A Salty Kiss

Male and female Harlequin Ducks paddled frantically among the breaking waves like little steamer clockwork ducks, and were completely enthralling. The group sheltered from the wind as best they could from behind the van, and from there they watched the ducks’ antics. They were in no rush to move on.

Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus

Two days later I was standing on one side of the fishing boat, cleaning my camera lens while most of the passengers were on the other side, watching out for the Humpback Whales which had just dived below the surface of the choppy waters.

Whalewatching in Iceland

Humpback Whales in Iceland

Suddenly, a Humpback whale broke the surface with a loud, unannounced spout of sea spray, and this was carried on the wind and spattered over my lens, my protective clothing and, more significantly, up my nostrils. A salty kiss, from a Humpback Whale – this was Iceland.

Suddenly, a Humpback Whale broke the surface with a loud, unannounced spout of sea spray

Handa and seabirds on the chugga-chugga

Handa Island Ferry, Scotland

When I first went to the island of Handa on the northwest coast of Scotland we chugged across the narrow straits on a little, narrow boat. But there was no worry – the straits were calm and sheltered. On landing the young warden introduced us to the Island reserve and told us about its wildlife, also pointing out that in the centuries past the local people used to row out here to bury their dead. That was to prevent hungry wolves from digging up their loved ones and devouring their bodies when food was scarce in the harsh winter.
These days we don’t row across the straits, we chug; and it’s keen, lively people that make the crossing, not corpses; nevertheless, the island is still a haven – for thousands of Puffins, Guillmeots, Razorbills, and Skuas all call this home.

And still not a wolf in sight.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula artica

Centuries past the local people used to row out here to bury their dead.

Protected: Fine Focus: A quick dip into Dippers

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Protected: Behind the binoculars – some useful tips for getting a bit more out of your birding

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Protected: Oh, not another winter Wallcreeper!

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Winter has come, there are birds to be seen!

Winter is more than Wallcreepers

Is winter coming, or is it here already? Judging from our recent 6 days in the field in northeast Spain, and comparing them to what was happening in the region only the week before, it is tempting to say that winter is indeed here. The snow on the Pyrenees lies thick at the summits, and the wind is cold. However, only last week we were still drifting along on a seemingly never-ending summer, and in our birding minds this led to growing apprehension for the apparent lack of Wallcreepers in their usual wintering haunts in the Pre-Pyrenees. But all that changed in the first week in November.

Winter Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria

Winter Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria

Our first tingle of excitement with incoming wintering birds was when we stumbled on a mixed flock of Chaffinches and Bramblings on the edge of Lleida. But the Bramblings outnumbered the Chaffinches! To put that in context, sometimes we go for whole winters and might only see one or two Bramblings here.

Then, a few days later, we stopped to watch a field of Mistle Thrushes and discovered that in fact there were no fewer than 4 species of thrush hopping about in that field: Mistle, Song, Fieldfare and Redwing. Later that day and the next we came across Redwings on several occasions. Only a year ago I was thinking that Redwings were almost a thing of past winters in our part of Spain, having seen so few in the last ten years or so.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

“All we need now is a Hawfinch or two to complete the winter visitor set” I said to Erica and Jonas as we drove along after seeing the thrushes. Well, would you believe it … in under an hour we were watching several Hawfinches perched on top of dead trees, and that without making a detour from our return route to the hotel.

On a personal note the arrival of this winter weather was in the nick of time. We saw Wallcreepers at 3 different locations, one each on successive days, as well as a record number of 10 Alpine Accentors at one particular location. This was a great relief, as it meant we were not using the Wallcreeper’s name in vain when promoting our “Winter Wallcreeper Tours”.

Alpine Accentor, Prunella collaris

Alpine Accentor, Prunella collaris. By Franck Renard.

And then there were Robins every 50 metres along the road, little groups of Siskins calling as they flew overhead and, in the Ebro Delta, a rare Herring Gull from the north, and an even rarer Rough-legged Buzzard from the east. Well, yes, winter is here, and the birding looks like it’s going to be fun!

Pou del Mano: Tree planting – dreams and realities

Spring 2017, and the good news is that the outdoor clothing company Patagonia have conceded us one of their environmental grants to help us with our “Bovera, from brown to green” project! Our primary aim is to turn an unused field into a small haven for wildlife, whilst growing organic food and promoting nature-related leisure, education and local business.

Zoning the Pou del Mano project

Zoning the Pou del Mano project: the original idea

a = lavendar and aromatics; b= well, chill-out area; c = vegetables; d = wildlife

One of the core premises of this project is to plant fruit trees aimed at eventually establishing a food forest, a place where fruit trees will flourish, people will enjoy the shade and picking and eating the fruit growing on the trees, birds and other wildlife will occupy and alter the new niches being created, and bushes, flowers and vegetables can be grown in the shade and open areas between the trees.

Planting a tree in Bovera

Planting a tree in Bovera

Bearing in mind that this is a harsh Mediterranean continental climate, with very low rainfall (below 400mm per year) and very high evapo-transpiration (summer maximum temperatures approach 40ºC), and that we wanted to avoid installing an irrigation system, the first task would be to select the appropriate tree species.

In the end we planted 2 or 3 of each of the following: cherry, quince, persimmon, apricot, pomegranate and fig, and half a dozen sea buckthorn. First off, the sea buckthorn were having none of it, immediately went into a sulk, and started dying. The others dragged their heels, but a quick survey 2 years later and only the original quince and the pomegranate survive.

We did our best, but obviously it wasn’t good enough. So what happened? An analysis of likely factors and explanations would be vital if we were to learn from the experience, which was our intention, rather than to give up. So as not to get too long and technical, we’ll focus on just one factor – water.

up and down the path we go

Up and down the path we go

Water and drought – even if a relatively drought resistant tree needs only 600mm of rainfall in a Mediterranean climate, when you only get between 200 and 300mm rainfall a year it doesn’t mean you can just add the extra 300 mm or so at the base of the tree (300 litres per square metre) and everything is OK. For one thing, what is the real water deficit of a particular tree in a particular area?

In other words,
(i) what is the tree’s surface area “of influence”, ie does it only extract water and nutrients from 2 or 3 square metres around the trunk?
(ii) Does the dry, unirrigated soil around that area use some of the water that you provide through capillary action, soil-dwelling organisms, invasive roots of other species?
(iii) How do you determine the most crucial moments, when the tree needs water the most?
(iv) If the temperature rises above what is “normal”, how will that affect water consumption and availability to the tree?
(v) What effect does your soil’s water retention capacity have on the ideal frequency and quantity of watering?
(vi) And what other factors can’t I think of right now?

All these are often unanswered questions that may flash through your mind as you struggle down the path with two 25-litre drums, wondering how much water to gift your trees with today.

Then when the trees start wilting you hurry to install olles (see previous Pou del Mano post). Hopes are high, they function correctly, and very soon the surrounding weeds have sent out roots to smother and command this new resource (scramble competition) before any more slow-growing competitors (trees) can get there.

But don’t despair! The new, on-site rain roof, equipped with 2,000-litre tanks and 40 m2 of rain-catching surface will spare us from having to use the mains water, even if we do have to continue watering by hand. If only it would rain. And then … it rains in November, when the trees that have survived the summer won’t thank you for your contributions.

The rain roof and water tanks

The rain roof and water tanks

So then, your pride around your ankles, you turn to irrigation, just like everybody else. The lessons of life and living.

We recommend

Iceland Awakes! An awesome spring tour.

A real client review

“In September 2018, together with my non birding son, I went on a 10 day tour of Iceland led by Steve West of Birding in Spain. Steve worked tirelessly to find the birds and we had a very successful birding trip.  He also managed to incorporate all the important ‘tourist sites’ and general wildlife into our trip.  A very successful tour on a magical island that catered for everyone.  We even got the Northern Lights.  This was my third birding trip with Steve, he remains my first choice for guided trips.” – Ian, UK.

Next: Where have all the swallows gone? 

The frog in the well

The frog in the well

A puzzle for you:

  • A frog is at the bottom of a well, which is 30 feet deep (use metres if you prefer). Every day the frog climbs up 3 feet (or metres), but slides back 2. How many days will the frog need to get out of the well?

You can answer in the comments section if you think you have it. Or if you prefer, send us an e-mail.

We’re still waiting for a frog to appear, not in the well, but in the pool. So far, no frog, although we did have a whopping toad for one day. On another day, as I was filling an “olla” with water I was delighted to discover a small frog avidly swimming about inside. I let it crawl out of the top hole as I filled the olla, and didn’t replace the stone over the top of the hole, as I felt certain it would like to go back in sooner or later. That in itself gave me an idea: why not create “micro-reserves” with olles here and there, some with water and some without? Those without water would be refuges for spiders, beetles and woodlice, while those with might be encouragement for more froglets.

Common Toad, Bufo bufo

Common Toad, Bufo bufo

You can read more about “olles” here, including their function in permaculture, and how to make a terra cotta flowerpot olla:

https://wateruseitwisely.com/olla-irrigation/

home-made olla for watering

Home-made olla for watering

Like many of the gardening tasks, such as weeding, planting and the like, filling and inspecting ollas requires a fair bit of bending over. However, when bent over I don’t have to raise my head to know that one of the local Blue Tits is close, this time inspecting the nest box that I’ve put up for them on the dying persimonn tree. Last year they built a nest, but for some reason they abandoned before any eggs were laid. When I ascended to clean out the nest box there was the nest, but none of the dirt associated with a used one. I think the problem is that they are of a very nervous disposition and cannot accept my presence, even when I’m face down and bent over most of the time and only watch them through the corner of my eye!

Blue Tit nest box on persimon tree

Blue Tit nest box on persimmon tree

This year they haven’t nested, despite repeated attempts by the male to encourage the female to have a look around the lovely new residence he had discovered. I think she took a dislike to the neighbours (me) and that hers was the final word. Even the shading I had put up for the box to compensate for the lack of branches and leaves was not good enough for her more refined tastes.

Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus, at drinking pool

Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus, at drinking pool

If you are thinking about making, purchasing and erecting a nest box for hole nesting birds such as the Blue Tit, or indeed even a considerable array of other potential birds, you really should read up well to maximize the possibilities of success. You could do much worse than to buy this book published by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology)

https://www.bto.org/our-science/publications/bto-books-and-guides/nestboxes-your-complete-guide

At the Pou del Mano I haven’t seen much evidence of nesting birds. Certainly early in the spring we had a Corn Bunting singing almost non-stop for weeks above and around the couple of hay bales which we use for mulch, and more or less at the same time two male Sardinian Warblers were in avid pursuit of a female Sardinian Warbler. The Black Redstarts that frequented the rain roof throughout the winter were no longer there one day in mid-spring, while the singing Hoopoe from last year seems to have moved elsewhere. Golden Orioles nest in trees close to us, but not on site, and the Stone Curlew has been in fields close by for the last two breeding seasons. On the upside we’re getting a lot of interest from this year’s Little Owl juveniles, exploring the area close to where they were born, while doing their best to avoid the couple of marauding cats we try to keep off the site. A Black-eared Wheatear puts in the occasional appearance, and this year the Red-rumped Swallows seem to be a little less common than in previous years. 

Male Sardinian Warbler, Sylvia melanocephala

Male Sardinian Warbler, Sylvia melanocephala

Red-rumped Swallow, Cecropis daurica

Red-rumped Swallow, Cecropis daurica

But back to the frog in the well: the Pou del Mano is actually 13 metres deep, so how long would the above-mentioned frog need to get out of the well?

Next chapter: Tree planting – dreams and realities

BIS feedback, what real people say about us

Bill W., UK, May 2019
Unlike some of the others on the trip, this was my first time birding in another country, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. However, the fact that it was so enjoyable was undoubtedly due to being in the company of you both. From the moment you picked us up from the airport, we knew we were in good hands.
Your bird knowledge Steve, I found to be extraordinary, and I would never have seen my 52 “lifers” without your help.
Also, many thanks to you both for your help with Spanish translation and pronunciation. I am now seriously considering looking for a local Spanish conversation class.
All the very best to you both, and I hope we get the opportunity to meet again in the not too distant future.

Thanks Bill!

We recommend:

Iceland awakes! An awesome spring birding tour

 

Scotland Marvellous May Tour 2020

Capercaillie with Birding In Spain Scotland Tour

Capercaillie – Birding In Spain’s Scotland Tour

 

Atlantic Puffin and Marvellous May Scotland Tour

Atlantic Puffin and Marvellous May Scotland Tour

 

Red-throated Diver and Marvellous May Scotland Tour

Red-throated Diver and our Marvellous May Scotland Tour

 

Slavonian Grebe and Marvellous May in Scotland

Slavonian Grebe and Marvellous May in Scotland

 

White-tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle in Scotland

White-tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle in Scotland

Isn’t May Marvellous? And Scotland too? Just imagine the two combined! Next year, 2020, we at Birding In Spain are running a 10-day birding and wildlife tour to get some of the best of what Scotland has to offer. You can read about it all by clicking on the link below, which will download a pdf describing the tour.

Scotland Marvellous May 2020 pdf

Tell us about the birds and the bees

Tell us about the birds and the bees

The birds and the bees, mmm, I think we’ll start off literally and see where it leads.
Alas, the canvas hide overlooking the pool has stood unloved for a couple of years now, if occupation for any nature-oriented purpose is anything to measure love by. In other words, I have had no time to spend in the hide enjoying some of the fruits of my many labours, and it’s a shame. It happens like this: before I can walk the 200 metres or so between my parked car and the pool there are just so many things that I see need attending to and I have so many ideas about what could be done that I can never quite make it.

For example:

• The compost isn’t doing anything – you could turn and water it.
• Check on how the trees are doing – water, aphids, nutrients…
• Turn over a log or move a branch in the wood pile to see if anything moves
• The stairs up to the pool need weeding/repairing
Weeding, there is always weeding to do. But are there enough edible weeds to gather and make them into a dish?
• Check to see if any of the flower seed is showing signs of life.
Scythe the grass
• Improve the paths

And so on, and so on, and so…

Thankfully, in my prolonged absence we have the trail cam to step into my shoes, and to at least bear witness to some of what goes on at the pool. With it’s motion detection and nocturnal flash function it’s the unsleeping eye – as long as the batteries last, and as long as it’s aligned properly.

How else would we have discovered that a Red Fox is a regular visitor to the pool, at night, and even at 9 in the morning? Or that Badgers are in the area, and visit when all is dark and still? And that at last those couple of stray tick-infested dogs seem to have moved on?

Red Fox at the Pou del Mano drinking pool

Red Fox at the Pou del Mano drinking pool

 

Badger at the drinking pool

Badger at the Pou del Mano drinking pool

Having said “badger” reminds me of a badge I used to wear at Sixth-form college, when I was an active member of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, trying to get people interested in saving the world’s wildlife. It read “Don’t badger the badger”, which in itself is quite a succinct endorsement of the English language ie “badger” can be used as a verb as well as a noun and slots perfectly into a 4-word catchword to convey the message: “Leave the badgers alone, they are not your scapegoats”. Unfortunately there’s no trace of the badge among my personal belongings, and worse yet, I can’t even trace it on the Internet. Has anyone out there ever had one of those badges, and still got it? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

It seems the idea of slaughtering badgers (called “culling” when you have to justify it to constituents or customers) resurfaces every decade or so in the UK, as in its day my old badge was a response to ongoing badger culls in the early 1980s, while the Guardian article below relates to a proposed cull in 2010.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2011/aug/11/badger-cull-dont-stop-bovine-tb

By the way, if you read the article it virtually destroys the logic of any proposed badger slaughter, and please let’s not get started on “Seals eat our fish”, and “Fox-hunting is needed to control the vermin”, and all that kind of nonsense.

Back to the camera: more than 30 species of birds were recorded in the first couple of winter sessions, including the locally scarce Brambling and Hawfinch. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t set for the spring migration, when I was hearing regular bursts of song from Wryneck, Bonelli’s Warbler and even Grasshopper Warbler. Hopefully next year…

Bumble bee on flower

Bumble bee on flower

And the bees? Well, one of the measures that you can take to encourage native bees is to provide water for them. They need nectar and pollen sources, soft banks to nest or roost in, patches of exposed earth and water. Although the hard truth is that we’ve had more interest at the pool from wasps and even dragonflies than from bees, it’s still early days yet, and once the drought has come to an end hopefully much of the flower seed we have sown will grow into flowers, attracting bees who will then need a drink after gorging themselves on abundant nectar. Either way, we’re going to have a lot to say about bees …

Next chapter: The frog in the well

What real people say about Birding In Spain:

Julie and Roger Knourek (USA), Marvellous May 2019

Hello Steve and Florinda! We’re back in Arizona, rested up and ready to travel to Wyoming for the rest of the summer. I just wanted to take a minute to thank you for the Marvelous May trip we recently went on with you. Everything worked out perfectly – the birding was excellent, the hotels and food were wonderful, and we enjoyed everyone’s friendship and companionship while we were on the tour. I really appreciate that you were able to accommodate our needs when necessary. It was truly one of the highlights of our lives!!! I will post a few pictures when we get to WY and get settled in. Thanks so much!

We recommend:

Marvellous May Scotland Tour 2020

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