoo of the tawny owl can often be heard, or the distant screech of a barn owl. Cicadas chirrup in the bushes, and some temporally challenged cockerel will usually sound his quiquiriquí alarm at around 2 am. 

At dawn the songbirds are at their busiest, darting in and out of the trees and bushes to feed themselves and their young before the heat of the day sets in.  By mid-morning most of the smaller birds have taken refuge from the sun, except for noisy bands of spotless starlings which sometimes descend on the big eucalyptus tree next to the house, and sparrows which hop along the electricity cables and occasionally take shelter on our windowsill.  In the distance, vultures and raptors take advantage of the hot air thermals, drifting across the sky with barely a flap of their wings. 

Apart from the birds, our roof garden is visited by a colourful variety of butterflies, beetles and crickets, even the odd praying mantis blown over from Africa on the Levante.  Possibly because it is almost always windy here, we are not unduly bothered by mosquitos or wasps, apart from the solitary mud-wasps with their dangly bits hanging behind them.  Great big navy-blue carpenter bees, whose wings appear too fragile to get them off the ground, often blunder into the wall and lie stunned upside-down on the ground until we flip them over. 

All the joys of nature - without even leaving the house. 

House martins (avión común in Spanish )

House martins nesting
The house-martins, Delichon urbica, build their nests in colonies under the eaves of houses and are regarded by many locals as a pest, because of their droppings and the noise they make; you will see plastic bags and other detritus tied on the walls to deter them.  However there are enough empty buildings and benevolent householders to ensure that they return each year in large numbers.  They arrive in early spring when there are still puddles of water on the ground, from which they collect mud for any repair work needed on their nests, which are closed apart from a tiny entrance hole.

Swallows (golandrinas )
Swallows (hirundo rustica) have much longer tails than house martins and are extremely agile on the wing.  We have seen them fly under the wheels of a moving vehicle and emerge unscathed!   Their nests are half-cup shaped and built in sheltered places.   Another variety, the red-rumped swallow (hirundo daurica) visits us from Africa during the summer, and builds its bottle-shaped nests in abandoned buildings and sheltered rocks.

Swifts (vencenjos)
Swifts (apus apus) are not related to swallows, although they are often confused with them.  They tend to fly higher, rarely coming down to land (they can sleep on the wing); they have longer wings and shorter tails.  They are around all summer but reach a peak in August and early May.  The pallid swift (apus pallidus) is another abundant summer visitor.  It looks very similar to the common swift but is paler in colour.

Lesser kestrels (cernicalo primilla)
 The lesser kestrel (falco naumanni) is a delightful small falcon which lives in Alcalá all year round, nesting and roosting in niches in old buildings and filling the skies with its raucous chirps.  It is smaller than the common kestrel and more playful and gregarious; in summer it is common to see large numbers of them swooping and diving around the church tower in the Plaza Alta, or hanging motionless above la Coracha looking for food. They feed mainly on crickets and other insects, but occasionally take mice or small birds.

Cattle egret befriending a vaca retinta

 Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) are found wherever there are cattle, and there are a lot of cattle round Alcalá.  They are a type of small, gregarious heron.  Their official name in Spanish is garzilla bueyera, but they have numerous local names such as espulgabuey.

Confusingly, the cattle egret is larger than a little egret (Egretta garzetta), and has an orange bill rather than black.

Spotless starlings (estornino negro)
Spotless starlings (sturnus unicolor) have similar habits to their more common relatives, the European starlings, but their plumage is darker and as the name implies, they don´t have the spots.  They go round in noisy groups and are good mimics.

A group of spotlesss starlings made a guest appearance at the Alcalá International Music festival a couple of years ago.  The Soloists of London were performing in the patio of the SAFA; confused by the spotlights, the roosting birds thought morning had come early and started to sing.  At one point they almost drowned out the music!

Other "things with wings" which have visited nuestra casa:

Green cricket in the lemon-grass plant

Praying mantis on the kitchen windowsill
Red Admiral on the lantana plant
Mud-wasps are not aggressive and prefer spiders to humans
Carpenter bee - the male has no sting, and the female prefers flowers

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