Tag Archives: Glossy Ibis

From dawn til dusk: in Spain

This Sunday I spent all day birding. From dawn until dusk. In Spain.

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Juvenile Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

The architect of this short and intense day of birding was my patch colleague, Jonathan, who has written up a great trip report on our day (and night) out. So, I don’t wish to duplicate what already exists on t’internet, nor can I duplicate the quality of his photos.

So, instead, I will do what I do best on this blog: ramble on a bit about my experiences in the wild: or rather, the impressions the wild leave on me and pepper these thoughts with lists and poor photos of the birds I see. Sounds gripping, huh?!

Spain is an important country for me. I spent a formative early-adult year of my life there and fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, and even the language. I know some people think Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, or French, but nothing beats Spanish for me.

¡Ay sol! ¡Ay luna, luna!
Un minuto después.
Sesenta flores grises
enredaban sus pies. – 
Federico Garcia Lorca

The day began in the hills near Alicante. Just up from a rural town called Xixona.

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As we drove along a narrow lane, Rock Sparrow flocks bounced through the olive trees in front of us with Serin, and Goldfinch in accompaniment.

Bushes clicked at us with Sardinian Warbler whilst Cirl Bunting threw their colourful heads back and sang to us in the bright light of a November morning.

But it was further down the hillsides where we found the first of our avian targets. Down in the rougher, drier land in the shadow of industrial factories and warehouses.

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Abandoned building near Xixona

Way above us there were dots circling the peaks slowly like flies drunk on fermented fruit. Flys with bald heads and close-to three metre wingspans that is.

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Four, possibly five, Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). No, really!

I could zoom in more, crop, and present a more feasible record shot in all its pixelated glory, but the picture above captures the moment better for me.

We stood on one side of a small gorge and looked across to the other. Below us a small farmstead house (finca) obscured unidentifiable, parachuting larks (Thekla Lark or Crested Lark we wondered?). The finca’s inhabitant, an elderly Spanish farmer came up to see what two men with telescopes and cameras were doing above his land. But there was no hostility. He walked up the steep slopes, stood behind us for a while and must have wondered what kind of strangeness had been visited on him as we took turns to peer through a scope and celebrate distant views of Black Wheatear. The old farmer wished us a good journey as we left him alone on the rocks.

The gorge was surveyed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a small dole of Rock Dove nestled in holes in the vertical slice of sedimentary rock; geological time made physical.

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Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Jono and I swapped dust and sand for water and reed at the famous wetland site of El Hondo:

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El Hondo

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It was from here that Jono found a Bluethroat on the shore

We were lucky enough to watch a single Marbled Duck, a life first for both of us, paddle silently amongst the Pochard, Mallard, Coot, and Shoveler.

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Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

Outside of the threatened marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, these are very scarcely and patchily found ducks. Whilst that was Jono’s only life tick of the day, I had three other lifers including a monster. Not a monster find or tick, just a monster…

There was an amusing moment as we first approached a pool when I smiled into my binoculars and told Jono I’d just seen a life tick. “What? A Moorhen?” came the reply. But eventually the giant came into view for Mr L as well; a bird superficially similar to Coot, but twice the size and stunningly coloured, looking like it had just swallowed three Moorhen whole.

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Western (formerly ‘Purple’) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)

The artist formerly known as Purple Swamphen strutted about the reserve with its bright red, raspberry beret (sorry! I couldn’t resist that). Its relative size emphasised when a flock of ibis collected around it. We saw many more that day of both Swamphen and Glossy Ibis.

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Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

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We were also treated to brief appearances from Bluethroat and the onomatopoeic Zitting Cisticola. This was all whilst eagles crossed over our heads repeatedly. I had really hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle, and perhaps the level of hope almost allowed myself to ‘string’ some of the early views of Booted Eagle into my intended quarry. Whilst not a lifer, the pale morph of these diminutive eagles showed well and we saw several throughout the day.

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Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)

The vast El Hondo reserve was great but still largely remains a mystery to us both as its largest lake was hidden behind a biblically large wall of reeds that would have taken hours (almost literally) for us to walk around and peer behind its curtain. Time was against us and so we moved on to an even larger wetland system of salines called Santa Pola.

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Torre en Santa Pola

We watched a number of waders ranging in size from Dunlin, Sanderling, and Kentish Plover, through Turnstone, RedshankGreenshank, Avocet, and Black-winged Stilt up to Greater Flamingo.

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Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

We stopped at several sites around the salt ponds and I saw another lifer; a large flock or two of Slender-billed Gull dotted with Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull.

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Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) and Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

We stayed until the sun, which had blazed through clear blue all day, eventually bathed us in soft and cool golden light.

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The chevrons point towards Mr L and the sun

It was close to dusk when I ticked off my fourth lifer of the day: a pair of Whiskered Tern that circled and skimmed a small roadside pool.

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Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Finally it would feel rude of me not to mention one more bird. Throughout the day, the species that seemed to keep us company the most – irrespective of habitat, was Black Redstart.

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Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Jonathan travels a lot. I mean A LOT. He signs off his excellent trip reports with a photo of a stuffed panther called Snuffy. So I decided to do something in the spirit of an Attenborough documentary style ‘diary’ (US readers won’t know what this means as I believe the ten minute short ‘making-of’ films at the end of wildlife documentaries don’t make it across the pond as they are the result of packaged-up ad break times).

Here is a secret peak* into the making of the famous ‘Snuffy shots’:

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Jono and Snuffy with the end result courtesy of Wanstead Birder

*At a couple of points, passing cars would sound their horns at us. I wondered why, but then I was taking a photo of a man taking a photo of a stuffed panther. Nothing to see here! Move along now people!

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Saint Valentine’s twitch

Being a romantic soul, I travelled up to Nottingham to be with my wife – who is currently touring in a play – for Valentine’s day. As she had to rehearse in the day, I spent Saturday birding in the North Midlands.

Local bird alerts informed me that a Glossy Ibis was nearby. About 20 birds visit the UK each year (a marked increase on a decade ago or more) and I believe the British Birds Rarities Committee has removed it from its list because it is understood to be undergoing an expansion of range since it settled and bred in Spain about 20 years ago.

Whatever the official status, for me this is a rare bird, although one I have seen before (a pair visited Dungeness about four years ago while I was there). Somebody had kindly posted a map of the field it had been seen in, in a little village called Gonalston:

Where's Glossy?

Where’s Glossy?

I hoped I might see other birders who could pin-point the bird for me, but arrived early and alone. I had barely had time to raise my binoculars to my face over the hedge when I saw it. Whilst a hedge and birding manners prevented from getting close enough to get a good shot, I at least managed to record my first Nottinghamshire twitch (going in search of specific bird and finding it – in case you aren’t familiar with the proper definition of the over-used term) in pixels:

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

It was feeding busily until other birders arrived. It then decided to tuck its distinctive beak into its wing and sleep (“Early bird” I was thinking smugly).

I drove on for my second attempted twitch of the day. This time not such a rare species as the Glossy, but in many ways more special for me – as they were life firsts.

I drove to Besthorpe nature reserve towards Lincoln where I heard that two of our winter migrant swan species had been spotted a few days earlier.

Besthorpe reserve

Whooper and Bewick’s Swans migrate to the UK in their thousands, but tend to settle in only a few select areas. They are famous at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where the late great Sir Peter Scott studied them.

DIGRESSION ALERT Sir Peter Scott is one of the greatest naturalists of the 20th Century (founder of both the WWF and WWT). My favourite, and poignant, story about his life actually concerned his more famous father, Captain Robert Scott (of the Antarctic): Captain Scott’s last letter to his wife (soon-to-be-widow) as he faced death in the tent with his fellow explorers in the Antarctic blizzard included a line about his son, the young Peter, who he knew he would never see again. It said, “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games”. This wonderfully prescient or inspirational (depending on how you deem it influenced the outcome) comment became truer than he could have ever hoped.

I finished watching some noisy Redshank and a lone Oystercatcher – a far cry from the hundreds I saw the weekend before at Dungeness – and was deciding whether to turn left and walk around the reserve in a circle, or right and walk along the river Trent. As I looked right, I could see a flicker of white through a hedge that looked like a Swan, so I chose ‘right’.

That flicker of white was a Mute Swan – but there were almost 40 swans in the field by the great river:

Swans

There were Mute Swans spread out throughout the field, but in the middle, there was a tight bank of swans keeping to themselves. I admit to being really quite excited when I saw the distinctive yellow on the beaks of these swans. There were 16 Whooper Swans and 2 of the slightly smaller Bewicks:

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)

If we look in more closely, you can see the triangular yellow markings of these Icelandic migrants – the nominate species of the great Cygnus genus no less:

Closer up of the Whoopers

Closer up of the Whoopers

From a distance I started carefully studying their faces as my hands almost froze to my binoculars (I left my gloves in London). Sir Peter Scott – an accomplished artist – kept notebooks with drawings of the facial markings of the swans at Slimbridge – which he also founded – and was able to identify individual birds from their particular marks. I was simply trying find a Swan with slightly less yellow on its face – quite hard as they were far away and often had their heads in the grass feeding.

I eventually found two of the Bewick’s Swans – which luckily chimed with what other birders had reported. There is currently an ornithological debate over whether Bewick’s Swans are sub-species of Tundra Swans or full species in their own right. Either way, I marvelled at how these similar looking swans – Whoopers and Bewick’s – migrated in from vastly different places (Iceland and Siberia respectively) and came together in the same little field in Nottinghamshire alongside our native Mutes. Forgive the the dreadful quality, but I wanted to show that I really did manage to single out a Bewick’s:

Bewick's Swan (Cygnus [columbianus] bewickii)

Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus [columbianus] bewickii) and a Mute Swan in foreground

Three successful twitches in a row! Could I make it four?

I drove back to Nottingham to the wrong side of Holme Pierrepont waterspouts centre. What do I mean by the ‘wrong side’? Well, I mean this:

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A52

There is a large lake known as the A52 Pit – because it sits next to the dual carriageway of the A52 – which is the private property of a farmer who does not like birders tramping over his land. As you may be able to see on the photo above, birders dangerously pull over on the dual carriageway to peer from a distance at the water. I parked more safely further away and then walked next to the hurtling traffic for a mile or so.

Not exactly the wilderness or pastoral idyll that many have in mind when they think of the quaint hobby of birding. So why were we doing this? The large and inaccessable lake had hundreds of Wigeon on it. But amongst the Wigeon, was a rare vagrant – an American Wigeon. I was too far away to properly see without a scope, but I did manage to pick out Smew and Goldeneye and took this landscape as a memento for ‘dipping’ one out of a wonderful four:

No American Wigeon in sight

No American Wigeon in sight

Throughout the day, I added six species to my UK year list taking me to 95 for the year so far:

  • Whooper Swan
  • Bewick’s Swan
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Buzzard
  • Grey Wagtail
  • Bullfinch