It always surprises me that I still act like a child who is anticipating a pile of gift-wrapped goodies for Christmas as I search in hope of seeing our first summer visitors as they return from their winter break in Africa. Every part of the sky and every bush is studied with an effort to see if old friends have returned, my failing hearing strains to listen for give away calls or songs that announce their return. It is an exciting time of year for bird lovers and the promise of better temperatures must give us all something to look forward to.
Cold late winter weather has made my old bones yearn for warmer days although, if the past 5 years or so is anything to go by, early spring could bring along much needed rains. Our springs seem to now get rainfall previously reserved for January and February, it can be beneficial for our flora and our depleted reservoirs, but it can be a disaster for our early summer visitors and their attempts at nesting. Many birds, especially insectivores such as swifts, suffered last year with wet and cold during late March and April. Changes with our climate are certainly reflected by the fauna and flora of our region and largely in a negative way.
Of course, last month saw some early spring arrivals including such species as House Martin, Barn Swallow and the more normal early migrants Great-spotted Cuckoo and Black Kite. For all the excitement that surrounds spring migration, my joy is tempered by sadness as our wonderful winter visitors start their journeys northward with the males usually making the transition quickly between their winter territories to breeding areas in order to establish prime territories ahead of a more leisurely migration by females. I will miss them and none more so than the handsome Ring Ouzel that has kept me company for our winter.
In my town White Storks have been back on their traditional nests since early January and also in a few surrounding villages. Due to its large size, predation on vermin, and nesting behaviour close to human settlements and on rooftops, the White Stork has an imposing presence that has influenced human culture and folklore. If left undisturbed, Storks have little fear of humans, and often nest on buildings in Europe, the presence of a nest on a house was believed to protect against fires, they were also protected because of the belief that their souls were human. German, Dutch, and Polish households would encourage storks to nest on houses, sometimes by constructing purpose-built high platforms, to bring good luck. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe it is believed that storks bring harmony to a family on whose property they nest. There were negative aspects to stork folklore as well; a Polish folk tale relates how God made the stork’s plumage white, while the Devil gave it black wings, imbuing it with both good and evil impulses. They were also associated with handicapped or stillborn babies in Germany, explained as the stork having dropped the baby en route to the household, or as revenge or punishment for past wrongdoing.
During the last couple of weeks our summer visiting eagles have been slowly arriving with individuals and small groups frequently seen crossing the Strait of Gibraltar as they journey to their breeding grounds. Short-toed Snake Eagle and Booted Eagle focus on making the crossing over open water by the shortest possible crossing and even then, they expose themselves to dangers as the hazard of gull attacks can have fatal consequences as the gulls harass and drown these large raptors. It has been a strategy developed over millennia by gulls as they group together to harvest a seasonal source of food. Nature can be a cruel force at times, and it can be a heart wrenching scene to witness as these magnificent raptors, who have endured and travelled thousands of miles, meet a watery end whilst approaching their landfall in Europe. Of course, the danger to migrants from gull attacks is not limited to raptors, but also smaller birds that are perhaps more predictable targets.
To those who actually read my meanderings, normally lost souls, it should have been obvious that I have a particular, some would say peculiar, passion for the family of birds known as wheatears. Well, March heralds the return of two of the most colourful wheatears as they arrive from their sub-Saharan wintering grounds. The difference in appearance of the males is in stark contrast to their autumn attire of dull browns and pastel shades, as their full bright contrasting colours adorn the breeding plumage designed to impress the later arriving females. Promenading at its finest and a welcome return for both the Northern and Black-eared Wheatear as they join their cousin the Black Wheatear who resides with us all year round. In fact, at the backend of March, I will be making my own journey to hopefully see at least 7 species of the wheatear family as I accompany several members of the Andalucía Bird Society on a birding tour to our neighbours in Morocco, more about that in the April edition of Costa Connection.
March will see me visiting mixed habitats to monitor our early breeding birds and trying to gauge their numbers to determine any changes in population. Griffon Vulture are already well into their breeding season, whilst others such as Black Wheatear are just getting started and this month is a good opportunity to visit several sites for Bonelli’s Eagle just to confirm occupancy, always a tour that makes me feel anxious as I fear for this iconic bird that can suffer persecution from those with a vested interest in hunting. The annual routine that sees me travelling around my mountains to check on these early breeding birds also gives me the chance to find early arriving summer visitors and as I scour open areas for my returning wheatears there might be lucky moments to spot such handsome birds as a Woodchat Shrike and perhaps an early Common Rock Thrush. These forays have the added bonus of always producing some great flora and visiting some areas for various species of orchids, including one or two endemics which adds some excitement to these rambles.
My activities in the field will be curtailed a little in the coming months as I visit various conservation projects and liaise with the many volunteers working on a variety of initiatives to help our regional wildlife. These visits are necessary as a duty of care to the many members of the Andalucía Bird Society in order to ensure the financial support we offer to these projects is spent wisely, but for me it is always a heart-warming exercise to meet these dedicated people who tirelessly work on behalf of nature to ensure the survival of many threatened birds and their associated habitats.
Wishing you all a warm early spring and very much hope that you might venture out and enjoy our wonderful regional wildlife.
Article: Peter Jones
Photographs: Peter Jones
Article first appeared in Costa Connection March 2023 magazine, link here.
Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.