On April Fools Day, I set off with the great expectation to rendezvous with a great group of people who are not easily fooled when it comes to our feathered friends. My mission, to attend another ABS Field Meeting, but this particular day especially caught my attention as it was published as a special conservation related event, interacting with the Tumbabuey membership; I personally admire the enthusiasm and hard work the Tumbabuey volunteers do for what it cares about in “nature”. This time, not the turn of the Montagu Harrier but a smaller raptor; A social hunter going by the name of Lesser Kestrel (Cernícule Primilla), a sizable colony of them in fact, encouraged only by the preservation activities from dedicated Tumbabuey experts to nest in the old quarter of Los Barrios in Cádiz.
As parking in the Plaza de la Iglesia is difficult, Pieter Verheij who was also attending, had suggested parking at the local Sports Centre and walking to the meeting point. On route, I passed a row of terraced houses where I saw that they all had mud nests, the air was buzzing with House Martins. Continuing on my own buzz, I arrived at the café where we were meeting-up and immediately saw the majestic church tower-belfry adjacent from where I was seated was brimming with activity from an impressive large colony of Lesser Kestrels, many soaring high above. These tend to be more gregarious than most other raptor species and are very often found in groups of several birds, both when nesting and foraging. Its name the Lesser Kestrel, in Latin, Falco Naumanni, in Spanish Cernículo Primilla, was named after the famous German naturalist John Frederich Naumann, the father of scientific ornithology in Central Europe. It was actually his friend Johann Gottlieb Fleischers’ taxonomy that described the species in 1898, but ‘what are friends for right’? He gave it the name of Naumann, as a gift to his friend.
Back to the church square café; After the usual coffee and introductions, we went over to their Visitors Centre, Casa Urrutia, where we were shown a stimulating Power Point presentation of their work, carefully explaining how some 17 examples of the species have been increased to a thriving colony of some 58 birds in just a few years, thanks to the provision of many specifically designed and *handmade wooden nest boxes (* partly financed from a recent €500,00 donation from ABS members) hung inside the belfry. An on-screen presentation demonstrated a live webcam link for the public to enjoy continual news feed from the colony online (Google live feeds “Uploads from Tumbabuey on YouTube”). The presentation was brought to a close by Dario answering a few relevant questions.
We were then taken upstairs to a roof terrace where a number of other qualified members from the Tumbabuey group were busy preparing 10 GPS tracking “birdy back-packs” donated by Cadiz University as part of the ongoing Indalo Project. These were to be fitted on 10 different birds that had been temporarily detained. It was quite an intricate job but run very smoothly by the team and it was marvellous to see the birds at such close quarters. Members of the ABS were encouraged to participate, by holding a young Kestrel in their hands, once the GPS had been fitted, ready for release. Each bird had a ring number; members could personalise the GPS tag by giving the bird an individual name of their own choosing. A moment much enjoyed by all. The individual Lesser Kestrels new name was then logged for online tracking purposes. The split-level roof terrace also offered a magnificent view and the sense of these raptors as they hurled and rolled underneath the air, fastening together, bending, twisting and ultimately delighting my sight and hearing.
Shortly after we were given the opportunity to walk across the cobbled Church Square and climb the high belfry. A building that stands out of the rest is the Church of San Isidro Labrador, built in 1717 with its atypical, opened façade with a beautiful stone tower-belfry. It is this particular tower that the Lesser Kestrels have chosen as their residence, a historic and safe location for a colony nesting in breeding season for some 58 examples of the species. The spectacular tower stands 31 meters high, so climbing the seriously narrow, spiraling well-trod and worn stone steps was not for the fainthearted (my stomach was definitely churning like a wash machine!) Once our party of four brave birders reached the pinnacle of this tower, guided by Miguel, we (and the poor Kestrels) were deafened by the 12.0´Clock mid-day chimes from all three giant bronze bells, ear ringing decibels; Only the Lesser Kestrels didn’t flinch from thirty-six big bongs, the latter couldn’t be said about us, but we all had a good laugh. The fact that we had witnessed this on the spot, together with inspecting the hugely successful nest box installations firsthand in this ancient belfry made our morning absolutely complete.
At 1 O’clock, a single long wooden table was reserved for twenty in a restaurant conveniently located on the very same square adjacent to the church. We had a brilliant time conversing widthwise and lengthwise and sat behind a lot of local rations served and a lot of food consumed, so a suggested walk to an area just outside the main town centre to see the Kestrels feeding and foraging zone, was very welcomed. Before leaving, those seated around the table kindly reached into their pockets and generously donated €100,00 towards the Malaga based Seabird Rescue Centre “Malaga Gaviotas” which is an ongoing ABS bird welfare cause – thank you all.
Locating this area where they feed was only recently revealed by the GPS tracking, showing just how valid the tracking data recorded can be of benefit to the birds. The largest part of the Lesser Kestrels diet is composed of insects and lizards which distinguishes them from the Common Kestrel, which feeds predominantly on small rodents – actually the Lesser Kestrel also has distinctive white talons, if you can get close enough to see!
The main threat of the open grassy feeding area that we visited is the intensification of agricultural methods which creates a monoculture in many cases and destroys habitat of many small species which is the Lesser Kestrels main source of food. There also exists a potential “green energy” threat to turn the entire area into a photovoltaic farm. To this end it is also extremely important to register the feeding areas for subsequent protection, and Tumbabuey together with the University of Cadiz are vigorously working towards this end with the mutual support from the Andalucia Bird Society.
To watch these raptors hover facing the wind, at 25 second bursts, manipulating the elements with intermittent bouts of gliding and flapping to save energy, kiting when it doesn’t flap is just awesome and worthy of any conservation effort to be supported.
Those attendees could learn about this fascinating preservation program and enjoy a splendid day in the presence of so many wild Lesser Kestrels. So, on this closing note, those present would like to congratulate the hands-on team effort demonstrated; With special thanks to the joint organisers of this second ABS conservation related event, Miguel Gonzalez, (Field Leader) from Tumbabuey and David Pope (Public Relations ABS). A big thank you goes to the likeminded people that we met to include Pablo Ortega (Tumbabuey President), Dario Delgado (Project Manager), Gonzalo Muñoz (Cadiz University – Indalo Project), Field assistants Antonio Sepulveda and Francis Delgado. Lastly, a special mention goes to a Tumbabuey member Juana and her bright son, Dario, a young budding Andaluz´ wildlife photographer who will surely play an important role for a future generation for Tumbabuey conservation.
Yvonne Henwood & Audrey Houvenaeghel – ABS members