Autumn bird migration in La Janda

Travel

After spending most of the summer up in Poland and Germany, like a migratory bird, for various reasons (not nesting though), I finally came back to Spain in September. After a sticky, humid summer, September brings pleasant temperatures while still allowing to indulge oneself on the beach and plunge easily to the sea. There are other reasons why I love this season in Andalucia so much: I can still do snorkelling and wave ‘hi’ to fish, while there is still a lot of birds up on the skies and in the remains of humid, salty marshes.

These birds are either on its way to Africa, or preparing for a wintering season here in Spain. The only sad note to self I made is that the swifts are long gone, after a very hot and unpredictable summer, and they no longer wake me up with their energetic hunt for the insects. And as a matter of fact, I then notice the painful presence of mosquitos. Even more important to prepare the nest box and save the swifts the next season!

Since I missed the summer get-togethers of the Andalucian Bird Society, I was very excited to see everyone again for the Autumn Migration meetup in La Janda and Barbate Marches. As I arrived almost late by bus to the village of Tahivilla, and quickly ordered a proper breakfast in Hotel/Restaurante Apolo IX, it was so nice to see familiar and new faces excited for the day ahead of us. We had about 11 cars altogether and decided to divide into two smaller groups to ensure optimal birdwatching conditions. I joined the group led by Frank O’Hair and we started off by the route ‘up to the stinky farm’ (aren’t all farms a bit smelly, by the way?).

We stopped several times by La Janda canals to notice the absolute birding wonders. As the mornings tend to be cloudy due to the Atlantic Ocean’s presence, we first spotted colourful red legs of a red partridge, followed by a bunch of stonechats, corn buntings, wood warblers, zitting cisticola, and redstarts. In the misty air, we noticed crested larks, hoping to see Calandra larks too. Instead, we saw a cheerful group of Spanish sparrows, residing in the bushes. As the sky became clearer, we spotted birds of prey: black-winged kites, common and lesser kestrels as well as griffon vultures, at their cruising altitude, not too bothered about anyone else, not even crashing into a flock of glossy ibis.  

A more dramatic scenario happened to a honey buzzard, notoriously mocked by the group of lesser kestrels. How come you can tell a lesser from a common kestrel? Lesser kestrels vary by the size, colours but also by its behaviour. They live and breed in larger groups than the common kestrels, and they seem to use a group strategy to scare off larger predators. On that day we also saw a number of Montagu’s and marsh harriers, often hard to tell especially when they’re juvenile. And on top of that, there was an impressive Spanish imperial eagle, relatively well to spot in La Janda.

Our next stop was next to the pump, which offered a great observing spot for cattle and little egrets. Dozens if not hundreds of them inhabited the neighbouring trees where we had an opportunity to observe their cohabitant behaviour and plenty of juvenile examples. Other wading and impressive species noted around this location included storks, cranes, and spoonbills gathering before crossing the Gibraltar Strait. We also noticed the ongoing presence of jackdaws, raven, collared dove and a wood pigeon, varying slightly in their mourning calls (by one syllable).

Before we paused for a packed lunch picnic next to the shaded area of the canal with two kingfishers and plenty of swallows, we saw a lovely greylag goose couple surrounded by the egrets taking off. At the lunch spot we did hear a penduline tit (Twitter notification sound!), gallinule (aka swamphen) and a hoopoe. After our lunch we briefly met with the other group, which reported fantastic sightings in the Barbate Marshes area and we exchanged some birding tips for La Janda.

They were soooo right: Barbate Marshes were such a treat to our eyes, starting off with a plethora of common ring and Kentish plovers by the shore and soon, spotting a pair of Eurasian curlews resting at one of the isles. Further up we had a lovely view over the greater and lesser flamingos, and an isle full of gulls, including Audouin gull, black-headed gull (with a white head around this season), slender-billed and a yellow legged gull, all of them in one place. I still envy anyone capable of telling a juvenile gull species from each other, definitely a note to self and a 2023 challenge to work on!

The sounds of black-winged stilts got us to look into a part where they cohabited with gracious pied avocets and lively sanderlings, little and Temmick’s stints, dunlins, turnstones, ruffs and common redshanks, sandpipers and snipes. At the end of our day we also counted a lesser and common tern and a common buzzard hovering above us.

The day ended up looking at the spoonbill showing off her beak from various perspectives, which itself is fascinating. We were also very perseverant looking for a little owl, allegedly residing in the local tamarind trees. Instead, we managed to see a female black redstart and a pied flycatcher before we called it a day. We said our goodbyes and left passing through a cattle herd coming back to their farm.

I dreamed of birds that night, and the day after my eye sharpened so much for them, or I was just nicely hallucinating. Staying in my beloved Conil de la Frontera I took the opportunity to run my usual 5K at the beach shore, alongside the juvenile, gregarious ringed plovers. They were faster, and I let them score. It was a great weekend, location and both human and natural company to recommend to anyone at this time of the year visiting Andalucia.

Springtime migration

Travel

After the rain comes sun, after the sun comes rain again. While this may be universally true, we’ve been waiting for the rain for over 9 months in Andalusia. Contrary to the other European locations, the percentage of rainy days accounts for 10% tops throughout the year.

This has profound effect on the ecosystem, including summer wild fires and decreasing bird population, especially the migratory species, looking for the rest after the long way to or from Africa through the Gibraltar Strait. The month of March though brought immense amount of water, as well as Sahara sandstorms twice, turning the Andalusian landscape into an orange-ish, muddy moonscape.

I went on a weekend trip to my beloved Conil de la Frontera on the Cadiz coast, also known as Costa de la Luz. The heavy rain was gone by then, leaving vast greenfield areas and welcoming the migratory bird species from Africa which came here for the nesting period, alongside the all-year-round inhabitants.

Conil is situated in between La Janda and seaside lagoons which are a great foraging area for egrets, stilts and other wading birds, previously mentioned.

I took some time to hide and train my amateur photographic eye to witness the common egrets cohabiting these areas with glossy ibis, and even more domestic species like pigeons or sparrows.

Alongside the coastal line I could also spot a curious wagtail observing the agile shore swallows and different gull and shy plover species. As the current changed every couple of hours, I could see their intensifying fishing attempts or giving up and resting on the shore.

I couldn’t miss visiting the glossy ibis colony in the Playa de Castilobo area. I was happy to see the colony growing in number, gracefully flying around the fields and sharing the foraging area with stilts and common egrets.

Around this time of the year, as I walked nearby the Atlantic beach meadow, the cattle was enjoying the company of the cattle egret, smaller in size and gregarious in its nature. I’m fascinated by the cohabitation and comensalism of these two species and since then, anytime I see a bull, a cow or a horse, I look out for the cattle egret around!

Coming back to the ibis colony, I could also see how well they share their territory with crows and rock pigeons, picturing some incredible everyday moments of living on the rocky tower block!

I am very glad that my bird-eye view becomes sharper each time I look around, being able to recognise and take a shot of a resting kestrel, comparing to my previous year’s photos.

Last but not least, among the springtime migration, there was a purple egret – a stunning, colourful bird alongside with terns and gulls, preparing for the nesting season and quite territorial. I won’t forget the bird attack I suffered on Iceland, not knowing about the close nesting location of the Arctic tern.

So, happy springtime birding and remember about the safety of the birds, yourself and distance to the nesting areas. Don’t joke with the tern!

Birding in the Osuna Triangle

Travel

We arrived in Osuna the night before and set foot to explore the town itself, which proved to be very interesting, given the historical importance and quite recently, having starred in the popular series of ‘Games of Thrones’ as a mediaeval fantasy scenery. After discovering the town’s culinary and architectural gems, we went to sleep early to be on time for the exciting Field Meeting of the Andalucia Bird Society.

The morning was quite chilly, cloudy and foggy and we started to worry how this may affect our birding day. We set off onto a SE-715 road passing by the Antequera – Sevilla railroad through vast cereal fields and olive groves. Despite the clouds we could already see numerous red-legged partridges, buzzards and kestrels on the way.

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Our first stop was on the rail bridge from where we could set scopes into a very interesting scene happening at the cereal field. There was a great buzzard male displaying and above we could see a black kite approaching and foraging not too far away from the male and a group of females. Given the fact that me and my partner come originally from Poland where, despite the historic presence and abundance of the species, great bustard became extinct in the early 70s of 20th century due to DDT usage and the industrialisation of traditional agriculture. Having read that Spain and Portugal nowadays account for the majority of great bustard’s European population, we were very excited to see this bird for the very first time, and even more so: displaying! We spent some time there observing the situation until the male gathered the females closer to the olive groves, not too keen to share the details of their potential mating scene. Unfortunately, we were slightly too far away to hear great bustard’s mating calls, which may seem like exploding, flatulent sounds. 

On the other side of the road, we also observed a dramatic scene of red-legged partridges approaching the rail trucks, frequented by the speed train to Seville. Fortunately, the partridges fleed the danger and hid in the bushes, joining a tea party of wild rabbits. 

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From there, we came back on the road, and climbed up the second rail bridge, leading our way towards Arroyo del Alamillo where we took a nice stroll on the field road, which offered interesting sightings of the calandra and crested larks, singing cheerfully in their nuptial flight. An old field well attracted a beautiful male kestrel to sit back at the outpost, observing potential prey. During that walk, the sun went out, and we noticed numerous species including once again great bustards, black kite, but also stonechats, booted eagle, corn bunting, marsh harrier, swallow, white wagtail, spotless starling, blackcap, spotted flycatcher and iberican grey shrike, notorious for its horrid habits of impaling its prey. Although one may argue it’s actually shrike’s culinary art of cooking a la Michelin star chef. 

After taking this nice stroll, we went to stop by some abandoned buildings close to Lantejuela, inhabited by various pigeon types: feral pigeon, collar doves and woodpigeons. Most of us carried packed lunches and after a short stop, we decided to take a break at the picnic area next to the Ornithological Observatory in Lantejuela and skip visiting Venta for lunch. At the end of the day, the curiosity of spotting more birds prevailed over hunger, as usual!

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The Observatory is situated next to the Laguna del Gobierno, a part of the Complejo Endorreico de Lantejuela which serves as a water basin for the migrating and wintering species when the area lacks water, like this year. We all noted that this year the whole region of Andalucia has been missing the rain for a very long time, except for 3 days of showers in 9 months’ time! This is a serious ecological threat to the region, including the lives of multiple wading species. 

We weren’t sure if the Laguna would be open but a friendly employee of the site let us in for only 3 EUR/person. 

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Laguna del Gobierno consists of several basins, coming from the residual depuration of Lantejuela, using an innovative, ecological way of water management through algae and microspecies helping to clean up the water. We could see the effect of it by having various species residing at the cleaner basins’ area. I was particularly lucky to catch the flying flocks of glossy ibis, and greater flamingos in my camera lens and later on, set the scope into the following interesting species: shoveler, gadwall, pochard, white-headed duck, black-necked grebe, cattle egret, ruff. As we strolled through the area, we noticed also Cetti’s warbler calling and spotted a colourful pair of common waxbill, an introduced species from the Atlantic Ocean and Subsaharan Africa. 

In one of the lagoons we saw a green sandpiper alongside with avocet and black-tailed godwit foraging, using very specific movements of its legs to search through the mud for its food. It was a very special moment to watch this intimate scene. 

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At the end of our visit, the employee showed us his stunning photos and a taxidermy workshop, and gave us a flamingo feather for good birding luck!

On the way back we met a group of local birdwatchers, admiring marsh harriers and griffon vultures in flight, and we stopped in a few spots in search of sightings for the birds of prey and the birds of steppe. In the afternoon sun, we saw ravens, goldfinch, linnet, and most likely, an Eurasian eagle-owl taking off through the olive grove but this couldn’t be confirmed.

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Back in Osuna, we could also see a pair of white storks, so popular on the Sevilla fields, and also, a honorary resident of various churches in Osuna. The couple was preparing their nest with a lot of care, which resulted in a few beautiful pictures we managed to take. In the evening, we bumped into some fellow friends from ABS enjoying the nightlife in Osuna, and the next day, many of us returned to the first rail bridge in search of the great bustard male but without much luck.