Wednesday 11 October 2017

Quality birding at the Sierra Loja

Juvenile Ring Ouzel Mirlo Capiblanco Turdus torquatus
Tuesday 10 October

How often do you get a chance to say that today's birding was all about quality rather than quantity?  A great day out at the Sierra Loja with Derek and Barabara Etherton along with Micky Smith after meeting up the Abades service station on the A92 above Loja for a pre-visit coffee before driving up the mountain. And a special day, too, as if she had survived just six more months it would have been my mother's 100th birthday and then discovered that Mick's birthday was yesterday.  There must be something about we lovable Librans!

When was the last time that a birding trip ended up with buntings recording the highest number of species?  We had four (Cirl, Rock, Ortolan and Corn Bunting) and they were only equalled by the thrushes with Blackbird, Ring Ouzel, Blue Rock and Mistle Thrushes.  And not, if you will pardon the choice of words, a single tit seen all day.

First-winter Otolan Bunting Escribano Hotelano Emberiza hortulana
Just as I approached the service station a handful of Azure-winged Magpies crossed the motorway and Barbara and Micky Recorded a Little Owl on their journey so, already, the morning was looking promising and despite the early morning chill with the temperature down to 11C (but very warm in the afternoon) it was a lovely clear, sunny day and not a hint of the breeze until the afternoon.  taking just the one car we soon made a stop in the open woods just before the first picnic area to watch a couple of Short-toed Treecreepers and then the first a of a number of Pied Flycatchers.  Indeed, we were to see quite a few before the day was out and to think that we had all missed the spring passage of these lovely birds.  Also, for our great delight, we had a Red Squirrel (more black out here) amble across the ground within ten metres with is tufty ears sticking straight u and a long bushy tail, longer than its body.  Our friend even stopped to pose in the sunshine on top of a small boulder before carry on and where was the camera?  Yes, in the boot and we dare not open the car doors.  Barbara picked up a Nuthatch before we all saw our first Mistle Thrush and then we were at the picnic area where our first of many Black Wheatears was seen by all.

The main quarry was not as productive as one would expect with the main surprise that there was not a single Crag Martin about and we had to wait well over an hour until we had almost reached the Charca de Negra before seeing our first, single, specimen overhead.  However, this area can always be relied upon to produce the first Jackdaws along with a calling Red-legged partridge and Blackbird.  We thought we had a Sardinian Warbler suddenly "pop up" but as soon as it landed on the nearby bush it was easily recognised as a Dartford Warbler and we were to seen another three of four before moving on. Again, the first of very many Stonechats was recorded.  Working our way up the  track no Azure-winged Magpies but we did have another Blackbird followed by Blue Rock Thrushes and a number of Black Wheatears.  Yet more Stonechats all over the place and then a couple of parties of Thekla Lark and a pair of Crested Larks before a small flock of Spotless Starlings flew away to our left in front of the cliff holding the Eagle Owl's traditional nest site.

Now that we were well above the tree line the Thekla Larks became more common and as soon as saw our first Black Redstart these most handsome birds began to appear at regular intervals.  Then it was the turn of a rather lovely Iberian Grey Shrike to put in an appearance and, again, more individuals were seen on these higher slopes.  A stop at the usual place duly produced the first Spectlacled Warnler and very soon after a quintet of Red-legged Partridge  - followed by many more at fairly regular intervals, usually in small family parties.

Distant Iberian Grey Shrike Alaudon Real Lanius meridonalis

As we approached the turn at Charca de Negra we had, as previously mentioned, our first Crag Martin of the day and were very much in amongst the now exposed Rock Buntings; lovey, delightful little birds and  looking so pretty with their striped heads.  All that the pond area produced were distant Blue Rock Thrushes and Black Wheatears, more Iberian Grey Shrikes and a number of Golfinches.  But things got a little better as we made our way round to the fossil cave where we found a handful of Rock Sparrows on the cliff top above.  Our first close views of Chough also occurred and then a single Corn Bunting as, after partaking of our picnic lunch, we searched the nearby Hawthorne bushes for possible early-arriving Ring Ouzels.

(Young?) Male Sparrowhawk Gavilan Comun Accipiter nisus
Red-billed Chough Chova Piquirroja Pyrrhocorax pyrrocorax

It was here that we picked out a small raptor in the skies above and then watched in awe as the male Sparrowhawk aggressively attacked the lone Chough that simply refused to move away from, presumably, the former's teritory.  A remarkable spectacle that will certainly leave something in the memory bank for months to come.

Sparrowhawk v Chough; the territorial battle

Here, in addition to now regular sightings of Northern Wheatear, we found a rather bland-looking bunting which gave cause for extra diligence.  Eventually, comparing the fairly-distant photograph with a Collins Guide we were able to all agree on the bird being a first winter Ortolan Bunting; for me a first for the year.

Northern Wheatear Colalba Gris Oenanthe oenanthe
And so on along the track to where I would normally turn round and start the return journey.  Water, what water?  This is normally a barren landscape but today there was no water in the drinking troughs on the way up the mountain, both pools above Charca de Negra were bone dry and below us we could see two large water catchments.  The first with its plastic lining looked, from above, as if it had either dried up naturally or been emptied and its neighbour, an older man-made structure with a stone wall on the further, yet higher, side looked as if it actually did hold a small pool.  So, driving on until we found the path on the right, we descended to the said pools.

Rock Bunting Escribano Montesino Emberiza cia

What an oasis!  Possibly the only water for a very large area there were both Rock Buntings and Black Redstarts taking advantage of the facility.  Many Stonechats around and then we noticed that a number of Crested Larks were making use of the water to both bathe and drink.  The odd Goldfinch moved about and then a number of Crag Martins accompanied by a few Barn Swallows put in an appearance, both drinking the water and feeding over the muddy-emptiness of the adjacent, dry water deposit.  But better was to come.  A strange-looking bunting had us taking a closer look and we found, again, we were looking at a pair of juvenile Ortolan Buntings.  Micky was more than pleased when we then found a single Common Redstart coming down to drink but it was not the Blue -headed Wagtail (Iberian Yellow wagtail) that came down to thoroughly enjoy itself as it set about its ablutions but Derek had seen a stranger drop in which was out of site to the rest of use.

That's better!  Iberian Yellow Wagtail Lavendera Boyera Iberica Motacilla flava iberiae fresh from bathing

But patience had its reward as found we looking at, what appeared, to be a very exhausted and newly-arrived, Ring Ouzel.  (First of the year.)  The bird eventually made its way across the pool to a bare tree in front of us where, much to our surprise and pleasure, we realised it was not the only Ring Ouzel present.  I think we all pretty sure that this small number, probably about 8 as a maximum, had literally just arrived, completely exhausted, in the past hours or so and were now trying to regain their strength before feeding, etc. After that, having spent well over an hour at this particular site, we had wonderful views of the birds, were able to identify both juvenile and females and, at last, the birds resting in sunshine.  Not only did we see Ring Ouzels in the dead tree we also had both Cirl Bunting and Ortolan Bunting along with Linnet resting on the same branch so giving excellent opportunities to compare plumage and size.  And above them, and a couple of Ring Ouzels, another Iberian Grey Shrike at the very top.  What a site!  Now if only we could move the tree yet keep all the birds.

Our juvenile Ring Ouzels Mirlo Capiblanco Turdus torquatus
I think by now we had seen all and wanted to retain the experience as we made our way back down the mountain encountering a fairly large flock of House Sparrows at the newly-built lambing shed at the the Charca de Negra turn.  Packing our cars we had a Wood Pigeon fly over and then it was back to our respective destinations.  Having driven the four or so kilometres eastwards to make the turn back in the opposite direction towards Malaga, I decided otherwise and continued on to bear off to the right through Salar on the Alhama de Granada road over the empty hills and then down through the growing fields to Venta de Zafarraya.  As soon as I turned off the main road to the latter, the small cover of trees produced the expected Chaffinches and then, at the bottom of the hill, I encountered a pair of (common) Magpies.  But the most amazing was still to come.  Not more than a couple of hundred metres further on I had a Roller resting on a large rock at the side of the road on my left.  I stopped to take a closer look not believing my eyes - whereupon the bird upped and away then back across the road and away into the distance.  What a way to end a fabulous birding day in great company.

And yet, despite this being a visit where quality outshone quantity, it would appear that I recorded 38 species, forty if you include both the Little Owl and Nuthatch.  And I wonder what other species Derek, Barbara and Micky encountered on their return drive to Alhaurin de la Torre?

NB:  And the big question is: Do juvenile Ring Ouzels migrate in their own complany as no pure adults were seen?

Birds seen:
Red-legged Partridge, Sparrowhawk, Rock Dove, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Little Owl, Roller, Crested Lark, Thekla Lark, Crag Martin, Barn Swallow, Blue-headed Wagtail, Robin, Black Redstart, Common Redstart, Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Ring Ouzel, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Dartford Warbler, Spectacled Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Iberian Grey Shrike, Azure-winged Magpie. Magpie, Chough, Jackdaw, Spotless Starling, House Sparrow, Rock Sparrow, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, Ortolan Bunting, Corn Bunting.

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