Winter birding is here; temperatures at night have dropped, the days are noticeably shorter and there's the off-on promise of long overdue rains. None of this concerns the resident mountain birds or those winter interlopers as they harvest hardy insects and fruiting trees, but, passing into winter, many of our lingering migrants have ventured further south seeking warmer climes. Now our winter visitors are increasing in number.
As in northern parts of Europe, the first bird to bring news of winter’s cold front is the beautifully coloured and elegant looking Lapwing Vanellus vanellus. The Spanish call this wader Avefria and loosely translates to ‘bird of the cold’. Hopefully, I won’t be seeing many Lapwings then! In Andalucia we are lucky to avoid the worst of the cold fronts and generally enjoy moderate temperatures during winter. Taking advantage of these warmer temperatures, our resident birds have now been joined by Alpine Accentor, Ring Ouzel, Siskin, Brambling and odd Black Vulture and Long-legged Buzzard. It seems that in the case of Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, sightings are becoming regular and this species has gone from being a distinct rarity to a scarce autumn and winter visitor. There are even reports of breeding near the Tarifa area!
Although we are already in December, I am still managing the odd day’s guiding work and I visit my ‘favourite’ local area behind the white village of Montejaque as often as time allows. Here the hawthorn bushes are now frequented by good numbers of Ring Ouzel. These winter visitors arrive with a wave of migrants during October and while many pass on to northern Africa, many also stay to winter in this area. The large majority of those choosing to stay are of the race Turdus torquatus torquatus (originating from north Europe), but we also have the subspecies Turdus torquatus alpestris (an alpine bird that also breeds in northern Spain), which winter in small numbers. It is remarkable that any T.t.alpestris winter here as the great majority winter mainly in north-west Africa, especially in the Atlas Sahara regions on dry and bare slopes or crests with juniper woodland.
Joining these handsome birds this year are unusually high numbers of Siskin and Hawfinch, certainly more than I have previously witnessed. A family of Golden Eagle has frequented the area high on this route behind Montejaque, known as Sierra de Libar, and the calls of the juvenile could often be heard resounding from the steep-sided mountains that surround this high valley. More recently, and for a second time, I thought I was witnessing the pair of adults driving away another encroaching adult, but as the birds approached me, I could see the ‘other’ bird was a pale juvenile Imperial Eagle.
I always find Black Wheatear a lot easier to observe at this time of year and reaffirming my idea on resident pairs is always a task I look forward to during this season. It is amusing to watch the antics of territorial pairs of Black Wheatear confirming their feeding rights by constantly chasing away Black Redstart (pictured), Stonechat and Blue Rock Thrush from favoured areas. Equally, a joy to the ears (cold as they might be) is the song and song flight of Blue Rock Thrush. These magnificent thrushes seem to sing at all times of year and, despite the best efforts of Black Wheatears, they can be frequently observed proclaiming their territories during winter.
Other birds, which appear more confiding during this period are Rock and Cirl Bunting, although their habit of flocking outside of the breeding season obviously means you can spot them more readily. Huge flocks of mixed finches are now common, feeding on fallow fields and the area near to Acinipo (old Ronda) allow close views of these and also large numbers of Corn Bunting. This same area offers great chances to see Crested and Thekla Lark feeding alongside each other. Another species which I managed to find in the almost down-land like habitat which surrounds Acinipo is the Hen Harrier. The male of the species is spectacularly coloured and, against ink coloured skies, with its clear white underparts contrasting with black wing tips, can give an impression of an enormous gull species. It is also a very good time to find large flocks of Rock Sparrow, together with the huge flocks of finches; they also feed on open and fallow ground. These birds can be surprisingly difficult in the breeding season, as they tend to feed amongst Karst type habitats and you need them to pop-up on any prominent rock to see them clearly.