My last short article was inspired by Peter Jones suggestion; to note the species that we’ve seen in our gardens or land since the commencement of the lockdown. At the time of that piece (April 1) my tally was 51 species, in the intervening 11 days that has sluggishly crept up to 58.
Of course birding is more than the compilation of lists, fun as they are and whilst all of us love the arrival of the rare birds or the spectacular ones; I mean who doesn’t like to observe wrynecks and rollers, they are the exceptions to our daily interaction with birds.
It is rather the day to day, common or garden species that make up the wonderful avian backdrop to our lives here in Andalucía and during this lull I’ve been able to spend more time watching them and their behaviour.
I’m going to focus here on my garden and not the riverine meadows that surround it and which make up most of the land here at my finca.
To give you a little context; I’m lucky to have a large garden, just under an acre in size. To the south it’s bounded by roughly 100 meters of mature cypresses, the western edge is a mixture of dense pittosporum, buckthorn and wild olive trees. The remaining boundaries are more open and grade into a mixture of open meadow and wood pasture.
Most of the garden itself is lawn (albeit flower rich) dotted with 250 year old olive trees (forty of these} and one 400 year old cork oak. In addition there are numerous orange, lemon, fig and nisperos trees.
In short, it’s a perfect place for breeding birds and the preparation for breeding has been the main focus of activity during these first two weeks of April.
I have two breeding pairs of Goldfinches, one pair has chosen the cypresses and the other the wild olives. The invisible (at least to human eyes) boundary between the territories runs through the large oak. One male sings from atop a young blood orange to the south and another from a young cherry to the north.
Between these lies an uneasy no birds land, where there are rich pickings in nesting material. Namely the windblown feathers of a dead pigeon, the prey of our local Sparrowhawk and the frayed rope beneath the seat of the garden swing.
It’s the female that darts onto the disputed lawn, quickly stuffing her beak with as many feathers as she can carry, before making off back to the nest site. The nest sites themselves are high off the ground and are located towards the outer edge of the branches. Whilst the females construct the nests, the males focus more on their aerial battles, accompanied by guttural rolling noises.
In between all this domestic work, the pairs find time to display to each other, the males stretching their wings and displaying those beautiful golden patches whilst gently rocking. Both pairs have been seen engaging in feeding rituals too, the male feeding the female.
Also to the west the Greenfinches have established their nesting site. The male is frequently seen engaging in his butterfly like display flight as he circles and sings. Watching, one is reminded a little of the larks flight. As for the nest, well they’ve also chosen a cypress, though it’s lower down and close to the main bole. The birds have been seen collecting beak fulls of dried grasses and coarser stemmed plants, theirs is not as elegant a nest as the goldfinches.
The House Sparrows remain in noisy agitated groups alternating between the eastern shrubbery and the bird feeders along the western edge. They’re investigating the nest boxes and one foolhardy pair keeps returning to the turbine housing of my windmill, only inches from the rapidly spinning propeller. Some others have taken up residence in the orange tree along with the great tits, who also wish to nest there amongst the fearsome thorns.
A pair of Stonechats have chosen the wild olives and gorse bushes to the northern boundary. Here the male sits proudly atop the shrubbery making his distinctive clacking song, for me it always sounds like two flints being knocked together.
They feed, flycatcher like, by sitting atop their beloved small cherry tree and waiting for passing insects, which they catch in flight and then return to the perch.
They have chosen their nest site on the ground, adjacent to the woodpile, stacked for next winters use. Whilst they can both be seen making the delightful cup shaped nest, it’s mainly her work. He perches close, guarding her and also keeping an eye out for other males. Here he puffs out that magnificent chest displaying for all he’s worth.
As for the passage birds, well they keep moving through. The last three days has seen a change in their behavior though. For the last few weeks the hirundines have been moving with one pointed focus, south to north across the finca, barely pausing to feed. Earlier this week some started to investigate the meadows, moving around and over, feeding and even resting on overhead wires. Then a pair started to fly between the arches of the long patio, perching on tiny ledges, their keen eyes surveying potential nest sites.
Similar behaviour has been observed with the Bee Eaters, their headlong dash north is still the main trend. Though one group yesterday was seen flying south and darting towards the river, where they breed in the sandy banks.
Back in the garden at the far western edge, a pair of Nightingales serenades us with their rich mellifluous song. Though, as per their nature, they remain shy and hidden in the dense shrubbery.
Not so the Sardinian Warblers, these bold little birds hold sway in the pittosporums and their chatter sounds like a typewriter pool from the 1950’s. My bedroom faces east and the line of shrubbery is only a meter from the window, every morning the first sight is of these birds moving from twig to twig, excitedly feeding and singing at the same time, their fierce red eyes glaring at the world. They too have placed their nest close to the ground and to my eyes, way too visible, let’s see what happens.
Soon my summer breeders will arrive to add to the numbers in the garden and I’m yet to discover where the Short-toed Treecreeper and Chaffinches are nesting.
Beyond the fence there are of course many more species and they will be the subject of my next article.
For now though I ease back into my reclining chair, tea and binoculars to hand and enjoy the best I can, this long and strange spring.
Neil Hill – Rewilding Bushcraft