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.
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/)
What's in a name? Well, quite a lot actually! Manuel Palomero, who kindly alerted me the plans for these nine lagunas by sharing an article (see below) on Facebook, reminds me that the tag 'Lagunas de Lantejuela' is something of a misnomer. Despite the 'official name' being 'Complejo Endorreico de Lantejuela' and the one that appears in various documents and on maps, only one of the lagunas (Gobierno) is actually within the municipality of Lantejuela! Whilst it's true that all of the lagunas are strung out to the east of that village, none of the remaining eight lagunas are within that municipality; six are part of Osuna, one in Ecija and one in El Rubio. Logically, they could equally well (or even better) be called the 'Lagunas de Osuna' and some refer to the area as part of the 'Osuna Triangle'. However, since this is how they are widely known I'll refer to them by their usual title whilst flagging up this administrative complication (a more 'neutral' name for the area would be welcome!). It obviously makes sense to treat the area as one unit, so this split responsibility must complicate things and that's even before you consider competing local interests (military, transport, farming, hydrology, etc). So it's a delicate waters for a foreigner, and one with lousy Spanish at that, to dip his toe and, to mix metaphors, I apologise in advance for treading on anyone else's!
'According to a recently published article* a hundred tourists visit the Lagunas de Lantejuela a month which may seem a lot until you realise that it's only just over three a day. Moves to improve the facilities have been in progress for some time although the evidence on the ground, beyond a few notice boards, is somewhat thin. According to Juan Lora, the Mayor of Lantejuela, the Ministry of Environment is working on a draft plan involving a 'six-year action plan' involving research, conservation and tourism which is to be presented on 7th September. It is certainly very encouraging that this niche market has been recognised and that the authorities are looking at how birdwatchers and others can be encouraged to visit this much neglected area. All those involved in this project deserve commendation and praise. *See http://www.andaluciacentro.com/sevilla/osuna/lantejuela/6355/la-junta-trabaja-contra-reloj-para-tener-el-proyecto-de-la-reserva-de-lantejuela-el-7-de-septiembre)
One proposal is the expand the observatory (presumably at Laguna del Gobierno) and constructing more hides at the edge of lagoons (although it's not clear which ones). There are also plans to improve access (on foot and by cycle) to the restored Laguna de Ruiz Sánchez. This huge shallow lagoon is one of the largest in Andalucia (vying with Laguna de Tollos in Cadiz province for the second place after Laguna de Fuente de Piedra). It has the potential, if fully realised, to be one of the top birding destinations in the area.
As already noted this emphasis on 'eco-tourism' is to be welcomed but, whilst this is undoubtedly good news, previous experience inclines me to caution. Despite the best intentions, all too often, the reality has been unmanned and underused facilities which have often been designed with a bureaucrat's understanding of the needs of birding tourists. Now I rather doubt anyone with the slightest influence in this matter will ever look at this blog but in case they do so here are a few suggestions and comments (although as I've not been there for over 18 months some issues may now have been tackled).
a) Laguna del Gobierno is particularly important as, being fed by a water plant, it's one of the few lakes in the area that never dries up. Hence it's already a great site and one with paths and hides but it is seemingly always locked up like Fort Knox without any suggestions or information about how a visiting eco-tourist can actually visit the place. At the moment visitors are obliged to peer round the permanently locked hide through the roadside bushes and across the reeds to see the birds. If they're lucky and there's access to the flat roof of a large building (the 'observatory'?) just inside the outer gates. This gives a good, if distant, view across the reserve but this can be more frustrating than helpful since it allows the would-be visitor to more fully understand what it is they're missing!. It seems that the focus here is more on educating local children which, of course is great, but there's little point in promoting birdwatching/eco-tourism if you keep reserves locked up, fail to advertise when they're open or allow entry only for pre-booked groups.
b) Ornithological Route – it wasn't clear to me if this is supposed to be walked or driven but when I drove it I found it poorly signposted and sections in poor repair. A pity as it's a nice route.
c) Laguna de Ballestera – the track leading to the back of the reserve is terrific and much appreciated. Just what is needed. Good to find the signposting off the nearby road has been improved although when I visited the few ancient signs telling visitors it was a "military zone" were a little worrying! A hide here like the one at Campillos (see below) would be wonderful. Signs from here to Laguna de Pedro Lopez could be better as after a few hundred metres you reach a T-junction with no indication which way to go. Still this is a great start and something that can be developed with advantage.
d) Laguna de la Turquillas – please provide somewhere safe off road to park! A path or boardwalk and a raised hide would be good too. Some sources seem to suggest there's a path from here to Lagunas de Calderon – if so it needs way marking.
e) Lagunas de Calderon – it's very frustrating to see a large car park, benches and even a path here all securely locked up behind a large white gate. It's very worrying when, having parked inside the gates on seeing them open, you discover as you leave that the gate has a daunting sign reading 'Zona Militar -Prohibido el Passo'! There's no information board either which could indicate whether the track and car park are ever open to the public or where you can make enquires. This is a shame as with relatively little, inexpensive work this could site could be transformed. Once again it's a site that begs for the "Campillos treatment". Currently it's impossible to safely park off the main road so it would be wonderful if a permanently open viewpoint could be established affording views across both lakes.
f) Laguna de Ruiz Sánchez – huge credit is due to those involved for restoring this laguna. Whenever I've passed by that way it's been alive with birds. It's very good to hear that a 17 km greenway is planned here. Visiting birdwatchers would also appreciate a few signs and somewhere to park and, of course, some of those hides!
g) Hides are great but they are expensive and you can build more screens for the same price – birders are hardy types and can cope with a little rain, besides if you provide car parks they can shelter in their cars! Also if man power is a problem and they have to be locked, then they're not much use. Birdwatchers don't stick to office hours! In contrast, screens are always open to visitors. A tremendous example of a well screened hide which is open to the can be found at Laguna Dulce Campillos, Malaga.
It'll be interesting to see how this site develops as it's certainly got great potential. It's never going to be another Fuente de Piedra but being located near one of the best areas for steppe birds in Seville Province (Osuna) it has a lot going for it. Certainly, those arriving via Seville or Jerez airport to see the raptor migration across the Straits might be tempted to divert to this attractive site (particularly in spring) if it was better known. Since English is in many ways the 'lingua franca' of birdwatching some signs, pamphlets or information on the web in that language would be very helpful indeed. As I wrote this I was acutely aware of my lack of knowledge about the local situation and I do not mean to disparage the great efforts of those working locally but I hope that the view of an extranjero birdwatcher who loves and wishes to promote birding in Spain may prove usefully provocative!
Britain's Birds by Hume, Still, Swash Harrop & Tipling Publisher - WILDGuides ISBN 978-0-691-15889-1 £19.95 (widely discounted) c600 species 3,200 photos 560 pages
As this is a blog about the birds of Cadiz province it may reasonably be asked whether a review of a book about Britain's birds is a suitable subject. Rather surprisingly this book only omits about twenty-five species found in Spain but not in the UK (e.g sandgrouse, various raptors, Azure-winged Magpie, etc). Even those “Spanish/Mediterranean” birds recorded in Britain only as rarities (e.g. Little Bustard, Spanish Sparrow, etc) get surprisingly full treatment (for an example of this see the final photo at the end of this review). Hence for many groups (particularly perhaps seabirds, waders, ducks, skuas and gulls) this book remains a very valuable ID guide when in Iberia even if it has no information on occurrence or distribution in Spain. Well, that's the excuse over and done with, the real reason is that I love writing about good generously illustrated bird books!
Over the last few decades, an unwritten rule seems to have developed that the more 'serious' the field or identification guide, the greater the area it attempts to cover and the more likely it is to be illustrated by good quality artwork rather than photographs. So the announcement of a new photo-guide exclusively on British birds hardly raised expectations given the plethora of similar guides, generally of an indifferent quality, that have been published over the years. Yet both the name of the publisher, WildGuides, and the team involved hinted that something more revolutionary might be on the way. Yet I doubt that many will have anticipated just how revolutionary and cutting edge a book was about to be published. It should be noted that the resulting book is no field guide but rather a somewhat bulky small handbook (21.5 cm tall x 16cm wide x 3.5cms thick). Irritatingly, had it been just 2 cm narrower it would have just slipped into a 'standard' pocket of a Barbour-type jacket (although the top may have peeked out and, at just under 1200g, it would have strained the stitching). Accordingly, it's a book for a small rucksack or to be left in the glove-box.
The thing that most struck me about the book when I flicked through it, apart from the bulk, is how superbly thought through and carefully designed it has been. The front book flap has a useful aide memoire for the maps and codes used in the text and the rear flap a good short index. Flicking past the commendably short introduction takes you to a six-page “photo-index” to the various types of birds that will be a boon to the less expert. Another huge advantage is that the increasingly less than functional taxonomic order has been abandoned for an intuitive order that is not only easier to negotiate but also makes a comparison with similar species more straight forward. Before any purists have an attack of the vapours, it should be noted that the bird list in the back (neatly also serving as a guide to protected status) is in taxonomic order. This is a sensible compromise that all field guides should follow.
Once past those necessary but less exciting explanatory pages you arrive at the meat of the book; the species accounts. Birds are marshalled into thirty groups (e.g. Wildfowl, Seabirds, Waders, Aerial Feeders) each one of which has an instructive introduction. These vary from one to four pages (apart from the bustards which are reduced to a short paragraph) and outline vital factors such as ageing, moult and so on. All of the commoner 'core' species have at least a single full page illustrating and describing all the expected plumages and variations. Some highly variable species (e.g. Iceland Gull & Snow Bunting) or a group of similar birds (e.g. Redpoll) have two or three pages. Where flight identification is important (e.g. ducks & raptors) there are excellent comparative plates. Remarkably, the skuas are covered in no less than nine pages and an astonishing c60 images (c10 more images than in the Collins Bird Guide although the latter has a far more detailed text) - see below. All of these are masterly done. Less common species (e.g Barred Warbler) are generally allotted half a page or sometimes less (e.g. rare 'chats' and warblers are three or four to a page and American landbirds squeezed into six to a page).
One of the things that mark this guide out as something special is the comprehensive nature of the species depicted and the exhaustive number of races and plumage variations illustrated. I know of no other book that depicts all of the UK's races of Wren. Remarkably, it covers all UK and Irish species recorded up until March 2016. All plumages one is likely to see in the UK are covered (although adult male Pallid Harrier and juvenile Corn Bunting are missing). As indicated above this means species are depicted by an impressive number of images (few have less than four and many a dozen or so with gulls, terns, and raptors being particularly generously treated). A quick calculation suggested an average of c8.5 photos per species which is impressive particularly as a direct comparison with the artiost-illustrated Collins Bird Guide (Svensson et al, not to be confused with Collins BTO Guide to British Birds) showed a lower average (c7.5). Amongst photographic guides only Crossley's guides (see crossleybooks.com/) have a similarly generous number of photos. Another big plus is that the images are larger than you might expect (the main ones being more than twice the size of those found in most field guides). The overall quality of the photographs is high which is, perhaps, only what one should expect these days. What is most impressive, although it may not be so obvious, is the great technical achievement of seamlessly incorporating multiple images into a convincing single plate. Equally impressive is how similar species are shown in similar poses despite multiple images. Photos also seem to have been selected so that on every plate the light source is consistent, helping the sense of unity and conformity giving the impression that somehow all the images were taken at the same time! Sourcing and matching these must have been hugely time-consuming. Until the advent and increasing popularity of digital photography, it's doubtful that a book like this could have been produced. All this technical wizardry has produced one of the very few photographic guides that can bear comparison with one using good artwork (see sample plates below).
The descriptive text is very condensed, sometimes a little too telegrammatic, although it is helped by the judicious use of bold text, occasional use of coloured fonts and, where needed, annotations next to the photographic images. At times I felt that this brevity fell a little short and was less successful in painting a word picture' of the species than the descriptions in the Collins Bird Guide. However, any short comings were often handsomely made up for by additional comparative plates (e.g. Yellow-legged & Caspian Gull). This refreshingly flexible approach is also reflected by the frequent presentation of 'key features' on tricky identification groups in tabular form. Treatment of vocalisations can be a little sketchy at times (although more than adequate for the most part). However, Rob Hume deserves huge credit for going back to basics and describing all vocalisations afresh rather than depending on well worn and familiar renditions. Notes on habitat are even more limited. Rather surprisingly there isn't a diagram showing bird topography strategically placed inside the back cover or in the introduction. Instead, there are a number of 'feather maps' within the introductions to the various groups of birds. In some ways this makes a lot of sense but I think a generic version placed where it could easily be found would have been useful as it would have come readily to hand.
That I have repeatedly compared this book to the all-conquering Collins Bird Guide is significant and that it comes through the comparison not only relatively unscathed but with it's status as a high-quality guide enhanced is remarkable. In this context, it's a huge disappointment to find such a technically brilliant book that has been so carefully designed and thought through has stumbled so badly when it comes to its maps. My local knowledge of Kent's birdlife alerted me to this problem and comparing the distribution maps to those in the recent BTO “Bird Atlas” or their recent Collins BTO Guide to British Birds (an otherwise inferior book) confirms it: too many maps have errors. The comparison with the BTO Guide is an interesting one. Both are new photographic guides which make similar claims to show all plumages and primarily aspire to be ID guides. The BTO guide, though, is in two volumes (common and rarer birds) which are individually eminently pocketable although I doubt anyone will take both into the field. The BTO book has over 30 pages of introduction, Britain's Birds, less than ten. The ID descriptions in the first are in 'proper' sentences without any highlighting of key features and are supplemented by rather fewer annotations on the plates. In contrast, the text in Britain's Birds reads more like a telegram but, thanks to careful use of highlighting, gets the point over much more effectively and is much better supported by annotations and, where needed, the use of tabulated information. Thanks to Britain's Birds greater size and bulk, it also has roughly twice as many images and of a larger size. Despite being one of the better photoguides, the BTO guide is very conventional and has not been so well designed, small size apart, with functionality in mind (note that birds are in taxonomic order). However, it is much superior in one important respect; the maps. Despite being significantly smaller than those in Britain's Birds, the maps in the BTO guide are more accurate and also more effective in showing not only the breeding/winter distribution but also relative frequency in those seasons (the photo here doesn't do it justice). In contrast, the maps in Britain's Birds are more generalised and, more importantly, too often simply wrong (check Marsh Harrier and Corn Bunting for example). In addition the BTO guide has a neat 'calendar wheel' showing seasonal abundance which the rival guide could usefully have employed (and arguably could include song/breeding periods with a little ingenuity). However, like most small maps those in neither guide cope well with showing small or isolated populations.
Despite the growing landslide of popular guides on birds, all claiming to be 'the last word', it's very unusual to find one that largely matches, let alone often exceeds, the promise of its publicity. Lars Jonsson's Birds of Europe was one such, the Collins Guide was another and Peter Hayman's unfairly neglected Birdwatcher's Pocket Guide to Britain and Europe a third but until now I would have struggled to think of a fourth candidate to rank alongside them. It may be a little ironic that a book clearly designed to be used in the field is arguably too large to be practical but the overall quality is so outstanding this hardly seems to matter. Despite minor caveats (asee also below), this book effortlessly slips into the same category. It raises the art of the photoguide to a new level. It is no mere regurgitation of familiar information or approaches but a fresh revolutionary look at how to present information on the identification of birds. Few books manage the difficult trick of being equally useful to the beginner (cf the photo index) and the more expert (cf treatment of scoters and subspecies) but this is certainly one. The biggest annoyance, though, is to be denied this level of utility and depth of information when travelling abroad. A sister guide shorn of the most extreme rarities to make room for 'European only' species would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf. Even so, no British birder should be without it and sensible birders across the Channel, including those in Spain, will want a copy too.
STOP PRESS - talking to the publisher at the UK Bird Fair it seems that, as hoped, a European version is 'in the pipeline' although no details are available. Unfortunately, it also seems that there are more factual mistakes in the book than just the maps. Sharper eyes than mine have noticed, for example, that Audouin's Gull juvenile (p139) is probably juv Yellow-legged Gull, that the head of a Juv. Little Ringed Plover (p182) is actually a Ringed Plover, the first winter "Common" Sandpiper is a Spotted, the first winter Richard's Pipit (p360) is a Tawny Pipit and the juvenile Serin (p485) is a juvenile Citril Finch. Some on social media claim about 50-60 wrongly captioned birds (mainly the wrong plumage/sex rather than the wrong species). There's even been talk that the publisher should recall the book but I think this a rather precious over-reaction which fails to recognise the book's many strengths. Yes, it's disappointing that any errors have slipped through but with 3,000+ photos this has to be seen in proportion and the book remains both highly functional and very useful. As the publisher has been made aware of these problems, new editions (inc. the promised European version) should be even better.
It's been rightly observed that whereas birders look up, herpetologists look down which probably explains why I've seen so few reptiles and amphibians in Cadiz Province. Such ignorance may be understandable in a birdwatcher but it's still inexcusable and even more so in someone who, as an editor of the Crossbill nature guides, ought to know better. Hence when my friend Richard Hills, whose son Lawrie is an expert herpetologist, wanted to visit our house in Alcala de los Gazules with his son I jumped at the chance to learn more about the reptiles of the area. This proved a wise decision as Lawrie's feedback has given me a much better grasp of the topic – something that will prove useful as I edit the forthcoming new two volume Crossbill Guide to Andalucia. This note isn't meant to be an exhaustive review (and not all potential species are mentioned) but I hope it will give visitors a firmer idea of what it's possible to see in the area over a week or two.
It was no surprise nor a matter of envy that Lawrie found Common Toad (Bufo bufo) in the Molinos valley. However, I'm less sanguine about the fact that he also found the rather handsome Southern Marbled Newt (Triturus pygmaeus) in Alcala itself! (36.520532-5.652304). En route through Spain he also found the highly aquatic Iberian Sharp-ribbed Newt (Pleurodeles waltl) which is also found in the province. This declining species has a row of turbercles (see photo) along its flanks through which poisoned ribs can project as a defence against predators. Fortunately the poison is harmless to humans. Of the frog tribe I've seen what I took to be Iberian Parsley Frog (Pelodytes iberius) but Stripeless Tree Frog (Hyla meridonalis) eludes me although I've managed to hear them several times. A number of other amphibians occur but I've not recorded any of them.
Lawrie's first discovery on his visit – a juvenile Horseshoe-whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) - was also the most embarrassing for me since he spotted it, a species I've not seen, basking on a stone wall only fifty yards from our house!
Rubbing salt into the wound he not only used an old hat of mine I'd left in the house to catch it but went on to discover three more at a regular haunt of mine, La Janda (36.248878-5.835323; 36.24897 -5.83526 and 36.24921 -5.83508).
To be honest I'm not entirely sure I could identify a False Smooth Snake (Macroprotodon brevis) even if I was able to find one – an unlikely eventuality since despite living near the New Forest for the first two decades of my life I've only once seen its relative, the Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) which has its in the UK stronghold there! Looking down as he evidently does, Lawrie managed to find three two at Bolonia and one at Barbate Dam ((36.101443, -5.791708;36.074246, -5.752185 and 36.368442, -5.741063).
One of Lawrie's most wanted targets was Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) which at least I'd already seen although given my rudimentary snake identification skills my record might well be doubtful! Lawrie not only managed to find one in Extremadura on his way south but also one from the same site as my claim, Algaida woods, with another at Barbate dam (plus a dead specimen on La Janda). Then again looking at his photos I suspect the snake I found and was told was this species was probably a large adult Ladder Snake
Having established that I know less than I should about snakes, at least I do know that Ladder Snake (Rhinechis scalaris) gets its name from its markings.
Naturally Lawrie not only found them with ease at Embalse de Barbate, Barbate dam & La Janda (36.411624-5.740734 and36.41162, -5.74073) but also got a terrific photo of a juvenile showing the distinctive markings that give the species its name.
Such is the depth of my herpetological ignorance that I'm not sure I fully realised that Spanish Grass-snake (Natrix natrix astreptophora) was a different subspecies until I read Lawrie's notes. He found one at that unsuspected reptile hotspot of La Janda. It seems that here, Bolonia and Embalse de Barbate should be the focus in future for this herpetological novice. On previous visits I've seen Viperine Snake (Natrix maura) several times in the Alcornocales and Lawrie got a number of photos of the species. Like the Grass Snake it too is very aquatic in its habits.
Lawrie didn't manage to see all the snakes of the area although he did pretty well but I can't resist adding a photo of one missed - Lataste's Viper (Vipera latasti). I've seen a single young juvenile in the Molinos valley. It was a very small and somewhat sluggish which may be explained by the white spot on the head which seemed to be a wound or perhaps some sort of fungal growth.
Geckos are probably the easiest reptiles to see in Spain since they tend to find you rather than vice versa. Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauriticana) is the commonest and has the habit of waiting inside street lamps outside our house for the insects to come to them. In contrast I've never found Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) very easy to locate. Although not so widespread another reptile that is usually hard to miss in the right locations is Spanish Terrapin (Mauremys leprosa). Like Lawrie I've had them at the small pools at Algaida/Bonanza and Rota Botanical Garden, but also at various other sites although I can't be sure some weren't European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis). I'm also pretty sure I've seen the introduced Red-eared Terrapin (Trachemys scripta) somewhere but wherever it was I didn't make a note of it although the Spanish reptile & amphibian atlas shows that they're present in several areas in the province.
Jardin Botanico Celestino Mutis in Rota is, of course, the site in the area for Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) where the chief gardener, Andrea, has probably helped hundreds of visitors to see 'her' Chameleons. Unfortunately, I'm told she has or is about to retire - she will be greatly missed by visiting naturalists. Let's hope that her replacement also values these curious animals; I suspect they'll have little option as Andrea will make sure they will!
They're also found in the pines that cloak the dunes at Rota and at Algaida, Barbate and elsewhere but are never easy to find. One tip, I'm told, is to view from a low level so that you see the silhouette rather than be confused by their cryptic camouflage.
Of the lizards the one you're most likely to see even if you're not really looking is Occelated Lizard (Timon lepidus) as they're bright green very large and not infrequently scuttle across the road on hot sunny days. I've seen them in many areas in the province although they seem to have a liking for unimproved a and often fairly rugged areas. Lawrie had them at two sites where I've found them relatively common - two at Bolonia and three at Barbate dam. However, unlike Lawrie, I've never managed to get a decent shot of one. They're usually a much brighter green than the individual shown here whose dullness is probably because it is about to shed its skin.
As Lawrie confirmed, Spiny-footed Lizard (Acanthodactylus erythrurus) has a particular liking for light sandy soils and, like him, I've always found them particularly common in the Algaida area although I've seen them at a number of coastal sites. I find them strikingly handsome little beasts and not too difficult to photograph.
Iberian Wall Lizard (Podarcis hispanica) is another frequently seen reptile although Lawrie's visit made me appreciate just how much they prefer rocky areas and walls and just how common they are in the area. Unlike him I've never managed to get a decent photo!
Psammodromus lizards are one of relatively few animals where the common and scientific names are the same. The name comes from Greek άμμο δρομέας meaning 'sand racer' which is also their alternative (and more pronounceable name). As suggested by the name they prefer sandy soils and run like the clappers which is why I've never got a decent photo of any of them. I suppose too that the plural should be Psammodromi! Lawrie found Large Psammodromus (Psammodromus algirus) to be common in the Molinos valley and Algaida woods which is somewhat embarrassing as I don't think I've identified more than a couple of them even though the valley is on my doorstep. I've also seen a few Spanish Psammodromus (Psammodromus hispanicus) in the province (which Lawrie found en route through Spain). Like birds, lizard taxonomy is in a state of flux and the Spanish Psammodromus has recently (2012) been split into three – two subspecies and a new full species. As a result the animals in Cadiz are now recognised by some as the Western Psammodromus (Psammodromus occidentalis).
Skinks are extraordinary reptiles stranded, in form at least, somewhere between lizards and snakes. Slow Worms (Anguis fragilis), which in Iberia are restricted to the north, are famously limbless lizards and skinks are lizards that haven't quite progressed so far. They still have limbs but they're pretty useless, feeble appendages. Bedriaga's Skink (Chalcides bedriagai) is an Iberian endemic and I've seen a single freshly dead example in the Alcornocales along the sendero Valdeiniferno - (found by Dirk Hilbers). Lawrie found the more widespread Western Three-toed Skink (Chalcides striatus) at Bolonia.
I've left the greatest embarrassment to last. Even more curious than the skinks is the extraordinary limbless and sightless Iberian Worm Lizard (Blanus cinereus). As its name implies this peculiar lizard bears a remarkable resemblance to a large over sized worm. I'd been told that this subterranean species was extremely difficult to find. So it was with great astonishment that I learnt that Lawrie had not only found six of them but also that four of them had been found around Alcala de los Gazules and the other two at Bonanza pools and Barbate (36.350219 -5.750026)
My rather lacklustre attempts to see and identify reptiles and amphibians in the area haven't been helped by the absence of a decent field guide to the group. At home I use a copy of “Reptiles and Amphibians in Colour” by Hans Hvass but, being over forty years old and with rather limited illustrations, it's far from ideal. In a burst of enthusiasm in 2009 I got a copy of a new photoguide to the group “New Holland Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Europe" by Axel Kwet. It's a handy little book but I'm no fan of photoguides and coverage isn't comprehensive. I've been meaning to get the obvious choice, “Collins Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe” (Arnold & Ovenden) for decades but as the list price has always been a bit steep (currently £29.95) I'd always hoped to get one second-hand. However, not having been comprehensively revised for well over a decade it's now dated and its taxonomy very much out of date. Fortunately, the cavalry is on its way in the form of a new Bloomsbury (Helm) book a “Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe” by Jeroen Speybroeck et al and illustrated by Ilian Velikov which should be published in July (c£20). It promises an up-to-date taxonomy, including all the recent splits and discoveries, and appears to be beautifully illustrated. Hopefully, this book will help me to hone my identification skills. One other resource needs to be mentioned – the online version of Atlas y Libro Rojo de Anfibios y Reptiles de Espaňa - is a wonderful resource – see http://www.magrama.gob.es/es/biodiversidad/temas/inventarios-nacionales/inventario-especies-terrestres/inventario-nacional-de-biodiversidad/ieet_anfib_reptl_LR_indice.aspx
Many thanks once again to Lawrie Hills both for those of his photos that adorn this blog post and his expert input in improving my understanding of the local herpeto-fauna of Cadiz province. Thanks too to Lawrie's parents Richard & Cathy Hills for giving our little house in Alcala the good airing it so needed!
Review: Aves de Espaňa” - Third Edition - de Juana & Juan M Varela Pub - Lynx (April 2016) ISBN-13: 978-84-941892-8-9 Price: 20 €
This is the third edition of the “Aves de Espaňa” written by Eduardo de Juana and illustrated by Juan M Varela who, with justification, is often called “Spain's Lars Jonsson”. Given this epithet, it's no surprise to find that the illustrations are superb so good indeed that Lars Jonsson could equally well be called the “Sweden's Juan M Varela”! Originally published in 2000, a second edition with revised text, maps and plates appeared in 2005. This, the latest edition, has continued this process although, with one major exception, it does not seem to have been such a wide ranging up-date. Despite the obvious disadvantage for Anglophones of having texts in Spanish (although all birds are also indexed and labelled with their English names) the maps are far more useful than those given in standard field guides. With basic Spanish you can also get a grasp of distribution and population even if identification details elude you (although see below).
New illustrations have been provided for a numbers of species (inc. male Capercaillie, Cory's Shearwater, 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, Dipper, Blackbird, Blue Rockthrush and Snowfinch). Newly illustrated species have been added in the main text (inc. Egyptian Goose, Mandarin, Lesser Flamingo and Red-billed Leiothrix), but surprisingly coverage of Ruppell's Vulture and Pallid Harrier, both increasingly reported, hasn't been significantly enlarged. Bald Ibis and Western Reef Heron have been promoted from the appendix to the main text as have a handful of North African species (originally treated in a section coving the birds found in the Spanish enclave of Cueta. Perhaps significantly Ruddy Duck has been banished altogether and the illustration of Barbary Falcon (now treated as a subspecies of Peregrine has gone AWOL. The general standard of illustrations was already high and these amendments nudge it further towards the Olympian. Oddly, though, one of the very few poor illustrations in the original, that of Marsh Tit, hasn't been replaced. The extensive appendix listing all rarities (and illustrating some) has also been updated rising from 9 to 14 pages.
The text has also been reviewed and updated. Unfortunately, in the process the figures from the most recent Spanish bird atlases (breeding and winter) have been replaced with more general statements. Hence, in the second edition for example, Montagu's Harrier is described as “poco comun ~ 4.000-5.000 pp., quizas en aumento ”, but in the third it reads “Comun (algunos miles de pp) quizeras ultamente en autmento”. Whilst these may be more accurate, they're certainly less obvious to non-Spanish speakers. The same change seems to have been made regarding wintering numbers. It's still fairly easy to work out when the species arrives and departs (if migratory) which is a great help.
The final change is the most far reaching; the familiar order of species has been replaced by the latest scientific version based on DNA research. On result of this is that 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 many plates feel less cluttered. If covering wildfowl second, not first, after gamebirds were the only change then it wouldn't be too bad, but many changes militate against the books functionality as a field guide. 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. Advocates for such a change remind us that such changes have happened before and that the new systematics represent a 'biological' reality. This may be so, but previous changes haven't generally divided up groups which have always been lumped together (e.g. raptors) or marooned groups where they instinctively don't seem to belong. Above all a field guide should be practical and these changes certainly make it far more difficult to locate similar groups. It's high time bird guides abandoned a rigorous 'scientific order'. I strongly suspect relatively few users are aware of the reasons behind the order used and would much prefer one based on practicality. The problem has always been agreeing on 'field guide order' that everyone can accept. An Anglo-American team has led the way as far as America is concerned and their scheme could be equally well used in Europe (see https://www.aba.org/birding/v41n6p44.pdf)
I always recommend visitors to Spain to buy a copy of the “Aves de Espaňa” even if their Spanish is, like mine, very limited. I will continue to do so as it remains a convenient reasonably priced one volume source of information. This third edition remains a distinct improvement on the first edition as the maps are more accurate and illustrations improved. But is the third edition an improvement on the second? Despite some useful improvements I'm not so sure. The unfamiliar species order will be welcomed by scientific purists but I doubt that it improves the practicality of the book as a field guide. Hence,even if you have the original version I'd still suggest that you nip out and get the second edition before stocks run out. If you miss out then still get the new edition but be prepared for a degree of frustration! Of course, what's really needed for monoglots like me is an English version. Better still why not add those extra fifty odd species to make it a nice little guide to all regular European birds without all those confusing rarities? It's high the time more British birdwatchers became familiar with the handsome work of “Spain's Lars Jonsson”!
Many thanks to Stewart Hingston for sending me photos of the new access road for Cazalla. He also tells me that it appears that work is in hand to renovate and do up the buildings there which were originally intended to house a small exhibition and possibly a modest venta. Sounds good to me although I suspect it'll mean you'll have to get there early on good days to secure a parking space!
Following some very helpful and constructive comments on 'Bird Forum' I've completely revised and redrafted my comments. Hopefully they're now easier to digest and in a final form. I've experimented with colour coding the notes with caveats highlighted in blue. I hope this helps. Any constructive comments very welcome.
Since originally posting a note on the identification of Thekla and Crested Lark ID a week or so ago, I've redrafted the drawings several times. Disembodied tails and wings have grown bodies. A magnified bill has materialised. The text has been revised and reordered. So many changes indeed that I've deleted the first draft. Apologies to those who were kind enough to make comments.
Birders have been using the Ojen Valley road (SW.14 in my site guide) for decades, probably a generation or more. It's featured in birding site guides since the early 1990s at least. However, I'm informed that, for reasons best known to themselves, the authorities have instructed the Guardia Civil to stop 'unauthorised' vehicles using the route and to prosecute offenders. At a time when the province is initiating policy to encourage birding tourism this seems a retrograde step. It's bizarre how they don't seem to have the resources to stop the blantant disregard for regulations by kite surfing at Playa de los Lances, but can faff around stopping birders using this route. I'm still making enquiries about this retrograde measure .....
Rather less surprisingly, the military authorities now seem to be cracking down on people driving through the mothballed military camp ("Cascabel") and down to the Torre Guadalmesi (site SW 10.3). Offenders have been escorted back to the main road and sent on their way. My understanding is that you can still park at the top of this road, walk down towards the camp diverting round it to your left, then rejoin the track beyond the camps and continue to the coast
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.