A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Southern Spain Trip Report - Day 3

Day 3 - Thursday 14th August 2015

Awaking exceptionally early and still bleary eyed as we travelled along the quiet Spanish back roads in the inky darkness, we headed towards a local site for Red-necked Nightjars. Not too far from Manilva, this is a great location for the species and nightjars are often seen sat on the many dusty tracks that wind their way through the heathland. Larger than our European Nightjars and with a distinct rusty orange patch on the back of the neck, Red-necked Nightjar was another key target of the trip and one that I was especially keen to see.

With dawn starting to break as we drove up the hill towards the site, the abandoned apartments looked especially eerie in the darkness and definitely made us glad we were in a vehicle! Mediterranean warblers welcomed the morning, with snatches of beautiful song coming from the many Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers perched on the heather. A smart male Woodchat Shrike sat on the gorse also provided great views as we drove slowly by.

With the light now rapidly approaching and the area now illuminated by the early morning sunshine, I was slightly sceptical as to whether the nightjars would still be active, and sure enough the only sighting we had that morning was a possible fly-by seen by Alex in one of the small heather clearings.
Mesas de Chullera - Spain
Mesas de Chullera - Spain
With the morning now well and truly upon us we admitted defeat (though not before Alex and Chris had managed to get themselves stuck on a steep slope!) and with the day still ahead of us we decided to make our way down to Tarifa where a pair of Common Bulbuls were nesting for their second year. Normally found in Africa, the pair had made the jump to the European mainland, and with successful breeding in both 2013 and 2014, it is looking like these pioneering individuals may slowly start to colonise the southern tip of Spain.

Arriving at the woodland track in question, we made our way down the path towards the houses where the birds had been nesting. With the surrounding trees clearly rich in birdlife, we enjoyed several Spotted Flycatchers perched on the fence, before an odd looking Chiffchaff caught our attention. Showing a bright yellow supercilium in front of the eye we watched as it was joined by a second bird, both with particularly yellow breasts and white bellies.

With Common Chiffchaffs only wintering in southern Spain, there was no question that these birds were the closely related Iberian Chiffchaff. Formerly treated as just a race of Chiffchaff in the past, Iberian Chiffchaffs were recently split due to a range of differences including vocalisations, morphology and genetics.

Another brown warbler caught our eye in one of the opposite trees, and watching carefully we were intrigued to see it had an especially long bill. With pale lores and an exceptionally broad, heavy bill, we soon realised we were watching a Western Olivaceous Warbler! Found only in southern Spain and North Africa, this was a great bird to catch up with so early in to the trip – our planned sites for this species were nearer to Seville.

Pleased with this surprised addition to our trip list, we headed off down the track in search of the Bulbuls, the heat of the southern Spanish sun now really starting to kick in as the temperatures soared. An obliging male Woodchat Shrike sat on the wires for us to admire, while the thick spiny plants and cacti highlighted the dry and arid conditions of the area. Keeping our eyes peeled, we scanned the gardens adjacent to the houses, but after a long wait with no sign of the Bulbuls, we decided to head back and carry on to our next site.
Woodchat Shrike - Spain
Woodchat Shrike - photo by Alex Jones
Driving down to Tarifa, the locality’s fame as a raptor migration hotspot was clear to see, with a fantastic number of Black Kites, Booted Eagles, Short-toed Eagles and Griffon Vultures all seen making their way across the perfect blue skies. With Africa visible from the coast, we were rewarded with great views of this magnificent continent looming across the sea - where the raptors would ultimately be travelling to.
Getting out of the car in the small car park at Playa de los Lances, Alex immediately shouted “Little Swift!” Looking up, a small swift was quickly flying just above head height, the small white square rump clear to see, before it zoomed off over the road and out of view. Completely out of the blue and not expecting to see any this trip due to not visiting any of the breeding sites, this was a fantastic spot by Alex! Whilst not a lifer for the three of us after catching up with the New Brighton bird back in 2012, this now meant that we had seen all 5 species of swift on the trip!
Little Swift - New Brighton, UK
Little Swift from New Brighton, UK in 2012
Playa de los Lances - Spain
The beach at La Playa de los Lances
Heading towards the hide to check the beach for terns, several Kentish Plovers could be seen on the sand, their paler markings, longer legs and smaller size distinguishing them from Ringed and Little ringed Plovers. With the beach quite busy with surfers, kite-flyers and walkers and with no terns present at all, my attention was turned to the many Fiddler Crabs scuttling around on the sand in front of us. With one claw bigger than the other, it was fascinating to watch as they fought between themselves and defended their burrows!
Fiddler Crab - Spain
Fiddler Crab
Crossing the marshy area towards a large stream cutting through the sand, Chris picked out a Short-toed Lark foraging amongst the grass. Having only seen Lesser Short-toed Lark before in northern Spain, it was great to finally catch up with this closely related species. Distinguished from Lesser Short-toed Larks by the unmarked chest and breast as opposed to the well streaked breasts of the Lesser Short-toed Larks, Greaters are also much more rufous and yellow in colouration, with a dark patch on the side of the breast.
Playa de los Lances - Spain
Marshy area near the beach
I watched it feeding amongst the grass for some time before seeing what else the vegetation had to offer, however a Kingfisher streaking past down the stream like a lightning bolt of electric blue and a very close Kentish Plover by the side of a small pool were the only other birds of note.
Kentish Plover - Spain
Kentish Plover - photo by Alex Jones
Dung fight
Dung fight.....
Dung fight
...where Chris came off worse
Deciding to head back to the apartment ready for a dusk return to Manilva and another crack at the Red-necked Nightjars, Chris refuelled with one of his absolutely vile (non)microwaveable pizzas before the three of us headed back to the heathland of that morning. Re-analysing the grid reference I realised that we hadn’t gone far enough down the track this morning, having only stopped at the bridge crossing the busy road below. Continuing down the track, it was immediately clear that this was much better habitat for Red-necked Nightjars, the rocky terrain, boulder strewn track, thick heathland and tall pine trees ideal habitat and reminiscent of the heaths I’ve seen Nightjars displaying in back in Britain.
Vile pizza
Chris's vile pizza....
Arriving at a likely area with good open views either side we parked up and scanned the horizon for any dark silhouettes crossing the skyline in front of us. With darkness starting to close in and dusk approaching, the sound of the various warblers’ last songs before roosting filled our ears. Then, as I turned, a large dark shape swooped past the three of us though the warm evening sky just a few metres away, the wings and size unmistakeable as our first Red-necked Nightjar! Barely above the heather, it glided silently along before being enveloped in the darkness and lost to view. 

Ecstatic and wanting further views of these amazing birds, we waited until night had completely fallen before getting back in the car and heading along the dusty track to search for more nightjar activity. Now in complete darkness and with an absence of any street lighting or the glow of nearby civilisations, we drove carefully and slowly along the narrow road, our headlights on full beam to illuminate the route.

Spotting something glowing in the distance that reminded me of a cat’s eye in torchlight, I squinted through my binoculars trying to make out a shape in the darkness. Certain I was looking at a perched Red-necked Nightjar, I alerted the others, confident I had seen the tail moving. With Chris reckoning it wasn’t even alive and merely part of the tree, the three of us kept our focus and sure enough the bird took off from the branches and hovered gracefully in the air, before alighting back down amongst the dusty boulders on the track ahead. Now fully illuminated by our car’s headlights, we could clearly see the bird right in front of us, it’s absolutely huge saucer-like eyes shining in the bright light. Hovering and flapping above the track at regular intervals, we watched awestruck, the larger size apparent compared to European Nightjars and just managing to make out the rusty red neck when on the floor through the binoculars.

Reaching down to get my camera, I looked up again only to find the bird had gone, slipping away in to the darkness unnoticed.

Heading back along the rocky tracks happy and relieved that we had managed to connect with the Nightjars, the headlights illuminated a scorpion species in the sand – my first ever one in the wild – although further investigation sadly revealed it had vanished when we stopped to get a better look. With several feral dogs barking at the car on the way down to the town, we were again glad to be in the safety of a vehicle, and we returned to the apartment for our final night before heading further west towards Jerez and Seville. 
Alcaidesa - Spain

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