Heatwave Birding

Phew, this month is an article by the melting birder as I traverse my paradise in the blazing heat of July and try to endure temperatures at dangerous levels for this aged soul. Even doing routes with the trusted car and air conditioning is hot work as I stop and wind down the window only to be met with a surge of air that takes the breath away. The lure of my local wildlife is too great to confine myself to the sensible alternative of staying home and keeping cool safely cocooned in an environment limiting movement and soothed by the rattling and comforting air conditioner. I am sure many readers will give their heads a wobble and concur with the view that this brave soul has lost his senses and must possess a huge masochistic streak missing from any sane person. However, I am reminded of the quote by Christopher McCandless “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed”, and so I continue to be crazily unreasonable.

Well, crazy is what crazy does and I could equally apply this phrase to the abundant juvenile birds that are around from mid-June and throughout July. The juveniles seem to adopt the view that all things are worth investigating and will often be oblivious to dangers which could very well end in tragedy for these unsuspecting and inexperienced individuals. Curiosity is the mantra for most young, including our own kind, and whilst this behaviour is a necessary way for learning, not all will survive the irresistible urge to unwittingly approach danger and there are those who have learnt to capitalise on this careless act by young birds. Raptors will feast on the careless young as they expose themselves in open areas and flight, for instance, the Sparrowhawk is the absolute master of taking advantage of those wayward young Blue Tits as they ignore the alarm calls of their parents and go merrily on their playful way and perhaps, lulled into a false sense of security by the accompanying large numbers of their siblings, fall victim to this clever raptor.

And so, scratching around for a reason to explain my summer madness, the trusting nature and curiosity of juvenile birds gets me out on these unbelievably hot summer days, it is an opportunity to get close to these wonders that are the result of successful breeding by our summer birds. Many of these juveniles are in their pre-moult dress and can look very different from adults, the wonderfully colourful adult Woodchat Shrike is strikingly different from the juvenile that has a pattern best described as resembling fish scales. It is especially gratifying to see these juvenile birds around my large area of study. In fact, Woodchat Shrike and many other summer migrants have plummeted in numbers in dramatic fashion this year. It is of huge concern and difficult to explain satisfactorily. Can it be due to problems in their wintering grounds or problems on migration? Habitats here appear stable, and some insects also appear to be here in sufficient numbers.

For the most part, July saw me visiting 2 National Park’s higher mountains here on my doorstep, Sierra de Grazalema and Sierra de las Nieves. My logic being they are both high altitude and certainly in the earlier part of the mornings were a few degrees cooler. The two areas are also heavily wooded and offer shade as the blazing sun would appear later in the morning, also within these woodlands are a few water troughs from a bygone age when drovers herded their livestock on their way to pastures new or to market. Remarkably, a couple of these troughs remained with water in high summer and despite the severe drought we are seeing affect our region. These are a highly prized source of water for the fauna of my area and time spent silently watching large numbers of birds coming to drink has become an annual pilgrimage for me, a not to be missed opportunity to take a few photographs and enjoy seeing such a wide range of birds and the odd deer or Ibex as they too enjoy the taste of cool spring water. Of course, being surrounded by woodland, Robins are frequent visitors, and the brown and spotted plumage of the juveniles is an example of how different juveniles can appear from adults.

White Storks waiting patiently in the departure lounge before their flight south to Africa.

It was a great joy to see so many juvenile birds around, but also these moments were tinged with a little sadness as some are already departing and leaving us for Africa. European Bee Eater have been passing through as the local populations from the south and our region have successfully bred and are now headed to their wintering grounds, these colourful and cheerful birds help make the spring and summer a time of rejoicing, so I am always especially saddened by their departure. Still, August will see the beginnings of the natural wonder of raptor migration and the huge gathering on our side of the Strait of Gibraltar as these large soaring birds cluster in thermals, gaining height before crossing the 14km of open sea to hopefully arrive safely in Morocco and the African continent. A spectacle always anticipated with excited expectation by birders here and those from afar. To add to this spectacle great numbers of the majestic and large White Stork will join the gathering and the chance to see their cousins the Black Stork among the commuting hoards just adds icing on the bird migration cake.

July has also seen me with my nose to the grindstone working on an exciting project for the Andalucía Bird Society. Working with the Society’s inhouse designer and webmaster Pieter Verheij, we have completed the task of creating a booklet (44 pages) entitled ‘Birds of Andalucia a revised and updated checklist’. The concept was simple enough, but the information required exhaustive research into all birds that do or have occurred in the region and then to provide the status of each bird i.e., resident, summer, or winter visitor, migrant or even a vagrant occurring very rarely here. The result is an attractive and handy book of reference for all with an interest in our birds and it also deals with the advantages of being a member of the Society and delves briefly into the work the Society does in the fields of conservation, preservation, and animal welfare. As part of our celebrations for our 15th Anniversary, we are hoping to make this available to all existing members (as of 1st August 2023) as a free publication, but we also hope to make copies available for the general public and new members at a nominal cost.

I hope all readers are keeping safe and well in the current high summer temperatures and look forward to reporting on August wildlife events next month.

Article: Peter Jones
Photographs: Peter Jones

Article first appeared in Costa Connection August 2023 magazine.

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

Leave a Reply