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
There really are aliens amongst us. They may not be of the bug-eyed monster variety, but they're certainly 'aliens' in the wider sense of the word. Like so many ex-pats they've found themselves in Spain for a variety of reasons, but they've liked what they saw and decided to settle down. The aliens I have in mind are those exotic birds that have made their home in Spain and, particularly, in Andalucia. In this, the second of my posts on such birds (the first being on parrots), I'm going to look at a couple of species that haven't 'made it' (yet!) and one that seems well on its way to spreading widely in Spain.
Once again the excellent blog spot http://grupodeavesexoticas.blogspot.co.uk/ , which lists some 120 species of exotic birds that have been recorded in the wild in Spain, has been a useful source of information. I recommend people report all sightings (with details) to this worthwhile site. Although there's an element of observer bias involved (some widespread birds are badly under recorded), this site does give us a fair reference point from which to start. Of all of these birds about 100 have been reported under ten times (and usually as singletons) so most can be dismissed as serious contenders as colonists. Of the remaining twenty odd species only about half have established a robust foothold in Spain, but what makes one species a success and another a failure? I have no ready answers to this conundrum, but I do have a few ideas .... Firstly successful colonists tend to be birds with a large, rather than restricted, range which in itself indicates another likely factor, a high degree adaptability and a lack of fussiness about what they eat. Secondly they're don't tend to be long distance migrants. Some wildfowl, which do migrate long distances in winter, seem to break this rule, but this ignores that many populations are of wildfowl are sedentary. Thirdly successful immigrants tend to thrive in a similar climate and environment as the one that they occupy naturally. Finally, there should be a vacant niche for them in their new home.
So why is it that some species that appear to fit these criteria seem unable to expand their range in Spain? Red-vented Bulbul has a large range across across the Indian subcontinent where it's found in hot dry scrub, forest edges, cultivated lands and, crucially, in urban areas. This range encompasses hot tropical areas, Himalayan foothills and areas with a broadly Mediterranean climate. It even has a notorious reptuation as an invasive species being listed as one of the worst and most damaging hundred invasive species. It's established itself in the wild on Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, in Dubai, Bahrain, USA, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, Argentina and elsewhere. So you'd imagine that it was well set to conquer Iberia by storm. Yet although it has been breeding Torremolinos since at least 2000, it still seems to have only a tenuous foothold there and there are no signs of the expected expansion. The same appears true of Red-whiskered Bulbul which has maintained a small populaton in Valencia for a similar length of time.
The two bulbuls lack of success is in distinct contrast to that of Black-headed Weaver. This widespread African species first found a home in Iberia in the 1990s when they were found in Portugal where they have built up a large population. It's an open question whether the growing Spanish population stems from this sources or independent introductions. The latter seems perhaps more likely, but there's no clear cut evidence either way. In both countries they are closely associated with rice fields. Confusingly, early reports of weavers from Portugal refer to the very similar Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus) which, to add another layer of confusion, is sometimes also called Black-headed Weaver! However, the bird involved is the 'other' Black-headed Weaver (Ploceus melanocephalus). It's also worth noting that in the Iberian population many males (like all females) have pale irises which contradicts most field guide illustrations of this species which show them as being dark. I've always thought that pale eyes may hint at a mixed genetic heritage (not unusual in cagebirds), but I've also been told that the guides are wrong and that in some wild populations of the species male melanocephalus in Africa do show pale eyes. Rather surprisingly neither the two Spanish atlases (breeding & winter) nor do de Juana and Garcia mention the species as occurring in Spain (although its presence in Portugal is noted). Yet they were present and breeding at Brazo de Este in 2006 when it was said they had been present for “several years” and their presence ascribed to escapees from the cagebird trade. However, the population must then have been fairly small and discrete as several expert visitors to the area at that time (and before) fail to mention them in trip reports (although waxbills and bishops were noted). In 2011 local expert Paco Chiclana reported them to be expanding and occupying more habitat at Brazo del Este and nearby wetlands. By 2015 the same author described them as 'numerous' at the same site and noted that they were establishing themselves in similar habitat near Utrera and Las Cabeszas de San Juan. In the same year a lone bird was found at Guadalhorce (Malaga). It seems likely that more areas will be colonised and this attractive bird will follow its African and Asian neighbours to become a permanent fixture in Spain.
Why the difference? In truth I don't think anyone knows for certain. The climate in Spain is reasonably similar to areas that bulbuls have successfully colonised so this alone wouldn't seem to be a barrier. It may be that the habitats which the bulbuls find themselves in is too isolated or subtly 'wrong' for the species (although, once again, they seem to have managed elsewhere). In the case of the weavers it seems that they've found, in large rice paddies and surrounding ditches, not only an ideal subsitute habitat, but also a vacant niche. It may also be that the bulbuls suffer from an exceptionally high level of predation from threats like feral cats. However, my favourite theory is that the success or failure of colonists depends on the size of the 'founding population'. I doubt that many entirely successful colonisations have resulted from birds escaping in dribs and drabs and meeting up in the wild through lucky happenstances. It's far more likely that they are the result of mass escapes (or releases) from breeders or importers. Unfortunately the precise moment of release is rarely documented although in rare cases the apperance of feral birds has been traced to a single mass release by the cagebird trade of 'uneconomic' stock. A very small founding population may also compromise the colonist's gene pool making them vulnerable to disease. It is this, it is ususpected, that has caused the sudden and dramatic decline in some would be colonists that had previously been doing well.
Over thirty different species of parrot have been recorded in the wild in Spain over the last few years. For the most part they have been recorded in dribs-and-drabs with the majority of reports concerning no more than a single bird. Budgerigar is a good example of this with many widely scattered reports of lone birds, but no suggestion (yet) that they are establishing a viable breeding population. The same applies to two other widely reported species, Cockatiel and Rose-faced Lovebird. However, a handful of species have managed to establish populations that have been sustained over decades although although only two can be said to be well established and spreading vigorously.
At first sight it seems surprising that any parrot should become establish in Spain at all since we closely associate parrots with hot tropical climates which are in short supply in Europe, even in Iberia. Whilst it is indeed true that most parrots live in hot tropical climates, they are a surprisingly adaptable group some of which survive high on mountains like New Zealand's Kea (found up to 2,400m) or in a distinctly chilly climate like the Austral Parakeet of Tierra del Fuego where temperatures may scarcely climb above 9°C in summer and average 0°C in winter. It is, though, true that the overwhelming majority of parrot species are ill-equipped to survive in Spain so which characteristics do these birds have that allows them to succeed? One predictor of their likely success is the size of their native range as this indicates their level of adaptability. As a result the many species native to small islands or with a restricted range are unlikely to make the grade. A related factor is food preference with the generalists always winning over the specialists. Another consideration is whether they are found in areas where the climate broadly mirrors that of the Mediterranean. Finally, there has to be a vacant niche with the habitat to support them. These criteria quickly weed out most of the potential parrot émigrés reported in Spain, but despite these not inconsiderable barriers a few species seem here to stay.
One such is Rose-ringed Parakeet (or Ring-necked), a species that will be familiar not only to many British birdwatchers, but also half a dozen or more other European countries where they have large, well established colonies. Further afield they've colonised Arabia, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, the USA and elsewhere. This, and it's enormous natural range, demonstrates that this is a highly adaptable species. It belongs to an Asian family of parrots, but, remarkably, its natural range extends into Africa (the only parrot to manage this 'double'). It is also one of only a handful of parrots to be found well north of the Tropic of Cancer. It's found from coastal semi-deserts, through open woodland and on up into mountains to heights of 1,600- 2,000 m. In its natural range it has also adapted well to man-made habitats like open agricultural land (with scattered trees), orchards, stock yards, human habitations and so on. So it's CV strongly suggests that it's in Spain for the long term.
Fortunately, this is a distinctive species even within its natural range and unlikely to be confused with other parrots. Like its close relatives it is basically bright leaf green with duskier primaries and a particularly long tail with slightly bluish central feathers. Only males sport the small black bib and neck ring which is bordered below by a indistinct rosy bloom which gives the species its name. Females and young birds lack these features and have a near uniformly green plumage (although some females may show a faint paler collar and young birds tend to be yellower toned). The bill is pinkish red usually with a contrasting blackish lower mandible. It is 37-43 cm in length and weighs 95-143 g. This alone should distinguish it from its only realistic confusion species, Alexandrine Parakeet which is distinctly larger (50-62 cm 198-258 g) with a more massive red bill and an obvious maroon shoulder patch. However, this species is rather infrequently reported as an escapee in Spain. In theory at least the Ring-necked and the very closely related Mauritius Parakeet could be confused for one another, but as it is critically endangered (c100 birds survive) this is not a realistic proposition. Rose-ringed are very vocal birds and often first noticed when you hear one screeching over. They usually nest in hollow trees, but aren't adverse to taking advantage of cavities in old walls. Although not obligatory colonial, they often form loose colonies. Wild birds generally nest in December-May so breeding in Spain at similar season offers few problems. In the UK, and elsewhere, they form large roosts not infrequently running to hundreds of birds.
As with all such closet colonists the precise history of Rose-ringed Parakeet's arrival in Spain is murky. . What is known is that they were first reported breeding in Spain in the 1980s. Like all exotics, it is somewhat patchily distributed reflecting the randomness of where a significant number of birds (usually required for a successful colonisation) managed to escape. Whilst seeing the species is possible pretty much anywhere in Spain, only relatively few areas have developed a strong self-sustaining population. Most occur in large urban parks often with suitable exotic trees. The current focus of the population is Barcelona, Seville and many of the cities along the Mediterranean coast (e.g. Malaga, Valencia, etc). In Andalusia largest populations are found in the cities of Barcelona (c450), Seville (100+), Cadiz (c50) and Malaga (>100). Valencia has about 50 birds, but there are also other smaller populations in many of the cities coastal cities plus in Cordoba and Granada. Fewer numbers (tens?) are found in Madrid, Cordoba and elsewhere inland. A population estimate in 2011 suggested that Catalonia (mainly Barcelona) could have up to 450 birds and Spain as a whole up to 800 -1,000 individuals. Although many populations are stable, in some annual increases of 17% have been noted so the current population is probably at the upper end of the estimate and possibly higher. Like all exotic species Rose-ringe Parakeet is certainly under recorded, but it seems equally certain that it's here to stay.
The second highly successful immigrant, Monk Parakeet, comes from the other side of the world, South America. It is probably less familiar to many birdwatchers as there are only small, struggling colonies elsewhere in Europe. Not being so hardly as Rose-ringed, it's doubtful that they will really thrive outside of milder regions (although the warmer micro-climate of many large cities might subvert this natural limitation). However they now seem well established in some of the southern states of the USA (notably Florida where it's regarded as a pest) and, above all in Iberia. Its natural distribution largely coincides with the northern two-thirds of Argentia spilling over into nearby Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and the south-western extreme of Brazil. It is also, like Rose-ringed, an habitually sedentary species which probably helps its ability to survive on the "wrong side" of the world. Also helpful is the fact that the climate in its native range is not too dissimilar from that of coastal Spain. Its preferred habitat includes open farmland, city parks and wooded residential areas which sets it up well for its role as an urban invader. In its natural range it nests in Oct-Feb and does so colonially in large scruffy enclosed nests made of sticks and often lodged in a palm tree. These large nests also serve as dormitories in winter helping the species survive lower temperatures. Once again its CV again makes it an ideal colonist in Spain and even its inconvenient natural breeding cycle doesn't seem to count against it.
Although it's also a largely green parrot, any confusion with Rose-ringed is unlikely. Firstly at 28-29 cm in length its a distinctly shorter bird overall (and with a much shorter tail), but, surprisingly, their weight range is very similar (90-140g) indicating that this is a far stockier species. The fore-crown is mealy grey as is the upper breast which also has scaly darker grey markings. The contrast with the rest of the green head and neck forms an impression of a monk's cowl from which it gets its name. The lower chest may show a yellower tone whilst the flight feathers are bluish. The tail is long, but much shorter than that of Rose-ringed. Young birds have a smaller grey fore-crown which may also have greener tones. The one characteristic it shares with its cousin is that it's a very noisy species. In practical terms there are no confusion species in Iberia. The very localised Cliff Parakeet, sometimes treated as a subspecies of Monk Parakeet,is similar, but, with a very restricted range, it's an unlikely import. The Grey-cheeked Parakeet has broadly similar plumage, but again is an unusual cage-bird.
The widespread and high volume trade in Monk Parakeet and inevitable escapes means they can be seen all over Spain although established populations are less common. Some idea of its popularity may be gauged from the fact that Argentina exported 20,000 in a single year in the 1993 alone. As with Rose-ringed the exact distribution is something of a lottery although all thriving populations are to be found in urban areas. It is now present in Madrid most larger cities or provincial capitals although the main populations are found in the provinces of Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia, Alicante, Malaga and Cadiz. Any population estimate is speculative due to a lack of accurate counts and its widely dispersed population. However, the population in several cities (e.g. Seville and Madrid) appears to be growing. An estimated 2,000 birds live in Madrid and a similar number in Barcelona whilst the Catalonian population was reckoned to be around 4,000 birds in 2010. Adding a modest another couple of thousand for the rest of Spain and a conservative growth rate of 10% p.a. (rates of 14% to 17% have been reported) suggests a ball-park figure of roughly 10,000 birds.
These two species stand alone as really successful colonists whose continued presence in Spain seems assured, but several other species are vying for the runners-up position. The Nanday (or Black-hooded) Parakeet lacks the colonisation track record of the last two species having become established only in the USA (California and Florida), Puerto Rico and to a lesser degree in Israel. In Europe it seems only to have what is a still fairly tenuous hold in Iberia. In its native home it overlaps to a large degree with the last species being absent only further south and the coastal plains so the climate should present no difficulties. However, their breeding season is short (Nov) and has the habit of wandering quite widely. It inhabits woodland, savanna, pastures, but, perhaps critically, not urban areas. It's a somewhat longer (32-37 cm) than Monk Parakeet, but no greater in weight (120-140 g) reflecting its slimmer proportions. The essentially green plumage (with some yellowish tones) is handsomely set off by a black hood, pale blue breast band, darker blue flight feathers and tail all of which make it very distinctive; other parrots have blackish heads, but none have the same combination of features. The sexes are identical, but young birds have a less blue chest and shorter tail. As yet, though, Nanday Parakeet has scarcely struggled beyond the handful of parks where it was first found in 2003. Barcelona remains the stronghold with up to 15 individuals being regularly reported in the city's parks (e.g. Parque de la Ciutadella & Parque de Diagonal) in 2012. Elsewhere there have been reports from Torremolinos (a pair in 2012) and Madrid.
Blue-crowned Parakeets have been present in Seville around the parks of Maria Luisa and del Alamillo since at least 2008, but there have never been more than a few birds present. The Parque del Oeste and Casa de Campo area of Madrid has also been home to a few birds since at least 2010 but they have never numbered more than 5-10 birds. There's a certain inevitability that they're also found in Barcelona, a real hotspot for parrots. Birds have been present since 1990 and there are now numbers c100 birds. Odd birds have also been reported from Cartegena (Murcia), Guadalhorce (Malaga) and Sotogrande (Cadiz). The species is up to 38 cm in length and weighs up to 176g. It originates from the same area as Monk Parakeet, but also found elsewhere in Brazil and Venezualea. Basically green (although paler below) with blue head (sometimes bluish tone to chest & reddish underside of the tail feathers. Its natural habitat is scrub and woodland, but it has no history of exploiting urban habitats. Only the Dusky-headed Parrot has a similar plumage, but far smaller (28 cm) and not imported in significant numbers.
Unlike the species mentioned thus far, the next two species could easily be mistaken for one another. These are the Red-masked and Mitred Parakeets (or Conures), both are bright green with variable amounts of scarlet on the head and often yellowish feathers elsewhere. Mitred is a little larger (38cm vs 33cm) although there's some individual variation and this might not be obvious in the field. It has a variable amount of red on the crown, cheeks and ear coverts which is usually less than most adult Red-masked. It also usually lacks the red on the bend of the wings (and under-wing) which is characteristic of Red-masked and has no (or less) red on the thighs. Its darker forehead is diagnostic. The feet tend to be paler and more brownish rather than grey. Immatures of both are greener on the head. Mitred is found above 1,000 m in subtropical woodland and grassy hills and cultivated areas, but not urban areas. It's restricted to a comparatively limited area in Peru and Bolivia. Red-masked is found in an even smaller area of western Ecuador and the extreme north-west of Peru where it is found from the lowlands up to 2,500m. It has a preference for arid areas with scattered trees, but may occur in moister areas of woodland. Neither inhabit urban areas in their native range. Both species have established in the USA with Mitred being found in California and possibly Florida a description that also applies to Red-masked. Species with similar plumages as adults or juveniles include Red-fronted, White-eyed, Finsch's and Hispaniolan Parakeet (although Finsch's is distinctly smaller and Hispaniolan quite rare). None are very likely to be found in Spain.
Neither species seem very good candidates for making a widespread invasion of Spain; both have relatively limited ranges so are perhaps less adaptable, neither are found in urban habitats in their native South America and the favoured habitats are generally not found in Spain. The climate seems a less good match too. Mitred has been present in Barcelona since 1991 where it's now reckoned there's a maximum of 200 birds. They largely seem restricted to the parks in the centre of the city particularly the Parc de la Ciudadela (near the zoo!) and it wasn't until 2012 that they managed to spread the 6 km to Parc de les Planes, L'Hospitalet de Llobregat . Since 1993 Barcelona has also had much smaller population of Red-masked Parakeet which was reckoned to number around a dozen birds in around 2010. There's a larger population of 20-30 birds in Valencia based on, perhaps significantly, the Jardín Botánico which has also been present since the 1990s.
Although dozens of parrot species have been reported in Spain only more two have been suspected of breeding in recent years. Senegal Parrot, a small (28 cm), but stocky, short-tailed African parrot with a dusky hood, green upperparts and chest with yellow or yellow and orange. It has bred or been suspected of breeding in Barcelona, Valencia and possibly Murcia. It was first observed in Barcelona as early as 1982 and was still present in 2016, but only a handful of birds seem to be involved so it is now unlikely to spread any further. In its native range it inhabits lowland savannah, orchards and villages and breeds Jan-Oct so it is perhaps surprising that it's done so poorly. Patagonian Conure (or Burrowing Parrot) is a large (40-52 cm) long tailed parrot with dull olive upperparts and bluish primaries with a variable red or redish belly surrounded either by olive or bright yellow. Like Monk Parakeet thousands were imported from Argentina and escapees, sometimes in small groups, have been noted from the provinces of Seville, Malaga, Murcia, Tarragona and Madrid. However, it seems breeding has only been suspected in the Llobregat valley, Barcelona. It lives in arid savannah and thornscrub sometimes exploiting pastures or even the edge of small towns. Its potential as a successful colonist is probably limited by its habit of nesting colonially in burrows and nesting during 'our' winter. Neither have a proven track record as invasive species elsewhere.
So if you're out birding or, more likely, taking a break in one of Spain's many attractive towns and cities keep a sharp eye out for parrots. If you see any then the chances are that they'll either be Monk or Rose-ringed Parakeets unless you're in Barcelona or Valencia and maybe Seville and Madrid. You may think 'so what?', they're only escapees. Unfortunately that understandable reaction means that we know less about the population and spread of these birds than might otherwise be the case. In writing this article I found two websites particularly helpful; that of the Grupo de Aves Exoticas (http://grupodeavesexoticas.blogspot.co.uk/) and Parrotnet (http://www.kent.ac.uk/parrotnet/). The first brings together reports of all exotic species, not just parrots, in Spain. The second (oddly enough based a mile or so from my Canterbury home) collects reports across Europe (via BTO birdtrack http://app.bto.org/birdtrack/main/data-home.jsp and Ebird - http://ebird.org/content/ebird/ ). Yet looking at both sources, it rapidly becomes clear that there is a dearth of reports, particularly accurate counts, from areas which are known to have good populations. So when you next see a flock of parrots instead of shrugging them off as 'so-what-birds' make a note of where and how many they were and send a report into the two sites.
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.