I've just finished editing my usual spring update of my birding notes on the province. Very few changes mainly concerning revamping the section on bird guides, adding a couple of websites and suggested places to stay (more on which anon) plus trying to correct some formatting issues. As always send me a message via the contact form if you'd like a copy and I'll email them to you. They're free but a donation to a wildlife charity RSPB, SEO, etc but especially the Salarte project - birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/salarte-project) would be very welcome. Any suggestions, corrections or updates are always welcome.
Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East – A Photographic Guide by Frédéric Jiguet & Aurélien Audevard | Translated by Tony Williams | Princeton Universtiy Press | Paperback | Feb 2017 | 447 Pages | colour distribution maps | 2,200 Colour Photographs | ISBN: 9780691172439 | £24.95 (but available online for less)
Since the advent of the authoritative and superbly illustrated 'Collins Bird Guide' in 1999, some may question whether there's any need for a new field guide on the birds of Europe (plus North Africa and the Middle East) at all. However, canny publishers have spotted that there is still a niche for guides that can offer something different such as using photographs rather than artwork or focussing on a more limited area. 'Britain's Birds' (Wildguides) combined both approaches by using photos and restricting the geographical range. Now a new photographic guide purporting to cover the same area as the 'Collins Bird Guide' has entered the fray - the. Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East by Frédéric Jiguet & Aurélien Audevard. So how does it shape up?
Unfortunately, the English title of this guide is misleading since many North African and Middle Eastern species are not included. In North-west Africa alone a dozen species are missing (e.g. Dark Chanting Goshawk, a couple of sandgrouse, Levaillant's Woodpecker, a trio of larks and a brace of wheatars) and there must be two or three times more left out elsewhere. The original French title (and that of other translations) -“Tous les Oiseaux d'Europe” - gives the game away. This book covers all species recorded in Europe and birds from the wider region only scrape in as vagrants to Europe. You need to peruse the species texts to realise that their definition of 'Europe' includes Cyprus, Lesbos and the 'European' Atlantic islands although the eastern border is irritatingly left undefined. Surprisingly, Pharaoh Owl is included as it's claimed that it “could potentially colonise southern Spain” which seems optimistic given that it's never been recorded there. Remarkably, by describing and illustrating all vagrants the final species total is 860 which is substantially more than the Collins Guide (715 fully treated plus c90 vagrants and escapees covered briefly).
The new guide promises the reader a creditable 2,200 photos although by encompassing so many species this means an average of only 2.5 photos per bird. In comparison, the Collins Guide, which is almost exactly the same size and with the same number of pages, has an average of 4 illustrations per species. The Wildguides book, which covers over 260 fewer species has a larger format and over a hundred more pages, manages an average of 5.4 photos per species. So although a generous provision, it is inevitable that this book shows fewer plumages and fewer birds in flight. These omissions sometimes can make a difference between identifying a bird or not; the lack of any flight shots of either merganser is but one example of this. The photos are of a good standard but some of the wildfowl look like capitive birds as they seem to be pinioned ...
After a good, albeit somewhat brief introduction, the book gets down to business with over 420 pages of photos and descriptions. Both the illustrations and text share the same page with, where appropriate, a map. The photos are well annotated with useful comments on key ID features. The photographs have been “photo-shopped” so that most background has been “tippexed” out with only a ghosted disc remaining round the bird (or part thereof). The photographs themselves are generally of a good quality although some are a little small making details hard to discern. As a general rule, the images tend to be larger than those in the Collins Guide (but 30%-50% smaller than those in Wildguides' 'Britain's Birds'). However, painted plates of birds in identical poses, without distracting shadows and carefully delineated to highlight key points mean that it can be harder to distinguish detail in photos than paintings of the same (or even smaller) size.
More often than not two species are covered per page but quite a few are squeezed in three and a fewer still four to a page (esp. Nearctic vagrant passerines). Another sixty odd species, often (but not always) those with several distinct subspecies or a complex range of plumages have a page or more to luxuriate in. So it's not a surprise to find species with very variable plumages – buzzards, eagles, some harriers, all larger gulls, and so on have a page or more to themselves. Predictably, Yellow Wagtail comes off best with no less than three pages – generous perhaps but it's good to see those familiar green, grey or black heads attached to a body for once! Rare shrikes in the old Isabelline complex are particularly well treated. Yet such generous full page coverage is also enjoyed by far less variable species like Pheasant, Brown Booby, Starling, Waxwing and Pine Grosbeak. Whatever the criteria used to determine the space allowed for each species, the criteria seem haphazardly applied as Common Redpoll (a variable species with several races) only gets half a page. Some fairly common species too get shorter shrift than one might expect (e.g. one photo of Woodcock compared to two for Pin-tailed Snipe).
What distinguishes this guide from any of its rivals is that, as the original title suggests, it really does include all the birds found in Europe. Although rarities are often treated in less detail (in text and photos) in some cases, the level of detail and illustration even exceeds that used for common and widespread European species. It is particularly strong on its coverage of different races some of which have half a page to themselves (on the downside in a number of cases this extra coverage is several pages adrift from the main text and not always well cross referenced). The outstanding example being “Ambiguous Reed Warbler” a very recent (and still controversial) race of European Reed Warbler found in North African and Spain (which may even be a race of African Reed Warbler). Oddly, though, redpolls are less well treated than one might expect. Naturally, some of the larger gulls have all of their various races depicted and described (although not always to the level really needed since that would require a couple of pages at least. On the other hand coverage of stonechats and 'Isabelline/Brown/Red-tailed Shrikes, for example, is better than one might expect. Even so, there are times (e.g. depicting wheatear tails) when it cries out for a couple of comparative, even diagramatic. illustrations rather than photos ('Britain's Birds' is far more pragmatic in this respect).
Vagrants include species recorded at least as recently as October 2015 and those with only one or two records. It's a pity that the relative rarity wasn't more clearly expressed or indeed, given most copies will be bought in the UK, it hasn't got a simple key to UK status (as per the old Heinzel guide). Whilst in many ways this inclusiveness is welcome, it does to some degree compromise the coverage of commoner species that birdwatchers are far more likely to see. My personal choice would have been to drop the extreme vagrants with only a handful of European records to improve coverage of birds which observers have a real chance of finding for themselves. In some ways, it is a surprise that this strategy hasn't been used since the authors (and the original publisher) have already produced a very similar guide devoted entirely to European rarities ('Tous les Oiseaux rares d'Europe' which coveres 456 species in 365 pages & 1850 photos) At the very least I would rather have rarities were consigned to an appendix to minimise confusion like to old 'Shell Guide').
Another area where this guide excels is with regard to introduced species. We have illustrations and text not only for widespread feral species like Ring-necked Parakeet but also less familiar (and more restricted ones) like Vinous-throated Parrotbill and Erkel's Francolin. Spanish based birders will welcome the inclusion of Black-headed Weaver and Yellow-crowned Bishop even if the text suggests they're restricted to Portugal (the former and to a lesser degree the latter are increasingly found in several sites in western Andalucia). Conversely, the Red Avadavat's range is given only as 'Spain' whereas it's also found widely (if thinly) in Portugal. Strangely, though, the distinctive red male is not illustrated only the duller female (although the sex isn't given on the photo). Inevitably, some species with feral populations are omitted (e.g. several parrot species regularly found in Spain) but the authors deserve great credit for including as many as they have.
The text is rather brief often having fewer than half the number of words than the descriptions found in the Collins Guide. Unlike that book, it also fails to highlight key points in italic or bold (which improves functionality). Even though the text is usefully supplemented by annotations around the photographs, the text is not always sufficiently thorough as some useful identification features have been not been mentioned (e.g. the white underwing of adult male Lesser Kestrel). Vocalisations are also treated somewhat briefly with many species lacking any description of their song. Some descriptions are even misleading such as noting that the Iberian Chiffchaff's call is 'similar' to Willow Warbler whereas its Reed Bunting like down slurred call is diagnostic. That said, although brief, the text in conjunction with the photographs should allow you to identify most of the birds you see although inadequate to identify some very similar species or some female/juveniles birds (some not all being described let alone illustrated).
The three colour maps show breeding, resident and winter ranges (but not occurrence on passage). They are invariably small (being a little smaller than those in the Collins Guide) and seem a little more generalised than the maps in that guide. Even so, they generally provide a useful 'broad-brush' guide to distribution. In some cases, though, the status of some species is very optimistic! Fortunately, the book follows the same familiar taxonomic order as used in the Collins Guide rather than the new scientifically rigorous but very impractical new order some books have opted for.
Taken together the illustrations and text make this book more functional than most photoguides. Although including extraordinarily rare birds it weems more aimed at the beginner/intermediate birder than wannabe expert as crucial details (and photos) are omitted. However, although I have a number of reservations, the whole somehow transcends my caveats to be by far the best photoguide to European birds on the market. It certainly doesn't replace the Collins Guide but complements it particularly if you want photos of all European species in one handy package. In this context, it's well worth buying. Surprisingly, perhaps, it's nearest rival photoguide is WildGuides' 'Britain's Birds' which covers Europe as well as this guide covers North Africa and the Middle East! 'Britain's Birds' is by far the better book as it has many more photos, more comprehensive coverage of plumages and birds in flight, much larger images, a far better thought out text and a flexible design. However, it has the serious drawback of being not only significantly larger and heavier but also only covers the c600 species recorded in Britain. Essentially you can have comprehensive coverage or portability but not both. Until the promised European version of the Wildguides book appears Jiguet & Audevard look set to be the definitive photoguide on European birds (although not of North Africa or the Middle East!). Recommended (with some reservations).
Birds of Spain - Eduardo de Juana & Juan M Varela (Translated Ernest Garcia)Pub: Lynx Feb. 2017 567 species (inc. 173 accidentals covered in less detail)300+ maps Almost 1,000 illustrations ISBN 13: 978-84-16728-02-220 x 12 cm 258 pp 25€
Despite my atrocious Spanish, I've been recommending “Aves de Espaňa” by Eduardo de Juana and Juan M Varela ever since I saw a copy and mistook the latter's artwork as some of Lars Jonsson's early work. They have the same fluid style and an uncanny knack of breathing life into their images. I couldn't understand much of the text but the maps, like the illustrations, were multilingual. After a little perseverance, I found that even I could even decipher the text sufficiently well to grasp the essential details of population and passage periods if not identification details. I've been hoping for an English version for years and here it is! This is a version of the recently published Spanish 3rd edition. Translators rarely receive the praise that they deserve but this volume was in the safe hands of Ernest Garcia, the well-known expert on Iberia's birds, who has done a first rate job. (Note that in this review I have compared this editions largely with the original 2000 edition, not the 2nd edition).
As the introduction tells us (and we hopeless Anglophones can now understand) the aim was to produce a book small enough to be “practical for use in the field” and yet of “impressive quality, content and conservation potential”. It's testament to how far their aims have been achieved that over 40,000 copies of the original Spanish book have been sold and the guide has gone through several editions. The main section describes and illustrates just under 400 species in 208 pages whilst 173 vagrants (57 of which are illustrated) are listed (but not described) in an appendix. It follows the now conventional 'text-opposite-plates' layout. Each double page spread covers 3-4 species (occasionally 5) and for relevant species includes a refreshingly large distribution map. Note that it covers peninsular Spain, the Balearics and, less obviously, the Canaries.
As noted above the illustrations are of a very high quality. In this (like the third Spanish edition) new illustrations have been provided for a number of species (inc. male Capercaillie, juv Night Heron, winter Kentish Plover, Stonecurlew, Pectoral Sandpiper, Common Buttonquail, Barn, Little, Short-eared and Eagle Owls, Bee-eater, Roller, Great-reed Warbler, Chiffchaff, Penduline Tit, Dipper, Blackbird, Blue Rockthrush and Snowfinch). There are also new illustrations for Cory's and Scopoli's Shearwaters (the latter newly included and treated as a full species). I find the illustrations aesthetically very pleasing with only the painting of Marsh Tit falling below par. One of my few reservations concerns the illustration of spring male Pied Flycatcher which shows a bird with a large white patch at the base of the primaries (not labelled as such but typical of the local race iberiae) but extensive white outer tail feathers more resembling the nominate form hypoleuca of northern Europe. A comparison I carried out by looking at twenty 'core species' found an average of 3.3 illustrations per species in this guide which was less than half of those found showing the same species in the popular Collins Guide (8). As a result, although there are good comparison plates for eagles, skuas and gulls, the book still has fewer illustrations of females, juveniles, birds in flight, etc. than many may be used to (for example only breeding Cattle Egret with warm buff plumes is illustrated inviting confusion, unless the text is consulted, between Little Egret and Cattle Egret when in winter plumage). However, to a large degree, this is compensated by the fact that the illustrations are significantly larger and the plates much less cluttered. This makes it particularly helpful for tyro birdwatchers since it's less confusing.
Several rare, introduced or essentially North African species have been 'promoted' from the appendix in the main text (inc. Bald Ibis, Western Reef Heron, Egyptian Goose, Mandarin, Lesser Flamingo, Long-legged Buzzard and Red-billed Leiothrix). Perhaps surprisingly neither Ruppell's Vulture nor Pallid Harrier, both increasingly reported, have been fully covered. Interestingly, Ruddy Duck has been banished altogether and the illustration of Barbary Falcon (now treated as a subspecies of Peregrine has gone AWOL). The inclusion of so many introduced species - Mandarin, Egyptian Goose, Red-billed Leiothrix, Ring-necked Parakeet, Monk Parakeet, Common Waxbill & Red Avadavat – is very welcome. However, the absence of species (e.g. Black-headed Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop and several parakeet species) with growing populations in Spain, is a little surprising.
Now that I can read it without constant recourse to a dictionary and much head scratching, the excellence of the text is clear. The descriptive notes are clear and concise (although the judicious use of 'bold' for critical points would have made them still better). The key identification pointers are given so that, given a good view, all but the most fiendishly difficult identification problems should be resolvable. The advantage of having a skilled birdwatcher as the translator is shown by the modification of the transcriptions of many calls and songs for an Anglophone, rather than Hispanophone, readership. Details of status and population have been taken from two recent Spanish bird atlases. These too have been used to create the excellent four colour maps (resident = green, breeding = yellow, common in winter = dark blue and scarce in winter = pale blue). Usefully the maps show the distribution of birds in Portugal and adjacent parts of France and North Africa too. Naturally, the maps are far larger, more accurate and more detailed than maps in field guides which cover a much larger area. My only caveat is that indicating provincial boundaries would have made it easier to understand where the birds are found. Conservation status is also given.
The most contentious, change has been to order the birds according to the most recent taxonomy which is based on DNA research. As a result of this, many original illustrations have been shifted round and often re-sized. Frequently they're now a little smaller, but this has the advantage of making some plates feel less cluttered. If covering wildfowl second, not first, after gamebirds were the only change then the novel arrangement wouldn't be too bad. Unfortunately, in my view many changes actively militate against the book's functionality as a field guide. Although now known to be scientifically inaccurate, the old taxonomy was based, in part, on physical differences so that similar species tended to be grouped together. DNA takes no account of this so Grebes are now 20 pages adrift from Divers. Nightjars, swifts and cuckoos now find a home just after flamingos but before crakes. Bizarrely, Hoopoes, Bee-eaters, Roller, Kingfisher and woodpeckers intrude themselves between the larger birds of prey and falcons. Odder still, Hippolais and “wetland warblers” are divided from the 'bush' and 'leaf' warblers by swallows and martins. Meanwhile, Long-tailed Tit is now hiding amongst the warblers! For anyone used to the traditional species order, this is extremely, and unnecessarily, confusing. The obvious remedy is to have a quick look in the index but this is where the guide really falls down badly since it has what is probably the worst index I've ever seen in a bird book. Not sure where to find a Golden Oriole in the new taxonomic order? Well, you won't find it under “O” for oriole as you might expect nor even under “G” for golden which is the other obvious option. No, it's under “E” for “Eurasian”! Hence no bird groups (such as gulls, terns, warblers, etc.) are indexed together and species are dotted across the index depending on whether they're 'Common', 'European', 'Eurasian' etc. Together with the unfamiliar order, this makes the book far harder to use than it ought to be. It's high time bird guides abandoned a rigorous 'scientific order' as it no longer reflects our intuitive grasp of bird groups. An Anglo-American team has led the way in using a 'field friendly' order (see https://www.aba.org/birding/v41n6p44.pdf) and the widely acclaimed Wildguides 'Britain's Birds' in the UK has followed suit (although this book also lists birds in taxonomic order in an appendix). My penultimate observation is one of surprise that Lynx didn't incorporate status information from their “Aves de Portugal” (which uses exactly the same illustrations) to make a single volume English language “Birds of Iberia” which surely would have been more economic and enjoyed larger potential sales.
I always used to recommended that British visitors to Spain should buy a copy of the “Aves de Espaňa” even if their Spanish was, like mine, very limited so, despite my minor caveats, I have no hesitation in recommending this English language version. It is a convenient and reasonably priced source of information, in English, that can only be found in a far more expensive reference book - “The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula” (also by Eduardo de Juana and the translator here Ernest Garcia). Enthusiasts, of course, will want both one for the bookshelf and one for the field. Although aimed at a novice or 'intermediate' birdwatcher, this is a superb little guide crammed with useful information which any Anglophone visitor to or resident in Spain would be foolish not to have with them. Very highly recommended
Well, if you can't plug your book on your own website where can you do so? I finally got a copy of the guide which I wrote with Dirk Hilbers late last week. As usual the Crossbill team have done a great job putting the book together and the final result looks very handsome indeed. Dutch naturalist Dirk Hilbers deserves most credit as he wrote most of the introduction, the text on plants and insects so my major contribution was to write up the text on the birdlife, history, about half the routes and savage the early "Dutch-English" drafts with my usual ferocity. I even contributed a couple photos (no prizes for guessing one was of Lesser Kestrel snapped from our terrace in Alcala de los Gazules). I also contributed one of the routes, some of the text and roughed up the text in the sister volume, imaginatively called the "Crossbill Guide to Eastern Andalucia" (issuu.com/crossbillguidesfoundation/docs/cg23_eastern_andalucia_issue).
NOTE: the Crossbill Guides are NOT simple birdwatching site guides being so much moring have a much wider remit dealing with the history (particulatly as it applies to landscapes), geology, ecology and general wildlife of the region. However, they will direct you to key birding sites, special species and inform you about what to expect.
The series seems to be a little specialist for most high street bookshops to stock asa matter of course (although you may be lucky!) but they should be able to get a copy for you. To avoid confusion with other books in the series it may be useful to quote the ISBN - 978-94-91648-09-0. If you're in the UK I'd recommend ordering the book from Wildsounds (http://www.wildsounds.com/menu/main.shtml) although be warned that as I write they've sold out and are currently waiting more stock - it proved to be more popular than they assumed. You can order directly from the Crossbill Guides website (crossbillguides.nl/bookstore/western-andalucia) which is more convenient if you're in the Netherlands (although they can post them to the UK). If you're in Spain then copies should be available from www.weboryx.com/
To see a preview of the guide online go to issuu.com/crossbillguidesfoundation/docs/cg22_western_andalucia-issue or check the photo below.
Largely thanks to being a warmer 'refugia' during the ice ages, Iberia is unique in Europe for being the home of several endemic or near-endemic birds most notably Azure-winged Magpie, Iberian Green Woodpecker and Spanish Imperial Eagle (although the latter was once found more widely). If one extends the list to include nearby North Africa then the list becomes still longer: Red-necked Nightjar, Spanish Yellow Wagtail, Black Wheatear, Thekla Lark and Western Olivaceous Warbler. Thanks to developments in DNA based taxonomy another species, Iberian Chiffchaff, has now been added to that list.
Iberian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus ibericus) belongs to a group of similar tree haunting small and largely nondescript birds that we British once called 'willow-wrens'. Whilst we've lost any colloquial name for these birds, the Spanish have retained theirs and call them all, charmingly I think, “mosquiteros” (= mosquito eaters). In many ways the most interesting of these is Mosquitero Ibérico or Iberian Chiffchaff. Given that British ornithologists regularly explored Gibraltar's hinterland from at least the 1860s onwards, despite the similarity in plumage, it seems surprising that nobody seems to have reported 'unusual' chiffchaffs in the area (esp. in the Alcornocales where they are fairly common) as the song is quite distinct. The answer seems to be that they were widely mistaken for Willow Warblers. Even the great pioneer Irby, author of the seminal 'Ornithology of the Straits of Gibraltar' (1875, enlarged edition 1895), appears to have been fooled as in his book he wrongly notes of Willow Warblers that in “the vicinity of Gibraltar they are to be found throughout the year in the Cork-wood, where they breed” and most subsequent authors appear to have followed his lead. Since Willow Warblers are, in fact, non-breeding passage migrants to the area, it seems that in the days before widely available recordings of bird song it was all too easy to mistake Iberian Chiffchaff's more musical cadences for a variant of this species rather than Chiffchaff.
The realisation that these birds were, in fact, chiffchaffs with distinctive song came surprisingly late in 1913. In that year, Captain Hubert Lynes studied them near Gibraltar (see - 'The Ibis' Vol II 1914 – http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/100092#page/370/mode/1up) and, like those before him, Lynes initially mistook the Iberian Chiffchaff's tripartite song as a local dialect, not of Chiffchaff but Willow Warbler. However, unlike others, he carefully investigated the situation. On finding a nest and collecting a specimen he realised he'd made an error and that the birds were a kind of chiffchaff. It's worth quoting Lynes' perceptive note more fully: “The only other breeding Phylloscopus (so far as we could find), was by its song, I think anyone would have agreed, a Willow-Warbler; singing males of this species shared the cork-oak glades in about equal proportion as Bonelli's. For a Willow-Warbler, true, the song was unmelodious and disjointed (“tin-potty”, if one may use such an expression), the first two notes jerked out, so that for a moment they might have been put down to an eccentric Chiffchaff, had they not invariably been followed by the four or five notes in descending scale characteristic of the Willow Warbler – in short, if it was a poor Willow-Warbler's song, it was an impossible Chiffchaff's”. He went on to relate how found a nest and eggs (which more resembled that of a Chiffchaff than a Willow Warbler) and shot the female. On examining the latter and a further six specimens he collected, he found that “with no little surprise” it possessed “all the external characters, dimensions, wing formula, emargination, etc of the typical Chiffchaff” and, although he noted the plumage was largely the same as British birds he observed that “the sulphur yellow axillaries may be a trifle brighter.” Lynes went on to note that, unlike the plumage, “the peculiarity of the song, which is constant, must have some significance” and then discussed whether the birds were resident in the area (as widely assumed) or were, in fact, migrants. It's perhaps unfortunate that Lynes seems to have collected his birds in early June when they would have been at their most worn and least likely to show their greener and yellower plumage. Had his birds shown the recognised traits of a 'good' ibericus then perhaps greater notice would have been taken of his observations. Even so, it's a little surprising that, although extensive reference was made to the Canarian race of Chiffchaff neither, he nor H F Witherby (whom he consulted) made any reference to the Iberian race of chiffchaff described over 40 years earlier. (Rear-Admiral Lynes, as he became, enjoyed a distinguished naval career retiring in 1919 after which he led several ornithological expeditions in Africa on whose birds he was an authority. Not daunted by a challenge, he wrote an important review of Cisticolas, the ultimate LBJs, for the journal “Ibis” and Lyne's Cisticola Cisticola distincta is one of over a dozen bird species and subspecies named in his honour).
As noted above, even those with access to older books specifically touching upon the birds of Spain will find that neither “Iberian Chiffchaff” nor the odd song of the form gets a mention at all. At one level the continuing omission of this form in the popular literature is not surprising since, even today, Iberian birds are regarded as doubtfully distinguishable on plumage grounds alone but at another level it's a surprise that the distinctive song and the fact that birds in much of Iberia belonged a distinct race went unmentioned for so long. That the popular ornithological literature virtually ignored these interesting birds until relatively recently is still more od a surprise as bred in such an accessible and ornithologically well-known area. Nobody seems to have followed up or to have shown overmuch interest in Captain Lynes' work (with the evident exception of Claude Ticehurst about whom see below). Although both Roger Tory Peterson and Guy Mountfort (illustrator and author respectively of the first European bird field guide) were part of the famous team that explored the Coto Donana neither their field guide nor the latter's book about the expeditions, “Portrait of a Wilderness” (1958), mention that the local chiffchaffs had a unique song. Yet a fellow member of their team (and subsequent reviser of their guide) I. J. Ferguson-Lees, later demonstrated that he clearly knew the bird's distinctive song. Not surprisingly when a bird singing like ibericus was found in London in 1972 the finder, despite being a highly regarded ornithologist, had never even heard of the distinctively different Iberian form and the bird's identity was resolved, not from any printed reference, but on playing a recording of the bird to I. J. Ferguson-Lees. Even so, the record was only accepted almost 30 years later (see - https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/article_files/V93/V93_N07/V93_N07_P329_332_A005.pdf ).
The level of confusion regarding ibericus in the textbooks and particularly the lack of illustrations is understandable given that even the latest “Collins Bird Guide” recognises that “many are impossible to identify in the field on plumage characters”. This confusion also extended to what the bird should be called scientifically. Although for simplicity and clarity I have called it ibericus, until recently most (but not all) books called it brehmii. Changing a bird's scientific name more than a hundred years after its apparent discovery is not unknown but it remains somewhat unusual. The compelling reasons for the change is explained when one looks a little deeper into the history of Iberian Chiffchaff. In 1871, Eugen Ferdinand von Homeyer (1809–1889) first described what was later assumed to be this form from specimens collected in Iberia in April which he named Phyllopneuste brehmii after the German scientist Alfred Brehm (1829-1884). The family name was later changed to “Phylloscopus” and, given their very close similarity, recognised as being only a subspecies of Chiffchaff. Hence it the birds became known as Phylloscopus colybita brehmii. Just how 'similar' to Common Chiffchaff these specimens were was only fully recognised in 2001 when a scientific paper (see - http://biostor.org/reference/111838) revealed that the birds he described were actually Common Chiffchaffs! As a result, the old name brehmii had to be dropped. This meant that the first accurate formal description of the different taxon found in Iberia was made much later in 1937 by C B Ticehurst in his A Systematic review of the genus Phylloscopus who had called them ibericus. Unlike Von Homeyer, Ticehurst described his birds as being greener above and more yellow below so even without reference to the specimens it is clear that his birds were what we now call ibericus.
Unfortunately, this new insight into chiffchaff speciation came a little late for the 'Atlas de las Aves Reproductoras de Espaňa' (2004) which was based on survey work carried out 1998 – 2002. Understandably, the failed to adequately distinguish between the two species which resulted in an overestimate of the Iberian's range (see map). Hence, at first, it was wrongly thought that pretty much all of the birds breeding in Spain and Portugal, apart from the central and eastern Pyrenees, were Iberian Chiffchaffs.
However, the situation now seems rather more complex with De Juana & Garcia ("The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula") showing Common Chiffchaff as a thinly spread breeding species across much of the northern Meseta south of the Cantabrians with a recently discovered outpost in the Sierra Nevada. Leaving aside the North African population, it now seems that Phylloscopus ibericus is found in four main areas; western Portugal, the Sierra Morena (where it's thinly scattered), the mountains of Cadiz/Malaga and the north-west (i.e. Cantabrian massif of north-west Spain and the western Pyrenees plus just over the border into south-west France). The latter population is sometimes regarded as a race, biscayensis, based on marginal differences but this is a matter of dispute. In addition, the Spanish atlas shows isolated breeding records of 'chiffchaffs' dotted across the peninsula; presumably those towards the north-east are more likely to be 'Common' and those to the west ibericus (although given the recent breeding record of the latter from Wales anything seems possible!). Where the two species meet a small number of “mixed singers”, often regarded as hybrids, may be found. A new Spanish atlas is currently in progress so it will be interesting to discover what it tells us about this previously overlook species.
The relatively recent interest in Iberian Chiffchaff owes much to the rise of DNA-based taxonomy. In the late 1990s, research suggested that the difference in the DNA of some races of Chiffchaff was as great as that between widely recognised 'full' species. This, together with differences in vocalisations, suggested that Iberian Chiffchaffs were in fact 'cryptic' species sufficiently different to be regarded as 'full' species too. Typically, birdwatchers take a lot more interest in birds they can legitimately tick! Exactly how these birds differ (if at all!) from Common Chiffchaff in plumage and structure I shall return to in a later post but the fact is that, as Irby et al discovered, they remain similar enough to be very easily confused. Vocalisations and phenology, rather than plumage, are often the best guide.
Having at last entered the 21st century by being given a Kindle Fire for Christmas, I realise that, in their original form, my notes were not very 'e-book' friendly since the font size and maps are rather too small for use with tablets. Accordingly, I've resized the text from size '10' to '14' which, although still fairly small, makes it far easier to read. Most maps have also been resized too to help clarity. I experimented with an even larger text size but the length of the book started to become unmanageable so I settled for a size 14 font asa compromise. Even so the number pages has risen from 138 to 222 which will increase costs if you intend to print off the information. Should this be a problem, I am happy to supply a version with the original smaller font size. I have also taken the opportunity to update a few minor details (but nothing significant). For a copy use the contacts page here to get in touch with me giving me your email address or do so directly via firstname.lastname@example.org.
People not infrequently ask me whether I fly, drive or, less often, take the train down to SW Spain. Another popular question is which airport is the most convenient one to use if visiting Tarifa for the raptor migration. As a result I've put together a short review of the pros and cons of the alternative ways to get down to Cadiz province and my views regarding the four airports that serve the area.
For obvious reasons flying to Spain and hiring a car on arrival is the most popular option for birders. Driving to the airport and using secure parking may seem like the best option but remember that if you're staying for longer than a week booking a taxi work out to be cheaper. Also if things go wrong and you miss your flight claiming on insurance can be easier if you've used a reputable specialist taxi firm. Such firms also often know sources of congestion and how to avoid them better than the average motorist! My preference is to get to the airport in plenty of time to enjoy a relaxed breakfast/lunch before departure. Depending on where you live going by train can be convenient too although nothing beats being picked up by your own chauffeur after a tiring late afternoon flight home!
Flights take about 2 hrs. 50 mins. but remember you have to get to the airport at least an hour in advance and that landing, taxi-ing, passport control and picking up a hire car can take 45+ minutes (and often longer at larger busier airports). My record is to be in the hire car and on the road within 25 minutes of touchdown at Jerez airport. I always book a hire car through “Do You Spain” (http://www.doyouspain.com/) who not only search out the keenest rates also act as a useful intermediary in the case of any dispute with the car hire company. Some years ago a car I'd hired from 'Firefly' broke down near La Janda and the hire company wanted me to pay the cost of a taxi to pick up a replacement at Seville (then their nearest base). As a regular customer of 'Do You Spain', they stepped in and the demand was dropped (I've heard of other such examples). They also have excellent English speaking staff.
Pros – small airport conveniently sited with good access to the Spanish motorway system
Cons – only one regular direct service from the UK (Ryanair via Stansted); limited facilities.
Aeropuerto de Jerez is one of my preferred airports into when I fly to Spain as it's only 45 minutes from my base in Alcala de los Gazules. The main drawback to flying here is that Ryanair is the only UK operator that uses the airport which can obviously be limiting. There are indirect flights via Madrid and Barcelona but this pushes up both cost and travel times. There is now a railway station serving the airport on the main Cadiz-Jerez-Seville line but services are very infrequent and, inexplicably, only by the Cadiz-Jerez shuttle. Taxis into Jerez tend to be pricey but there's also an irregular bus service. The smallness of the airport means that queues are usually shorter than at busier airports and baggage less often delayed. On the other hand it has fewer facilities (one very indifferent a restaurant, a small shop and a coffee bar landside and a small 'duty free' shop and a couple of places to eat airside). It has half a dozen or so car hire companies (e.g. Alamo, Goldcar, Enterprise, Europcar, Firefly, Goldcar, etc) some of which have booths 'airside' (as well as landside) allowing you to sort out your rental whilst you wait for your luggage. Sixt & Hertz are off-site but well served by a courtesy bus. Once you've picked up your hire car then it's only c3.5 km to the NIV/A4 which has excellent links north (via the E5) and south (via E5/A381) which means its only c90mins mainly along generally lightly used motorway class roads to Tarifa.
There's a wealth of good birding sites within 35 minutes of the airport including Mesas de Asta marsh (15 mins), Laguna de los Tollos (20 mins),Lagunas de Puerto de Santa Maria (25 mins), Laguna de Medina (25 mins) and Bonanza saltpans (35 mins) which means you can be birding not long after landing.
Pros - new airport conveniently close to migration hotspots used by Monarch (Gatwick, Luton & Manchester), Easyjet (Gatwick, Bristol & Manchester) & British Airways (Heathrow)
Cons – crossing the border can cause delays and at times long queues build up. In windy conditions flights may be diverted to Malaga. Not a good place to land for nervous fliers.
Dominated by the 'Rock' and with a runway projecting into the sea, the airport is often listed, unfairly in my view, amongst the world's most frightening. Since my wife is a nervous flier, I've not flown into Gibraltar many times although I have picked up/dropped off people there more often. The newly built airport buildings are a huge improvement on the cramped predecessor. The big drawback is the possibility that high winds (not unusual) will cause a diversion to Malaga. When this happens passengers are bussed back to Gibraltar (or, if departing, to Malaga) which often causes delays of two hours or more (c90 mins journey time plus other delays). Fewer hire car companies are based at Gibraltar (Europecar, Goldcar & Keddy) than other destinations so it may be harder to get a bargain. Even when Spanish authorities aren't being 'difficult', there may be long queues for cars leaving and entering Gibraltar (esp. at peak times). In the past at least some hire companies were based just over the border in La Linea and, since people on foot are subjected to delays much less often, walking across the border (c10 mins) to pick up your car could actually be quicker. Once you've picked up your hire car then after negotiating the single carriageway suburban roads of La Linea for c10 mins takes you to a dual carriageway (CA 34) and a few minutes later onto the coastal motorway (A7). Buses run from La Linea to Malaga, Algeciras and Cadiz which are all linked to the Spanish rail network. If you're unable to drive then you can access Tarifa via Algeciras bus station
Gibraltar itself is a well known raptor watching site although many of the small birds taken for granted on the Spanish side are very scarce indeed (e.g. Crested/Thekla Lark and wetland species). If you intend to do most of your birding in Gibraltar then it's not worth hiring a car since it can be very congested and buses/taxis/cable car will get you to most places. Apart from the Rock itself, the nearest birding sites include Palmones estuary (25 mins), Punta Secreta (35 mins), Castellar de la Frontera (35 mins), Marchinella (30 mins), Los Alcornocales (20-30 mins) and La Janda (1 hr). Tarifa is about 45 minutes from La Linea.
Pros – a medium sized with better facilites than Jerez airport conveniently sited with good access to the Spanish motorway system
Cons – more distant from main birding sites along the straits; over 2 hrs to Tarifa (2 20)
Despite considerably further from my base in Alcala de los Gazules than Aeropuerto de Jerez (90 mins vs 45), on balance, Aeropuerto San Pablo (Seville) is my preferred airport to fly into. It is served by EasyJet & Ryanair via Stansted & Gatwick. The airport itself is large enough to have decent facilities but not too large to be very crowded and busy. It is well positioned on the A4 Cordoba road so is convenient if you plan to look for Spanish Lynx in Andujar. Unfortunately, to reach the E5 which takes you south to Cadiz province you need to skirt Seville on a ring road that can be very busy and, at peak times, congested. Hopefully, once the SE 40 (to the east of the airport off the A4) connects to the N IV near Dos Hermanos the route south will be far less congested and a couple of minutes quicker. (This link has been long delayed but the earthworks for the last 7 km are now in situ). Tolls on the motorway are c8€ (one way). A regular bus service runs from the airport to the railway and bus stations in Seville which have links to most of the larger cities.
The primary reason I like flying into Seville is that, if your flight arrives fairly early in the day, it makes a detour via Osuna feasible (1 hr) on your route south. This is the best site in the area for Great Bustard and Black-bellied Sandgrouse (absent further south) and one of the best for Roller and Little Bustard. There are no good birding sites near the airport but thanks to the motorway connection if heading south a minor detours off route takes you to Laguna de Mejorada (30 mins) for Rufous Bushchat and Laguna de Tollos (70 mins) whilst a longer detour off your route takes you to the famous wetland site Brazo del Este (45 mins)
Pros – a large modern airport with excellent facilities served by all the major UK airlines with direct flights from more than a dozen UK airports and elsewhere in Europe
Cons – at peak periods there can be long queues at passport control, for hire cars, etc. Most birding sites a longish drive (c1hr 50 to Tarifa).
Being served by so many carriers (e.g. EasyJet Monarch, Ryanair, British Airways, etc) from so many regional airports (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Doncaster, Edinburgh Gatwick, Leeds, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester Newcastle, Southampton & Stansted), Malaga is the most convenient choice for many travellers despite being almost two hours from Tarifa and other prime sites. Another downside is that queues at passport control and for hire cars (esp. in peak periods) can be long and bargain flights seem harder to come by off-season when smaller airports are struggling for trade. All the major hire car companies (and several minor ones) operate out of Malaga but be warned that some of the lesser well known ones have inconvenient restrictions on car use (e.g. returning the car to them if you do in excess of acertain milage for a replacement vehicle). Being close to the toll road (AP7) means you can soon be on your way towards Tarifa and the Straits. This road is much less congested (apart from around the airport and a couple other sections) and faster than the notoriously busy (and dangerous) coastal road the A7/N 340 so the tolls (10€ one way) are money well spent. Malaga has excellent bus and rail connections to the rest of Spain.
Although most main birding sites are rather distant (with Fuente de Piedra a 50 mins drive away being one of the nearest), Malaga airport has a little gem, the Guadalhorce reserve, on its doorstep as it's less than ten minutes by car. However, the high incidence of thefts from cars makes this a risky place to visit with a car full of holiday luggage. Parking away from the immediate vicinity of the reserve near centres of activity (e.g. the school, restaurants, etc.) may help. En route (after c1hr 20 mins) you pass close to the Sierra de Utrera (Manliva) so a short detour here can be worthwhile for species difficult to see around Tarifa (e.g. Bonelli's Eagle & Black Wheatear).
Taking the train to southern Spain may be more environmentally friendly but is not a good option if time is limited as you'll need at least one stopover en route (two if you want a leisurely journey). Up front costs are also higher even before you add the expense of food and overnight stays. However if, like me, you enjoy travelling by train (always more enjoyable than flying) then it's worth doing the journey at least once. For details see the excellent Man in Seat 61 website - http://www.seat61.com/Spain.htm#London-to-Malaga-and-Seville It's a great, and very relaxed, way to get a feel for the Spanish countryside. You'll see fewer birds than when you drive but a lot more than if you fly! Although when we did the journey via Valencia and Granada I had my first ever Black-bellied Sandgrouse from the train near Osuna.
If doing the whole journey by train is a bit too much, then flying into Madrid and then taking the train south can be an attractive option. The Metro between Madrid airport and Madrid Atocha railway station takes about 35 minutes (one change). An excellent, modern fast train whisks you to Seville in 2½ hours (with Jerez another 1 hr 20 mins and Cadiz a further 20 minutes again). Fares can be surprisingly reasonable so if you get a cheap flight to Madrid it needn't be too expensive overall. I've done it once carefully scheduling for an early arrival in Madrid, a leisurely lunch at Atocha station and arrival in Seville in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, this was in summer 2009 when ETA bombings in Majorca caused huge security delays so we arrived more than two hours late but, thanks to a lunatic drive in a taxi, we got across Madrid in a record 20 minutes catching the train with minutes to spare. Hence I spent most of the journey south recovering from lugging two heavy cases through the airport!
By Car (via Channel ports or Santander/Bilbao)
I've never attempted to drive to Spain from the UK but then I'm not overfond of driving (and particularly not with the steering wheel on the 'wrong' side of the car!). Note too that, unless you intend to stay in Spain for an extended period, then flying and hiring a car is probably the cheaper option. It's about 23 hours driving time (all but two hours on motorways) from Calais to Tarifa which should cost c124€ in tolls and 220-300€ in fuel (2016 figures). The AA recommend you drive no more than 8 hours a day and take a break every three hours but remember driving on the 'wrong side' of the road can often be more tiring. Hence although some drivers do the drive in two days (with a single overnight stop), it's safer and more sensible (even with several drivers) to take at least three days with two or more overnight stops. Unless you intend to stay in Spain for an extended period then flying and hiring a car is probably cheaper.
A popular alternative is to take the car ferry to northern Spain. Brittany Ferries operate between Portsmouth (Santander & Bilbao) and Plymouth (Santander only) and take 20-24 hours. This cuts the driving time by about half (c12 hrs with c11 hrs on motorways) and the costs (2016) to about 28€ in tolls and 100-150€ in fuel (although the journey from Santander is marginally shorter and less expensive in tolls). You also have the chance of seawatching or whale watching en route. I know a few drivers who've done the drive across Spain in one go but given the comments above (and bearing in mind that few get a decent rest on a ferry) it's far safer (and more pleasant) to break the journey and stay overnight at least once. The ferry isn't cheap and the fare structure varies by season and size of car (see http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/). However, once you factor in the cost of a Channel crossing, savings in fuel and tolls and the need for fewer overnight stops then the price is competitive.
Although my approach has always been "do-it-yourself", there's no doubt that, for those unsure of their abilities, short on time or just wanting it all on a plate, using a local guide is a very good option. Not only do they offer expert help but they also have their 'finger on the pulse' and are up to speed on what's happening in a way that my notes can never hope to rival. I am sometimes asked whether I take people out for the day to which my usual answer is a) if I'm around then people are always welcome to tag along with me but b) if they want a professional guide then there are a number available that can do a much better job than an episodic visitor like me! But which guides? This is not an easy question to answer since I'm acutely aware that there are a number operating in the area that I've not met (or have done so only fairly briefly) or that I know very little about. So the list below only includes those with whom I've either spent a substantial time with (usually at least a day in the field) or that come very highly recommended by friends who have used their services. I wiII will add more recommended companies if or when I've managed to spend time with them or have had good independent feedback from friends. Several well known birding tour companies based outside Andalucia or Spain regularly run tours to the area (often employing the guides noted below) but are too many to list on full here.
At this point I should note that, unfortunately, Stephen Daly (Andalucian Guides) no longer lives in the area so is unavailable for daytrips although he still leads longer trips to the area for various tour companies. Despite this, his blog "Never Mind the Finnsticks" (http://andalucianguides.blogspot.co.uk/) continues to be very interesting reading and often has items about Spain and its birds. If your budget doesn't stretch to employing one of the guides listed (although not doing so may turn out to be a false economy!) then check whether the Andalucia Bird Society (andaluciabirdsociety.org/) is running a field trip when you're in the area. Several of the guides listed are actively involved in the society.
Inglorious Bustards (www.ingloriousbustards.com) are the newcomers on the block having recently been established by Simon Tonkin & Niki Williamson. Simon & Niki have a wealth of experience having worked for the RSPB for a number of years but what makes them stand out is that they are resident guides at Huerte Grande (see under accommodation). Huerte Grande is not only a wonderful site but the management have been keen supporters of birdwatching in the area (having organised & hosted several bird fairs). Thanks to this association Simon & Nikki can set up complete packages or just day trips based on this fantastic eco-lodge. Simon and Niki are also great supporters of the Salarte project (see www.salarte.org/ & my previous blog entry) and skilled photographers. Like other guides here, they also run trips to Morocco. Do check out their amusingly named & illustrated website.
Spanish Nature (see www.spanishnature.com). was co-founded by my good friend Peter Jones who is based near Ronda in Malaga Province. Peter is the expert's expert having been involved in a great many environmental projects and has had several works published over the years. He is also a founder of the Andalucia Bird Society. However, he wears his learning lightly thanks to his enthusiasm and passion for birds. None of this, though, is what comes first to mind since spending time with Peter is always huge fun thanks to his great sense of humour. He is also one of nicest, kindest people I know whose only flaw is to support West Ham (which may well acount for his sense of humour!). Peter can also arrange access to an excellent bird photography hide at Algaba de Ronda. He is well supported by a team of guides and is an associate member of Andalucia Wildlife Guides (www.andaluciawildlifeguides.com/) Spanish Nature organises breaks in Serrania de Ronda, Osuna, Strait of Gibraltar, Doñana and elsewhere in Andalucia plus Morocco.
'Birding the Strait' - (birdingthestrait.com) comes highly recommended by Stephen Daly and little wonder since the team includes two of the foremost birders in the area, both of whom are world class birders and fluent English speakers. Javi Elorriaga is has established a reputation for being THE man to ask about two much sought after species in the region; cirtensis Long-legged Buzzard and Ruppell's Vulture since he has written definitive papers on both. Javi has also contributed articles for the ABS magazine and helped with organising their field trips. Yeray is similarly talented although as a partner in Whitehawk Birding (http://whitehawkbirding.com) he also leads trips to South American and elsewhere. Both are talented photographers. As the name suggests Birding the Strait specialise in tours in the straits (both Spain and Morocco) and can organise seawatching from the otherwise closed Isla de las Palomas at the southernmost tip of Iberia. See also Tarifa Bird Tours http://tarifabirdingtours.com/ & https://www.facebook.com/javi.elorriaga). Despite their stellar talents, they're both great company and patient tutors.
Andalusian Birding Holidays (http://andalusianbirdingholidays.com/en/) - I count it a very lucky day when I bumped into LuisMi Garrido Padillo on the shores of Embalse de Barbate near Alcala de los Gazules where he was working on the successful project to re-introduce Osprey to the area. Since then he has become a good personal friend so I'm biased but he's one of the most affable and amusing companions with whom you could wish to spend a day in the field. A native of the province, LuisMi speaks good English and his company specialises in walking local senderos, (seneros) birdwatching and, particularly, bird photography (specially provided hides are available). He is also an expert on Chameleons. (NB - as I write this blog LuisMi's link does not seem to be working so send me a message if you want to contact him)
Aviantours - (http://www.aviantours.net/) Andrew Fortuna who runs Aviantours is based in Gibraltar and offers birdwatching tours, nature walks in Gibraltar, Spain & Morocco. His particular specialism is bird photography (inc.digiscoping) and his photography work-shops come highly recommended. We've regularly corresponded for some years but kept missing one another in the field. Hence I was delighted to finally catch up with him at the UK Bird Fair in 2016 where he helped to man the Gibraltar stand.
Birdaytrip Tours – see www.birdaytrip.es Luis Alberto Rodriguez is a keen supporter of the Andalucia Bird Society for whom he often leads walks in his 'patch' (which includes well known sites like the. Guadalhorce & Montes de Malaga). I've been delighted to meet him of several ABS jaunts and am pleased to count him as a friend. Luis Alberto is based in Malaga area so makes an ideal guide if you're visiting the Costa del Sol. However, his trips are not limited to that area and he regularly visits the Osuna area and the straits. Luis Alberto speaks good English, knows the area well and has gained an enviably high reputation as a guide to the area amongst ex-pat birdwatchers and visitors alike.
As a matter of policy, I make my notes free to all as my principal motivation has been to publicise just what a fantastic area Cadiz province is for birding. It's so good I'd simply feel guilty if I kept the 'secret' to myself! Previously, I have suggested that those who feel inclined make a donation to a charity of their choice. Although I remain happy for people to donate to charities of their choice, my preferred option is the Salarte project see www.salarte.org. You can read further about this excellent initiative at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/156f0a76ed9c2856?projector=1. It's a small charity but one which 'punches above its weight' and needs all the funds it can get. So if you do use my notes or quarry any useful information from my meanderings here, please consider supporting this unique project whose aims combine both my love of birds, social history and the people of Cadiz province.
To gain some idea about this initiative please look at the slides below (the second of which gives details of the project's bank account to which donations may be made). Further details can be found via the links above.
It sometimes seems like female/juvenile Lesser Kestrels and Common Kestrels were "created"* with no other purpose than test our identification skills but at least adult males are, on a decent view, not too difficult to distinguish from one another. What fewer people seem to be aware of is the tricky identification pitfall presented by first summer males.
* Actually that may not be too far from the truth as some scientists believe that Lesser Kestrel, which isn't as close a relation of Common Kestrel as its appearance suggests, has evolved to mimic Common Kestrel and even more so Rock Kestrel, an African species found where Lessers winter, which are both larger and more aggressive thus affording the smaller species' some measure of protection!
After watching adult males for a while it becomes distinctly less difficult to pick them out thanks to their plain bluish-grey hoods, lack of dark moustache, whitish underwings and particularly their grey upper wing panel. Sometimes, though, these features can prove to be 'false friends' since they lull you into a false sense of security and mean you could be missing first summer males. These birds not only fail to show most of the clear cut identification features of an adult male but, worse, can mimic to some degree the features associated with a male Common Kestrel.
Fortunately, though, most young males (of both species) have a distinctive tail which should alert you to the fact that you're dealing with a potentially difficult identification. Whilst all juveniles start off with a barred brown and black tail (like a female) by the time the young males return in the spring, the central feathers are grey and black tipped (like an adult's) and the outer feathers a very worn and bleached brown and black. This feature should warn you that you're looking at a tricky first summer birds (although later in the season they may have a fully adult tail). The problem is that such birds entirely lack an adult male's tell-tale grey band on the upperwing so that if you're relying on this feature you can be misled. If you then check the bird's identity by looking for the male's plain bluish-grey “clean shaven' head then you can still be thrown. Males at this age not only may have their powder blue-grey heads sullied with brown giving them more the colour of Common at a distance. Not only that but they can also show a Common's dark moustache and paler cheeks! This is compounded by their tending to have more dark makings on the chest and underwing than adult males. Put all of these together and it's easy to see why, at a glance, you might identify one as a Common Kestrel.
So how can you tell them apart?
Happily, when perched, first summer has the Lesser's typical dumpier, more round headed shape with wings that approach the tip of the tail (see Fig 1). At times this can look obvious but at other times it's not so easy to detect particularly if you're unfamiliar with the species. Then there's also the distinct wing formulae with Lesser having a far longer outermost primary (P10) although that's best seen in photos of flying birds (see Fig 2)
Leaving aside structure, then the best indicator is that the birds have at least moulted their back (i.e. mantle) which are plain and unmarked. Also although streaked below the markings are still fewer than on a Common Kestrels and more round in shape whist the ground colour tends to be warmer. Similarly the underwing, although more marked than most adult males, are still noticeably paler and whitish (particularly the 'hand').Other features to look for on perched birds are the famous white claws and Lesser's more dumpy appearance and wings that reach further towards the tail tip. In photo of flying birds, of course, the distinctive difference in wing formulae can be seen.
So if we may be missing the odd first summer male, how else are we missing them? Well, many people still fail to appreciate that some Lesser Kestrels don't migrate but remain in Spain during the winter months. If you're not looking for something, they're easier to miss! As a general rule most Lesser Kestrels leave southern Spain in August - September (with a peak at the end of the latter month) with a few lingering into October. Although in spring most appear to arrive in the second half of March, in Alcala de Los Gazules I've had evening flocks 60-70 or more by mid-February and friends report influxes as early as January. Although the picture is muddied by late departures and early arrivals, some birds don't seem to leave at all. Exactly how many remain remains a matter of debate.
The Spanish winter bird atlas shows concentrations of wintering birds along the Guadalquivir particularly in its lower reaches, east of Seville and around Cordoba plus several other areas. Both my own experience and that reported in the atlas suggests that birds are generally seen when they return every night to a traditional colony site or when they leave every morning. The atlas also quotes a study (Negro, Riva & Bustamante: Patterns of winter distribution and abundance of Lesser Kestrels in Spain. Journal of Raptor Research, 1991: 25: 30-35) that discovered that wintering birds were found in 66% of the colonies checked and that the authors concluded that in Andalucia 19% of the species is sedentary, a surprisingly high figure. Interestingly, although the atlas doesn't show Alcala de los Gazules as a wintering site in my limited experience a few birds do actually remain around the village in winter albeit no more than a than a dozen or so. Most of the birds I've seen have been adult males but in rather smaller numbers than reported by Negro et al., being between 5-10% of the numbers I see in the breeding season. However, from this I suspect that wintering birds are a little more widespread than the atlas shows. Even if the estimate that 19% stay is a little high, my much lower 'guestimate' of 5 - 10% suggests that well over 1,000 birds might be there to be found!
So if you're in Andalucia in winter remember that Lesser Kestrels return earlier than you might think and don't give up on seeing Lesser Kestrel even in mid-winter. So double check those kestrels you see out hunting in November-January and try to visit a lowland village with a thriving summer population just before dusk.
This is a much shortened and amended version of a short article on Lesser Kestrels due to be published in the magazine of the Andalucian Bird Society's quarterly magazine in autumn 2016 (see - www.andaluciabirdsociety.org/)
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks at Secondary School. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired now spend as much time as in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.