Friday, April 30, 2010

from desert to fields of snow in two kilometres

Collared Pratincole

Such is the great range of altitude over short distances in the Iberian Peninsula that you can go from a veritable desert to wet and lush mountain pastures in two kilometres of elevation. The drying salt marsh in the marismas is now home to Collared Pratincoles (above) and a range of larks including the Calandra (above) and the Lesser Short-toed Lark (below). These species (photos taken on the 23rd) are perfectly at home in temperatures aboce 30C in the baking sun.

...but go up into the high elevations and you enter the realm of the Skylark (above). This bird is common at low elevations in winter but these are northern birds that go back into north-western Europe in the spring. The Iberian Skylarks are mountain birds that find their home on islands of cool habitat away from the drying lowlands.

The melt water keeps the pastures lush up here where we find a community of birds more akin to northern Europe than to Iberia.

So the neighbours of the Skylark include the gorgeous Bluethroat that breeds in the high elevations in low scrub on flooded pastures, whereas the neighbours of the lowland larks include the arid-adapted Collared Pratincole (head of this post).

We will explore the mountains and the phenomenon of ecological change with altitude in the next posts.

Monday, April 26, 2010

With the Phoenix under the blazing sun

In Europe, the Greater Flamingo breeds in the Iberian Peninsula, southern France and Sardinia. It also breeds in Turkey and in North Africa, close by. Flamingoes are nomadic and move around sites as water levels rise and fall. Crossings between Europe and North Africa are not uncommon. These photographs were taken in the marismas of the Guadalquivir on the 23rd April.

On average around 31% of the western Mediterranean flamingoes breed in Spain but, when water levels are right, this proportion has been known to be up to 57%. That was in 2001 when 23,011 pairs bred. The lake at Fuente de Piedra in Malaga Province usually holds the largest colony by far, the number of breeding pairs having fluctuated between 2 and 20 thousand in recent years.

Flamingoes also breed in the marismas when water levels are right but these tend to be inexperienced birds and they usually have problems completing the reproduction. One year the pools in which they had raised the young dried up too soon and the young, which could not fly, had to be herded by horsemen to another pool or they would have all perished!

Fuente de Piedra lies roughly 150 kilometres east of the marismas and the breeding birds regularly commute between the lake and the marsh in search of food. Their movements to and fro offer spectacular views of these wonderful birds in flight.

The Latin name of the Greater Flamingo is Phoenicopterus ruber. Phoenicopetrus means Phoenix-winged and it has been suggested that the combination of flame colours and the rising heat currents in the inhospitable salt lakes in which they breed, inspired the Egyptian Phoenix.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Elegance among the fishermen of the inland waters

Purple Heron

Now that the flood waters are receding the marshes of the Guadalquivir are looking splendid and rich in food for many aquatic birds. Among the best represented are the great fishermen of the marshes - the herons. These photographs, with two exceptions indicated, were taken on 23rd April and in March of this year. They serve to illustrate the huge biomass that these marshes are able to support in good years.

The marsh itself, with a good cover of reeds, is favourite for one of the most elegant of birds. The Purple Heron arrives in spring from tropical West Africa to breed. It spends most of its time among the reeds and is very shy, making the task of the photographer difficult. In spite of its size and colours it has an uncanny ability to stay put and fly just as you see it!

The long neck allows this bird to get an aerial view of the reeds and when a movement is detected a close-up focus takes over.

If luck is with it, as here, an unsuspecting crayfish makes a tasty meal!


Where there is more open water, but with the safety of reeds nearby, another large heron takes over. The Great Egret has experienced a significant recovery in the last decade and is now a regular feature of the marshes. Unlike the Purple Heron, the Great Egret stays around all year.

This species also stretches its neckto survey the surroundings

and its long legs allow it to wade deep

The Grey Heron is the largest species and prefers to feed in open water, including shallow pools. It will travel great distances over the marshes to find suitable feeding opportunities.

Like its relatives, it hunts by stealth

Black-crowned Night Herons are highly sociable and are often seen flying to and from feeding grounds at dawn and dusk. They are smaller than the previous species and are sit-and-wait predators, often close to reed beds but near open water.

Night Heron (above) and the equally stunning Squacco Heron (below - archive photo) are predators of fish, crabs and crayfish, taking smaller prey than the larger herons.

There are many ponds and shallow lakes now and these are full of frogs and toads. Along with small fish they are favourite prey of the elegant Little Egret.

The least orthodox in the family is the Cattle Egret that prefers to follow sheep and cattle, often in large flocks, and take the insects they disturb than follow the family tradition of fishermen. Even so they are often seen close to water as if old habits died hard!

The smallest species, the Little Bittern (above - archive photo), is highly migratory and, like the Purple Heron, returns to these marshes after a crossing of the Sahara Desert.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

One swallow does not make a summer, but a Bee-eater does!

Had Aristotle lived in Iberia he might just have been tempted to associate summer with the Bee-eater, but in the Balkans they arrive later than in these parts and the Swallow got the part.

Bee-eaters started to return from Africa at the end of March (see post of 30th March) and soon got down to the business of excavating nest holes or widening old ones (post of 2nd April). St Bee-eater's Day (10th April), the day Irby considered most passed overhead, went by and by St George's Day the colonies were well established and in full swing. It gave me an opportunity to photograph these incredibly photogenic creatures.

It is hard to know just how many Bee-eaters there are. A recent estimate put the Spanish population at over 100 thousand pairs but this may be an underestimate. If these figures are correct the European population may be around a quarter-of-a-million pairs, nearly half living in the Iberian Peninsula.

Bee-eaters spend much of their lives in the air, hawking for all kinds of large insects, not just bees. They are agile and swoop swiftly at unsuspecting prey.

Insects, their sole diet, are the limiting factor to their distribution which does not go beyond the 21C isotherm. They breed in south-west Europe, central and eastern Europe, East-Central Asia and in North-west Africa. There are another 22 species of bee-eater in the genus Merops but they are less adventurous than their European cousin and tend to stay in the tropics. Only the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater reaches Morocco and sometimes strays across the Strait of Gibraltar into European territory. The winters do not support sufficient insects of the right size so all Bee-eaters winter in tropical Africa. The Iberian ones fly south over the Strait of Gibraltar in large numbers in September.

But for the next few months of summer, the Bee-eaters will bring colour to the blue skies of the Iberian Peninsula.

Merops, after which the bee-eaters are named, was a Greek mythological king. His wife was killed by Artemis and he took it upon himself to end his life but Hera changed him into an eagle and placed him among the stars.