Thursday, 9 April 2015

4th April - S'Albufera Natural Park, Majorca

Majorca, being a part of Spain, like mainland Spain is on Central European time. its GPS coordinates show its position of Longitude to be two degrees to the east of the Greenwich meridian, consequently the sun rise was about an hour later than the UK, so as we set out at 7.30 am on Saturday morning the sun was just beginning to rise, but the local cloud was keeping it dull.  It was also a little fresh as we walked along the road to the reserve entrance, again serenaded by the singing Cetti's Warblers.

When we reached the entrance we negotiated our way around the locked gate and set off down the path.  The walk was in complete contrast to the previous afternoon, we were the only ones there, and probably had the reserve all to ourselves.  Despite teh time of day and year there was little bird song, I had expected the place to be alive with song, but other than the incessant Cetti's Warblers it was relatively quiet.

I am not sure what made me look through the reeds and across the canal, but I did, and there in the trees was a group of about 25 Night Herons.  Formally known as the Black-crowned Night Heron, but known in Europe as the Night Heron, these birds rest in trees and bushes during the day, and are active mostly in the early morning and night.

As we looked we could see many birds tucked away at the back of the bushes, and others out more in the open.  You can see the large red eye and dagger bill, and the white feather crest of the adult birds.  First year birds are browner, and can sometimes look owl like as they sit in the trees.

A little further on there was one lower in the reeds close to the water.  These birds stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey, they primarily eat small fish, crustaceans, frogs, aquatic insects, small mammals, and small birds.

The path then turns into the reserve alongside a small canal.  From here we could see a colony of Little and Cattle Egrets in the trees alongside the main canal, but the reeds were obscuring them and preventing any photographs.

We turned the corner and from the tall reeds I disturbed a Little Bittern, it flew off but I could see it clearly, a relatively small bird, about the size of a Moorhen, it exploded from the top of the reeds, showing the distinctive creamy wing patches, and the trailing legs.  Unfortunately this was all too quick and before I could get the camera up it had disappeared from view behind the reeds.

It was now clear we had the reserve to ourselves, and we arrived at the visitor centre where in the trees around the building Serins were singing just as they were yesterday.  Sardinian Warblers were also calling and I finally managed to get one out in the open, as with all Sylvia warblers and photography the biggest problem is they hide behind branches, still it is a nice close shot.

We made our way to the hide we left last yesterday evening.  It would seem though that Spanish birders are a lot smaller than me, and as I opened the door I misjudged the height and banged my head at the top, yet another cut!.

Opening the windows of the hide it quickly became clear that there had been some movement overnight, a Little Ringed Plover was on the mud directly beneath the hide, there were none here yesterday.

As we watched it feeding along the edge of the mud, several others were flying around calling.  In total I counted eight individuals, but it could also be said they were four pairs as they all flew around as couples.

Being the only ones on the reserve there was quite a bit of activity close to the hide.  A Black-winged Stilt waded through the vegetation casting its reflection in the still water of the pool.

Movement to the side of the hide revealed a Common Snipe appearing from behind a clump of grass, probing its long bill into the soft mud.

These were the best views I have had of a Snipe, so lucky to have it so close and in the open, it gave the opportunity to appreciate the lovely browns and black markings that help to hide them in amongst reeds and grass.

The Little Ringed Plover struck lucky with a large worm, but wasn't sure the best way to eat it, pecking at it or trying to swallow whole.

It finally resorted to swallowing it whole.

A Yellow Wagtail then dropped in, but as I moved to get a photograph I spooked both it, and the Snipe and Plover.

We sat watching both the Little Ringed Plovers and the Kentish Plovers flying around the pools calling and chasing each other off the little bits of territory they were striving to keep.  

There was still no real sun to speak of, and it was a little cool, the cloud was both a mixture of low mist and cloud.  A female Marsh Harrier appeared over the top of the reed bed, and drift across, silhouetting against the distant murky trees.

The same behaviour as yesterday it would drop into the reeds with sticks, and was joined in this by the male.

Keen to enjoy as much of the reserve on our own before the hoards arrived we decided to move over to the other hides.  As we left the hide I looked back to see a Black-winged Stilt feeding behind a group of four Little Ringed Plovers.  Again some lovely reflections from the early morning light in the still water.

Once again the hide over looking the large pool had only Mallard and a few Gadwall, but as we walked back over the bridge I noticed a shape in the scrape exactly where the osprey had been yesterday.  We made our way to the hide, but not as quickly as yesterday as we we knew there was no one there to disturb what I had seen.  Opening the window revealed a large blue chicken, or Purple Gallinule or Swamphen as it is better known.

The body was a lovely dark blue and purple with a bright red bill and knob.  The feet were huge in comparison, and it used them to pull up the vegetation it was feeding on, but they also will catch insects and maybe small fish.  But that did not stop it burying its head deep into the water.

The toes looked very powerful, with long claws that I am sure if they behave like Coots do in their fights could do some nasty damage.

The story of the Purple Swamphen at S'Albufera is interesting. Hunted to extinction here, a re-introduction programme began in 1991 with 28 birds released.  By 1999, there were 200 pairs.  It is now one of the best sites to see these slightly prehistoric birds

We left the hide and walked along the path towards the other look out points and hides we had missed yesterday.  Some of these we could see, and were able quite quickly to determine that there was nothing of interest close to them.  We then took the track that leads to the north west of the reserve, and as we walked we were continually mugged by Cetti's Warblers, many hiding in the reeds and bushes, but occasionally some showing us where they were.

And this is what one looks like when it decides to mug you.

Helen had the theory that the reason they burst into song as you pass them is to act as an early warning to others that you are there.  This did seem to be the case because they would rattle out the song, fly off ahead of you and do it again until the singing  role was taken up by another.

When this did happen one finally stayed in one place just long enough to get the photo opportunity close up.

I told them all after that there was no point posing, I had the picture I wanted, who would believe that such a small and unimposing bird could deliver such volume.

The Cetti's Warblers were not the only birds delivering calls, from within the reeds we could hear drawn out toots and nasal like grunts that were repeated, accompanied by water splashing and reeds moving.  These calls were very loud and startling, catching you off guard, and were often then followed by a series of "chucking" sounds.

We never saw the actual owner of these calls, but it is my suspicion they belong to the Purple Swamphen.  At the look out platform we watched one come out of the reeds and make its way across the water, using its long legs to walk rather than swim.

Here you can see those impressive toes.

At the bottom of the last photograph is the head of a Red-crested Pochard, and in the pool along with the Swamphen were four pairs all looking spectacular in the sunshine that had just arrived.

The track we were on went nowhere so we turned around and headed back, it was now past 9.00am, and very soon the hoards would arrive so we keen to get back to the hides.  We did though check the surrounding pools from the bank, but apart from Little Egrets and singing Reed Warblers there was little about.  As we reached the end of the path though a few Swallows trickled past.

Walking across the main canal bridge a Crested Coot was feeding on the weeds in the open.  These are another of the S’Albufera conservation efforts and were introduced during the 1990s, in an effort to support the endangered populations of these birds.  Initially the birds were given a large white identification neck ring, and we did see several of these walking around like little priests, but as the numbers have increased so has the chance of finding an un-ringed bird, which is what we could see as we crossed the bridge.

As we watched this Coot a female Mallard flew into a clump of reeds nearby, and was quickly followed by an amorous male.  The Crested Coot immediately turned, and swam quickly towards the clump where the Mallard were.  Swimming quickly turned to flying, and it launched itself towards the ducks.

When it reached them it lunged at them, leaping out of the water and throwing up its feet in the attack mode I have seen Coots do against each other when fighting for territory.

From the other side of the bridge another Crested Coot started to make its way over, so I can only think they were a pair and that the closer coot had just left a nest in the clump to feed, and when the ducks went in feared for the safety of the nest and its possible contents.  The ducks departed almost as quickly as they arrived and would have to find somewhere else to do what ever they had set out to do.

As the other Coot came closer it gave me the opportunity to get a better look.  The crests are not really that, they are more like red knobs, which is where the other name comes in, the Red-knobbed Coot, this, I think fits better than Crested Coot.  The knobs become more pronounced in the breeding season, and rapidly shrink after breeding.  This then poses identification difficulties with the Coot, the main identification difference is the lack of a pointed black wedge in front of the eye, in the Red-knobbed this rounded as you can see here.

We then made our way to our favourite hide, which for the moment we still had to ourselves.  the Plovers were still flying around calling, one or two of the Kentish Plovers were taking control of the closest island.

Then one came even closer just to the side of the hide.

This is an adult male that is just coming into the summer breeding plumage.  The bill of both sexes is thinner than a Ringed Plover, and the head looks broad in comparison to the body. The male has a black stripe behind the eye, it will develop a rufous patch on the nape and a half black collar in contrast to the thick black collar of the Little and Ringed Plovers.  It is this lack of full collar that for me makes them less intimidating than the Ringed, but that said in confrontation with their cousins they give as good as they get.

The acrobatics of the Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers was replaced by those of the Black-winged Stilts.  They suddenly started up flying around and calling pairs chasing each other away from possible territory, in the same way a nesting birds will chase off any other bird that comes close.  With their long red legs trailing they look quite spectacular in flight.

Especially when they decide to land.

The Garganey were still asleep at the back of the pool, and the marsh Harriers would appear over the reeds but still very distant.  Other distant birds was a pale Booted Eagle, and a Purple heron that came up out of the reeds, and flew "Wylie Coyote" like away from the hide.  Despite lengthening the exposure it was still very dark against the bright sky.

The light was quite strange neither sun or complete cloud, this accentuated this Little Egret as it stalked close to the hide.

We were now getting ready to leave the hide and start the walk back.  It was now coming up to 11.00 and the birds had all gone quiet.  Before we left though took a panoramic view of the scrape with the open water and distant reed beds.

As we walked back around by the visitor centre we encountered the crowds once again, and as we headed back down the main path, families were trooping in with bicycles and scooters for the kids, but very little binoculars and optics.

We decided to walk along the path towards the east of the reserve.  The main reason being it looked quiet and was there the possibility of another exit.  Almost as soon as we had a Marsh Harrier came up out of the reeds, and for once could be considered to be a little closer.  The golden head giving this away as a female.

Almost as soon as the harrier had dropped from view a Purple Heron was up and over the reeds.  This time a slightly better photograph, but the light was not completely in the right place.

All the way along there will small breaks in the bank that allowed you to scan the marsh and reed beds.  At one stop we could hear the frogs chirping, they seemed close but we could not see them.

A little further on the male Marsh Harrier appeared again.

About half way along the track the reeds gave away to more open water, and here there were mallard, Teal and Gadwall, and on the far shore several Red-crested Pochard, and 15 pairs of Garganey, all asleep!

The look out point gave elevated views across the reeds and the marsh harrier continued to tease, just too far away for that killer shot.

We reached a small copse at the end of the path, and as we walked in a black and white flash came up from some small bushes and into the pine trees.  When I found it in the pine tree I could see it was a Woodchat Shrike, but then it was off, and I could n't relocate it.

It didn't seem like the path would take us out to the road, so we turned around and headed back to the main entrance.  As we did so a Stonechat appeared on the bush by the side of us, the first one I had seen here.

The walk along the path was in full sunshine, and we were treated to Swifts swooping low over the top of the reeds and ultimately our heads.  they were joined by a few Swallows, a sign that finally things were moving through.

At the main canal the egret colony was now more visible, and you could make out both Cattle and Little Egrets in the trees.  Both beautiful white birds the guttural calls they were making were not something you expect to hear from them.

One or two Night Herons could still be seen, one of which was a brown first year bird, but the majority must have sunk back into the thick of the trees.  It was warm now in the sunshine, but away from the shelter there was a cool breeze.  Back at the hotel we had lunch, and then decided it would be good to sit by the pool, it wasn't hat hot was it, well the air may have been cool, but the sun was very strong, why do we always do this in April?

In the evening we picked up the hire car, the next two days would be about exploring the island, and hopefully some more new birds.

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