It's both easy and tempting to be cynical about the motives of Coca-cola in sponsoring this initiative and regard it as no more than corporate 'greenwashing' - and maybe it is - but the fact remains that their interest has help create a much needed reserve and informational materials that promote interest in the threatened marismas of the area.
I've written several times about the Trebujena area (see birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/spring-2019-update-5-three-cheers-for-trebujena) but make no apology for returning to the topic once again. My reason for doing so is that the WWF and Coca-Cola - who sponsored the restoration of the marshes - have put together an interesting website called "Guadalquivir Challenge" about the project (see Guadalquivir Challenge: protection of the water of the estuary | Coca-Cola ES (cocacolaespana.es)) with a video (#MisiónPosible: Desafío Guadalquivir logra su principal objetivo - YouTube) and a downloadable booklet in Spanish and English (guia_biodiversidad_ingles_1.pdf (panda.org)).
Even those who, like me, have a woefully inadequate command of Spanish will find the video of interest; if a picture is worth a thousand words then a video must surely be worth still more!
Of course, it's not nearly enough and much, much more needs to be done to protect this important area but it is at least a start.
In the wider scheme of things not being able to get out to Cadiz province since 2019 may seem to be a minor annoyance and indeed it is compared to the trauma, distress and loss suffered by so many during the Covid crisis. Yet having scarcely been able to visit the area during Liz's long illness, there's no escaping the fact that I feel a little cheated by not being able to go there. This feels still more acute when I consider that there's so much I need to check, revise and update to keep my birding guide current, accurate and helpful. My plan for 2020 was to redraft my notes, edit out some sites, enlarge upon others and generally 'spring clean' my guide. Although correspondents have been helpful in updating me with various developments, there's only so much you can do without driving the area and walking the routes.
One of the (many) things I was hoping to do was to redraft my description of birding sites near Conil. Originally, my description had started not with that town (as would be logical) but from the small relatively obscure village of Los Naveros. This was simply because this was direction from which I had discovered the area. As I wanted to drive the route from Conil and check a few things as I did so, I put off reviewing the site until I could visit Spain. I just hadn't imagined that doing so would take so long!
In this the company has been highly successful winning various awards for their products and their efforts to educate visitors about the history of wine and olive oil production. However, it seems that this was not enough as the company also promotes wildlife and biodiversity on its land. In particular, they have worked to preserve the local population of Montagu's Harrier. Accordingly I've added the site of their bodega to my map & notes in the hope that birders visiting the area will not only enjoy the birdlife (Collared Pratincole, Stone Curlew, etc) along the stretch of the Rio Salado nearby but also support the company's efforts by buying some of their products (which include both red & white wine, olive oil, wine vinegar and, somewhat intriguingly, red wine jam).
An equally commendable project by ecologically aware and progressive farmers can be found at the other side of the province in the organic vineyards near Trebujena. I've already waxed lyrical about this superb area in a previous posting (see here). To be honest, it almost physically hurts that I've been unable to return there in 2020 and nor, thus far, in 2021. It was a site I'd briefly explored back in 2016 but which circumstances prevented me from visiting again until September 2019. However, what I omitted from my previous post were details of the local concern - Cooperativa Agrícola Virgen de Palomares S.C.A. (see vinosdetrebujena.com/) - that is at the forefront of looking after the local population of the rare, endangered and indisputably wonderful Rufous Bushchat (yes, it is my favourite Spanish passerine). They too also sell a good variety of wines including, hardly surprisingly given their location, some excellent sherries. (Forget that it may have been your aunt's favourite tipple, sherry is in all of its various forms one of the world's greatest drinks).
Supporting these initiatives is vital to preserving vital habitats for wildlife on working farms; protected areas will never represent more than a fraction of the land surface in Spain. Buying the odd bottle of wine or good quality olive oil is a very small (and enjoyable) price to pay. I can't wait to get out there to do so myself!
Inevitably, as a retired History teacher, whenever I read about the ongoing scandal that is the occupation of La Janda, my mind turns to the old English protest songs against the "Enclosure Acts". These were the main means by which poor people without legal documents, only centuries old traditions, were dispossessed of their land and rights to the common in the 18th and 19th centuries by wealthy land owners with friends in Parliament.
Two verses in particular from the most popular and well known of these songs spring to mind -
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
(Google Translate renders this as La ley encierra al hombre o la mujer ¿Quién roba el ganso de lo común? Pero deja suelto al villano mayor Quién roba lo común de la gallina. La ley exige que expiamos Cuando tomamos cosas que no nos pertenecen Pero deja bien a los señores y las damas Quien toma cosas que son tuyas y mías).
Whilst the agricultural histories of our two nations are very different - both in chronology and nature - it seems we share some experiences. In this case it would seem to be the rapaciousness of the well-connected grandees and their power to evade what the common populace would regard as natural justice with few or no consequences.
It is to be hoped that the political tide is at last turning in favour of a complete restoration of this formerly superb natural area (although fine words are pointless without equally firm & expedient action). Not only would this fit better with the current political gestalt that is increasingly embracing the need for rewilding and protecting nature but would also provide more employment opportunities for local communities.
See http://blog.lagunalajanda.org/2021/05/23/the-biggest-squatters-in-spain/ for more details.
These books were published a decade or so ago but, shamefully, it's taken that long for me to finally obtain a full set. I picked up Volume 2 - Sierra Morena de Jaen the spring of 2012 when Liz and I visited the Andujar area in search of Iberian Lynx. Fortunately, we'd already knew in which areas to look and had successfully seen the target feline before we came across the guide in a Visitors' Centre. However, the book did encourage me to explore nearby areas that I might otherwise have missed. The following year at the UK Bird Fair I was delighted to meet the author, Rafael Romero Porrino who very kindly gave me a copy of Volume 4 (Sierra Morena Cordobesa). It had always been in my mind to return to Aracena and the sierras north of Seville with Liz to explore an area we had both loved when we visited it some years before. Having been so seduced by central Cadiz that we bought a small house there, it wouldn't have been too great a detour to go there again. Alas, Liz's long illness meant that such things quickly became impossible so buying volumes 1 (Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche) and 3 (Seville) quickly became painfully pointless. (NB one of my few criticisms of these books is that, bizarrely, running from west to east the volumes are numbered 1, 3, 4 & 2).
However, having only two volumes - 2 & 4 - of the quartet sitting on the shelf above my desk was a constant annoyance and rebuke. I'd half-heartedly tried to get the missing volumes before but without success and their absence was beginning to really irritate me!. For some unaccountable reason, though, I'd never tried the excellent Liberia Agricola in Jerez (www.agricolajerez.com/) and it was no surprise to find that they had copies of the missing volumes. Hence this month I was delighted to finally complete my collection of this superb, but apparently little-known, series of books on the Sierra Morena. They're well-written (and unusually well translated into English), full of details and suggestions with decent maps and an interesting selection of routes to explore. As already indicated, Vol 2 - Sierra Morena de Jaen remains a very useful guide to have on hand if you're visiting the Andujar area for Iberian Lynx. Certainly, Liz and I would never have visited the delightful Banos de la Encina area had we not had this guide (although it may be questionable whether a decade on Rufous Bushchat is still found here). Now that I have copies of Vol 1 - Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche and Vol 3 - Seville) once I am again able to return to Spain I plan to visit the area even if it will now be a sadly poignant experience for me.
My history with binoculars
My first pair of binoculars was a generic pair of 7x50 Japanese instruments that I managed to commandeer for personal use although they were supposed to be for the whole family. I then moved on through various binoculars - Zeiss Jenoptem 10x50, Saratoga 8x40, Zeiss Dialyt 10x40, Nikon 8x32 SE and Zeiss 8x42 FL (supplemented by Kite 8x30). So why have I now opted for Swarovski 10x42s?
Where I'm coming from.
I've largely been faithful to 8x binoculars for 20+ years for two reasons; reduced ‘hand shake’ and the wider field of view they offer for example, my old Zeiss 8x42 FLs had a FoV of 135m @ 1000m and several newer alpha 8x instruments have a similar field (compared to c110m in most 10x42s). However, a combination of a decline in my eyesight (old age!) and spending more time watching distant birds of prey in Spain made me reconsider my options. Things were brought to a head in spring 2019 when I found I could identify distant raptors more confidently with a friend’s Zeiss Conquest 10x42s than I could with my 8x42s. With funds for much of that year already earmarked for travel, I left serious consideration of buying new binoculars until 2020. Having done so, I had more or less decided to buy a good, but ‘second tier’ pair of binoculars for c£800-900 from Zeiss, Leica or Nikon when two things happened; the first, predictably, was the COVID lockdown and the second the appearance of Swarovski NLs. Like many, the former meant I was spending less money on travel & birding so my bank balance was unexpectedly healthy (helped in no small measure by finding I was well in credit with my electricity supplier) and the specifications of the latter were too good to ignore (despite the high cost). I tend towards the view that once you stump up much above £400 (and perhaps less) for binoculars any improvement you get in optical quality is relatively small decidedly incremental and largely not obvious other than by direct comparison. Certainly, any improvement in image quality that the NLs may have over top quality sub-alpha glasses is minimal in field use to the average birder.
Taking into account all my caveats, it must be said that NLs are very bright, sharp and exhibit very little distortion even at the extreme edge of the view. They have that coveted 'Wow!" factor on first use. Chromatic aberration (‘rainbow lines’ around images) is very well controlled and for me only (just) visible as a very narrow green line around shapes at the extreme edge of the view and then only noticed when actively looked for. Also remarkable was how little distortion there was out of ‘true’ even at the very edge of the view (unlike cheaper instruments where lamp posts appear to bend quite alarmingly). Some online are suggesting that the NLs are markedly superior in image quality when compared to the ELs which, given that the latter were Swarovski’s flagship line for decades, is a remarkable claim. Comparing the NLs with the ELs on a dull, wet and cloudy day the former did seem to offer a marginally crisper view, but it was very slight and could be no more than wishful thinking on my part. Again I’d suggest that in field use, without a studied direct comparison between the NLs with their stablemate, on image quality the two would be effectively indistinguishable. However, what was obvious – and for me a major selling point – was the wider field of view of the NLs. Not only was this clearly better than the 10x42 ELs but at 133m at 1000m identical to the 8.5x42 ELs and only marginally less than many top quality 8x42s (including my old Zeiss). Since then I have used the NLs extensively in the field and the only optical problem I have experienced is very occasional instances of ‘flare’ rending the view temporarily ‘milky’ but this has only happened in exceptional circumstances (and no more than with my old binoculars). Some online have complained that the NLs have an annoying 'rolling ball' effect but it's not something I'm sensitive to or have noticed to be a problem.(see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globe_effect#:~:text=The%20globe%20effect%2C%20sometimes%20called,to%20be%20free%20of%20distortion.). The point shouldn’t be forgotten is that they are Swarovski products so being optically superb is in their DNA.
Unlike the established excellent optical quality of Swarovski binoculars and the well-advertised generous field of view, I had no expectation that the NLs would handle much differently from other roof prism binoculars regardless of price. I was wrong. The barrels of the NLs sport an unusual waisted ‘Coca-Cola bottle' shape which somehow encourages your hands to naturally slip firmly into place. It usually takes me a while to get used to holding new binoculars, but these were ‘right first time’. This excellent grip makes the NLs easier to hold steady than other binoculars I’ve used and was a surprising plus point. However, one of my concerns with the NLs was their weight. At 850g they are 60-100g heavier than many rival binoculars (and 95g more than my old Zeiss) and so at the heavier end of 10x42 instruments. However, in use with the good, wide strap they came supplied with this has proved not to be the problem I feared it might be. For some a binocular harness may be a sensible option (see below). On the other hand, those additional grams possibly assist with holding them steady and reflect Swarovski brand’s famously robust construction.
With my hands grasping the barrels my index finger seemed to naturally fall into place on the focus control. The focus wheel rotated smoothly taking about 1½ turns to go from close focus (2m – useful in these times of social distancing!) to infinity. This may seem a lot but in normal field use you probably won’t need any more than ½ a turn (which takes you from a frequent viewing distance of 5-6m to infinity). This is fine unless you do a lot of dragonfly/butterfly watching as it takes a whole turn (or thereabouts) to go from c5-6m to 2m. The diopter adjustment (located just forward of the focus ring) was easy to use but, although a little raised, not easy to accidentally knock out of position. Initially, I found it very easy to inadvertently unscrew the eyecups whilst clicking them up or down. After repeated use, however, I appear to have subconsciously learnt the trick of not doing so and it’s no longer any concern.
Neck Strap & Attachment
All new Swarovski binoculars have a unique method of attaching the neck strap. This seems to work well once set up but fixing the strap to the binoculars was so problematic that I had to return to my dealer and get them to do the job for me. In fairness, a couple of operations on both hands has left me with poor dexterity but even so the shop assistant, despite being familiar with Swarovski binoculars, took 25 minutes to successfully attach the strap. The unnecessarily complex design seems to be there to solve a problem that doesn't exist.
Perhaps I was unlucky to have an unusually difficult fitting, but the mechanism seems wildly over complicated and over engineered. I have never had a problem with the simple anchor points found on most binoculars and all this innovation seems to do is complicate using an alternative strap of your choice. This can be done as the binoculars come with adaptors to allow the attachment of more conventional straps but these seem surprisingly flimsy and I question whether they’re sufficiently robust. And besides, wrestling the supplied strap off and the adaptors on isn’t something I’d relish. However, this may be the only option if you want to replace the strap with a harness. (As an aside, I'm surprised more manufacturers don't use the simple expedient of a loop and connector to attach binoculars to a strap and/or harness - see OpTech products). The supplied neck strap was extremely easy to adjust for length, but those who prefer a short strap will find that, annoyingly, 6” of strap dangling free down each side of the binoculars. The strap has a neat rubber tag-end which made me loathe to cut strap to size but with a Velcro tie I found it possible to neatly tuck the excess strap out of the way. Once attached, however, the neck strap proved to be very comfortable.
Swarovski's diagnostic green 'armour' is comfortable to grip and, as far as I could judge, offered a good level of protection. The cover for the eyepieces fits snuggly, but at times too snuggly although with use should loosen up. The objective lenses are well recessed (by c1.5cm) protecting them from accidental damage something which the protective covers help further. I've never previously used binoculars with protective OG covers in situ but am finding them quite useful as an extra layer of protection since I tend not to use a case (except when storing my binoculars at home). These covers can be removed, and two small bungs are supplied to close the small indentation left behind in the rubber armour. The case is well made and extremely well padded with a useful internal pocket. With the brace attached, however, I found it was less easy to loop the strap around the instrument, slip them into the case and zip it closed. In a break from tradition, the binoculars fit into the case sideways, not vertically. I find this a retrograde step as, unlike traditional designs, there’s not plenty of space at the top for the strap to fold into and you cannot secure the binocular strap around your neck before extracting them from the case or take a firm hold of the strap and binocular’s barrels before you entirely remove them. Accordingly, I am yet to be convinced that the design is a good idea.
Forehead Brace - gimmick or good idea?
Considering good ideas brings me on to the most unusual aspect of the NLs, the forehead brace. This is an optional extra and an expensive one (c£100) for a few gm of metal and plastic. Until I tried it, I thought it was just a useless gimmick but after only a few moments use I was proved wrong. With three points of contact the view became distinctly less jittery meaning that in this respect the 10x42s became just as good (or better) than my old 8x. Using the brace had two further unexpected results – first I could hold the binoculars very steady single-handedly (freeing one hand to hold a pencil, a cup of coffee, etc) and second, as an occasional user of spectacles when birding, I found that the additional anchor point really helped in steadying the view. It would go a long way to make the 12x 42 model a viable birding glass particularly as it has a FoV (113m @ 1000m) similar to most current 10x42 models (although whether it would be worth getting for the 8x model is less certain).
Two final accessories that came in the box were something of a surprise; a bar of soap and a brush. I’m not sure how many birders would opt to give their bins a quick wash and brush up but I suppose it does encourage confidence in the instrument’s waterproof qualities.
The Bottom Line - Are they worth it?
After frequent use such is the generosity of the FoV that I still find it easy to forget that my binoculars are 10x, not 8x (but if you prefer 8x42s then the NL’s 159m @ 1000m field is unrivalled). The image quality of all alpha instruments being equally superb it’s often a matter of personal preference which you pick but, in my view, the wider field and ergonomic refinement of the NLs edges them ahead of their rivals making them primus inter pares amongst binoculars.
Are they worth the premium price when other top companies (and even Swarovski itself) make superb alpha instruments for considerably less? To be brutally honest, probably not. The 10x42 ELs offer a very similar optical performance to the NL's (other than the exceptional FoV) but are
60% of the price. Even if you have the cash, it arguably makes more sense to get the 10x42 ELs and supplement them with a pair of high quality 8x binoculars (e.g. Leica Trinovid 8x32/42) which would give you greater flexibility for the same overall cost. And yet, if you’ve got the money burning a NL sized hole in your pocket and weight isn’t a consideration, then buying the best 10x42s on the market is very hard to resist. To cynically paraphrase Jane Austen - It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a birder in possession of a good fortune, must want Swarovski NL binoculars. The image of competence/seriousness that they project is worth more than the one the user perceives on looking through them.
NOTE: I purchased my binoculars from my local camera/optics dealer, Canterbury Cameras (www.canterburycameras.com) who not only provided their usual first-rate, friendly and helpful service but also gave me an excellent trade-in for my old binoculars. Highly recommended.
Ever since the publication of the original edition of 'Britain's Birds' by Rob Hume et al I've been banging on about the desirability of a 'European' version. My pleas were renewed when the much improved second edition of the book appeared (see here) so I'm pleased to hear that publication of what should be a ground breaking guide is now scheduled for 25th May 2021. With just over 600pp it will be an even heftier tome that the British version but the price is still a reasonable £20 (although pre-publication offers from online booksellers should knock several pounds off the price). Here's the publisher's 'blurb':-
Covering more than 900 species, and illustrated with over 3,800 photographs, this is the most comprehensive, authoritative and ambitious single-volume photographic guide to Europe's birds ever produced. Detailed descriptions provide the information necessary to identify the birds of Europe in all their plumages - male, female, breeding, non-breeding, adult and immatures, as well as distinctive subspecies- yet the book is easy-to-use, practical and accessible. Birdwatchers of any ability will benefit from the clear text, details on range, status and habitat, and an unrivalled selection of photographs. Chosen to be as naturalistic and informative as possible, the images are also stunning to look at, making this a beautiful book to enjoy, as well as an up-to-date and essential source of identification knowledge.
The authors include top-class wildlife photographers, writers and editors, and an imaginative, highly skilled designer. All are experienced birdwatchers themselves, who know what is needed and what is useful in an identification guide for birdwatchers living or travelling in Europe.
Covering over 900 species in the sort of detail needed to match the original British guide in only a little more than 600 pages seems a very tall order to me. I admit that I was hoping that extreme rarities would be excluded to give more space to birds you are actually likely to see on a European jaunt. However, Wildguides have a world beating team and you can be sure that whatever compromises necessary (and there are always some) to produce this guide will be well considered and judged. Naturally, as soon as I get a copy I will review it here.
To the untutored eye all larks look quite alike sharing a broadly similar structure, gait, tweedy plumage pattern and, more often than not, a crest of some sort. Skylark, Crested and Thekla’s Lark are generally noticeably larger (in length and in bulk) than ‘short-toed’ larks (although a small Thekla’s can overlap in length) and the latter two at least have a more obvious crest. Woodlark is a similar length but generally heavier and has distinctive plumage markings. So even with a modest amount of experience it should be possible to recognise that the bird in question is one of the ‘short-toed’ variety.
As so often in these matters when a bird is seen can provide a useful clue (although caution is needed as this can sometimes be a ‘false friend’). Greater are a summer migrant to Iberia which appears from mid-March onwards but only starts to arrive in force in April. Autumn passage starts by mid-August with most leaving in September (although a few linger into October). Lesser are residents so any small lark observed between mid-October and early March should be that species. Should be, but not necessarily will be since wintering Greater have recently been seen in consecutive years in the Osuna area (Seville) and there is, of course, a possibility that global warming will make such instances more frequent. That said, in practical terms the exceedingly rare records of wintering Greater can be safely ignored.
Similarly, habitat and range can help too. Birds found in agricultural areas with a little scrub, on ploughed fields, fallow, set aside, grassy areas, vineyards or even orchards will, in almost all instances, be a Greater. Lesser is predominantly an habitué of natural vegetation that’s dominated by low salt-resistant scrub with little grass on poor soils and, particularly in the west, has a preference for salt marsh. This is reflected in the Spanish name for Lessers, Terrera Marismeňa (similarly helpful is the name for Greater are Terrera comun which reflects its relatively widespread status). Accordingly, a good rule of thumb in Andalucia is that any small lark found beyond c25 km from the coast or away from estuarine saltmarsh will be a Greater. An exception must be made, however, for the Hoya de Guadix and Hoya de Baza (Granada) which are both shallow basins where saline conditions dominate providing good habitat for Lessers. (The applies to similar habitat in central and eastern Spain, the Ebro valley and across the species’ range in Asia). Just to confuse matters in winter Lesser sometimes appear in the ‘wrong’ habitat such as ploughed fields (fortunately when Greater should be absent). Greater also do their bit to confuse by inhabiting dune systems near salt marshes and along grassy embankments that intrude into “typical” Lesser habitat. For example, the first Lessers I ever saw were in a grassy dune slack on the Ebro delta where there were also Greaters. Conversely, a Greater I saw on the Barbate estuary one recent spring flew from its typical grassy habitat to feed in the sort of saltmarsh habitat that Lessers generally prefer. However, even when all these caveats are considered, habitat preference remains a useful clue. These habitat preferences are clearly evident in the two species distribution in Andalucia.
So once you’ve found a “short-toed” lark, setting aside consideration of the season and habitat, how can you go about confirming its identity? There are three main factors that should help you resolve identification; the presence or absence of streaking across the chest, the presence of a dark spot on the neck and the structure of the birds’ wings. There are other helpful pointers concerning plumage and structure plus variations in voice and sometimes behaviour (but these are secondary to the three are clinching points noted above). However, although these differences may be small small and sometimes confusing in themselves, collectively tend to give the two species a different ‘feel’ or ‘jizz’.
Taking plumage first the key plumage distinction to look for is the pattern of streaking (or its absence) on the chest and the side of the neck. Greater tends to have streaks restricted to the side of the neck or, when present, only very faint, thin streaks running towards (rarely across) the centre of the chest. On the side of the Greater’s neck the streaking usually coalesces to form a dark ‘spot’ and, although posture can make this more or less obvious, most birds show this feature. Those Greaters that don’t have a dark spot have such indistinct and sparse streaking that this alone rules out Lesser. In contrast, Lesser lacks the dark spot (although occasionally might briefly seem to have one when the breeze exposes its darker underlying downy feathering) but always has strong streaking across the entire chest (including the centre) forming a distinct ‘gorget’ contributing to its resemblence to a female/juvenile Linnet) and such streaking often extends along the flanks.
The Greater’s head pattern is usually subtly stronger with a bolder, more extensive buff-white supercilium highlighted by a darker eyestripe below plus more striking whitish ‘spectacles’. An exception are the ear-coverts (= cheeks) which are rather plain on Greater but more distinctly streaked on Lesser. Greater also often (but not always!) has a warmer or even distinctly ‘ginger’ crown which Lesser never shows. This is mirrored in the general tone of the two species’ upperparts (in Iberia) as Lesser tends to be a greyer, less warm brown than Greater (but without direct comparison and with varying light conditions this can be very hard to judge). Although wear and bleaching can reduce the distinctions, the general impression is that Greater‘s head appears more lark-like whilst Lesser‘s more resembles a Linnet. Another subtle clue in a bird’s plumage that can be looked for is the pattern of the “median coverts” (roughly the feathers that run across the centre of the closed wing). In both species these show dark centres but in Lesser this is often confined to the shaft streak or rather diffuse whilst in Greater it’s bolder, darker and so more obvious. This may seem to be obscure but in the right conditions on some distant birds it can be the first clue you notice.
The presence or absence of a distinct ‘primary projection’ is the third critical feature to look for. The term primary projection may seem technical but in simple terms it means whether and how far the primary feathers (colloquially the ‘wing tip’) extend beyond the cloaking feathers of the inner wing (‘tertials’) when the bird is at rest. On Lesser 3 or 4 primary feathers extend well beyond the tertials and are c40% as long as them. On Greater the wing tips are entirely (or almost so) concealed by the tertials with at best only a small nub visible beyond them. Even on heavily worn birds only one or two wing tip feathers are normally visible. This means that the Lesser’s wing tip is plainly visible on a resting bird but has to be carefully looked for on Greater (although it must be admitted that on both it’s easier seen in photographs as not every lark is so co-operative to pause for a while). There are a further two minor and admittedly very subtle clues to be noted when looking at the structural differences between the two, head and bill shape. The small crests of both species are only visible when erected and pretty much identical but in repose the crown of Greater tends to be marginally flatter than that Lesser which can look slightly more rounded. The bill of Greater tends to be longer (and averages paler) than Lesser’s slightly stubbier bill. The harder one looks for these distinctions then the less obvious they often seem to be but both may subtly contribute to the Greater’s more lark-like feel and the Lesser’s resemblance to a small finch.
Voice can provide another clue for those sufficiently experienced to be well attuned to vocalisations. Both the calls and songs have a generic ‘lark-y’ feel to them but are so similar that accurately conveying these distinctions in written form is highly problematic. In very broad terms Lesser’s most frequent call is a dry, rattling (or purring) ‘drrrr-t-t’ which usually slows or falls at the end whereas Greater has a shorter ‘tewp’ and a rippling ‘tchirrup’ (sometimes recalling a sparrow). However, there’s a good deal of variation and both species can sound very alike. The song is similarly difficult to define and describe. Lesser tends to have a rich, rather varied and faster song which is more likely to include mimicry of other species (including Greater and other larks!) although inclusion of its rattling call can help. Confusingly Greater appears to have two song types; one using short phrases (1-3 secs) given at low level (?) and another with longer phrases given at greater heights. Another clue is that Lessers typical circling song-flight is lower without distinct undulations often accompanied by slower, higher wingbeats (reminiscent, perhaps, of Greenfich display) but they can also fly higher when, just to confuse matters, they can sound more like a Greater! Both species also sing from the ground but Lesser (apparently unlike Greater) will also sing from a small bush or shrub. However, individual variation, changing conditions mean these subtle distinctions can mean little in the field unless you’re highly experienced with both species. Accordingly, I advise those with good hearing and a good aural memory to listen to multiple recordings of calls and song on xeno-canto (Greater - https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Calandrella-brachydactyla; Lesser - https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Alaudala-rufescens) but make sure those you listen to come from western Europe as there is some variation between different subspecies.
I've put all of these points in tabular form on a pdf (see below) which is available on request.
REVIEW: “Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland” 2nd Edition 2020 Hume et al. WILDGuides/Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0-691-19979-5
When “Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland” was published in 2016 it rightly won many accolades (see my review here) since it was, in my view (and that of many others), by far the best photo guide to British birds ever published. Arguably, the clever multiple image montages, careful selection of photographs and the flexible way in which information is presented raised it to be the best photo guide to birds yet published. However, there were some small niggles which were blissfully ignored by most users, caused minor irritation in a few and, at worst, caused outraged calls for it to be pulped by a handful of perfectionists. So should those happy (or indeed unhappy) with the first edition buy this revised version, have those ‘niggles’ been dealt with and how far will it go to satisfying those aiming for perfection?
Many books which promise to be ‘fully revised and updated’ simply don’t deliver (particularly after only a few years) but this one does and does it more thoroughly and comprehensively than any other book I can bring to mind. It really feels like someone has listened to the critics, gone back to the basics, carefully trawled through the book to correct all those (mostly) minor errors, sourced better photos where needed, redesigned the plates where necessary and squeezed in additional photographs where possible. This may not be too far from the truth as Chris Batty (who has been rumoured to have drawn up a list of the original edition’s foibles) is now credited as a ‘consultant’.
The changes to the text start with the ‘Contents’ page which reveals that the order in which the birds are treated has been shuffled around with a handful of bird groups moved to make the book still more intuitive to use. For example Auks have been shifted to follow ‘Seabirds’ (not Skuas) and ‘Crakes’ now follow ‘Waders’; small changes but indicative of the attention to detail. The introduction has also been enlarged (from 4 to 6 pages) and redrafted to include a page on bird topography (missing in the original), a useful note on ageing (noting the new ‘roundel’ to indicate years to maturity, useful for gull ID) and an excellent brief introduction to the identification process. Whilst the text descriptions are clearly based on those in the first edition most have been skillfully redrafted sometimes adding new points but often simply making existing ones easier to read, comprehend and absorb. It helps that the print is easier to read and in many cases, despite being less aesthetically pleasing, the text is now presented on a plain background (rather than over a photograph). As with the photographs these multiple ‘minor’ changes have collectively made a greater impact than is immediately obvious.
Browsing the photographs it quickly becomes apparent the every plate has been examined and, where needed, redesigned and augmented (see the "slide show" above for some examples). At times the revision involves no more than shifting images around to add an additional figure, making the text and captions easier to read and adding dates when various plumages might be expected to be seen. It may only involve the substitution of one or two photographs for better ones but for various ‘tricky’ groups (e.g. Stonechats) it involves a wholesale revision with many additional images. Small touches such as the inclusion of lines linking up images of the same species on pages comparing similar species make for better clarity. Many comparative images of birds in flight (e.g. yellowlegs) are now consistently set out on a horizontal plane (rather than below one another) which, perhaps surprisingly, seems to make them work better. Similarly, some the plates and tables now have small illustrations to highlight important details (e.g. ‘Lesser’ Golden Plovers & dowitchers). Overall too there are more photographs of birds in flight. Happily, the handful egregious errors (e.g. incorrect image of “juvenile Little Ringed Plover”) and the greater number lesser errors (largely incorrect ageing) seem to have been corrected. Another plus are the captions showing when various plumage variations are to be seen (e.g. juvenile waders & gulls). In addition all plates have benefited from being better printed as they are crisper and brighter in this edition. All of these changes may be individually minor but collectively they make a big impact rendering the book still more user friendly.
So returning to my original questions, I believe that those with the first edition would do well to make the small investment to buy this thorough update. This new edition has been a root-and-branch revision such that all the significant errors and virtually all of the minor ‘niggles’ have been addressed and rectified. It even gives details of the twelve species recorded in the British Isles since the first edition. Inevitably, some will find fault as the book still fails to give entirely comprehensive coverage in some respects (e.g. frequently seen domestic duck types, exotic wildfowl & some juvenile birds and hybrids) but criticism of such relatively minor omissions should not detract from the bigger picture which is that this remains an innovative and very useful guide with the most useful treatment of British birds currently available. By striking a good balance between the competing demands of a full treatment of Britain's birds, cost and portability (even if it is bulkier than the first edition with the page count rising from 560 to 576) it stands head-and-shoulders above its rivals (a position unlikely to change any time soon). In the tidal wave of bird guides in recent decades it is one of the few actually breaks new ground and is likely to be a useful reference for years to come. However, I remain of the opinion that a European guide based on this book (even if shorn of ultra-rartities) should take precedence over any future revision. I’d finally add that I’d have preferred something other than Robin on the cover so that a user (or reviewer) with both could more easily pick up the right volume!
Update - in an interesting talk on the new edition for the 'Virtual Bird Fair' principal author Rob Hume confirmed, as I'd hoped, that work on a version on European birds was well underway. He suggested that it'd be available in 'about a year' (i.e. 2021). As ever I take publication dates with a large pinch of salt but I couldn't resist doing a mock-up of what a European guide might look like. A guide including all European species, races and extreme vagrants would surely be too large so it'll be fascinating to see what compromises are made to achieve such an ambitious aim. Hopefully, continental publishers will be queuing up to do a French/German/Spanish etc version giving WILDGuides a handsome & deserved profit!
When Liz passed away on Boxing Day 2018 my daughter set up a page for donations in lieu of flowers (see here). It was a source of some comfort that it raised just over £1,000 for Alzheimer's Research & Age UK - the first a charity that offers some hope of preventing (or at least ameliorating the impact of) the scourge that is dementia and the second charity one that gave great practical help when we both needed it.
Since then I have continued to raise money by asking people to whom I've sent my 290 page guide to birding in Cadiz Province to make a donation. I'm pleased to report that this has now raised over £1,600 (with Gift Aid). In fact, I've raised rather more than that as I know some people have donated to the charities directly or (with my blessing) donated to other charities that meant a lot to them. Many thanks to all those who have made a donation, often a very generous one.
Although I'm well motivated to continue to revise, rewrite and update my guide as circumstances dictate, knowing I'm also raising funds for charity (particularly via the page dedicated to Liz's memory) is a great help and a balm, however small, for my loss. It's for this reason that I ask people not to share my notes too widely with others but rather direct them to me via this site (or email). Apart from anything else it means that they'll get the most up-to-date version rather one containing misleading outdated information
We all have our "nemesis birds", those irritating species which we just can't manage to see even though we think we really ought to have done. We also have "near-nemesis" birds. Those birds that we've seen but not nearly as often (or as well) as we feel we ought to have done. Amongst the latter is, to my embarrassment, Rufous Bushchat. (The current 'official' English name for this species is now Rufous Bush Robin but over the years it's been called Rufous Warbler, Rufous Sedge Warbler, Rufous-tailed Bush Robin and Rufous Scrub Robin but I prefer the name I grew up with, Rufous Bushchat, which, to me at least, has the most sonorous ring to it).
I've seen the species several times near Bolonia, caught up with them at the classic site at Los Palacios (Seville Province) and have seen them near Marchenilla (Jimena de la Frontera). However, they've never been easy to see, they've taken a long time to find and, once found, views were often brief. On one memorable occasion I saw one within about 10 minutes at the latter site but, having called my friends (good birders all) over to see the bird, it took us two hours to relocate it. They're a declining species and they certainly seem to have become still more elusive in the Bolonia area than when I first visited the place over a decade ago. Hence I was delighted a few years back when a friend, Richard Page-Jones, repeatedly found them near Chiclana (a more convenient drive from my base in Alcala de los Gazules). Unfortunately, though, my personal circumstances meant I couldn't look there until this spring but when I did in early May a succession of near gale force winds wrecked my plans.
After my visit this autumn, though, I think ... hope ... I've cracked it. I've known for years that they were supposed to the in the "Sanlucar area" but never had any specific details. One spring six or seven years ago I even drove around the circuit I'm about to describe but it wasn't a full-on birding jaunt and was a hot afternoon when birds tend to be inactive and prefer skulking in the shadows. Last year I read reports that the area around Trebujena had a good population (see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/spring-2019-update-5-three-cheers-for-trebujena) but in spring, to my subsequent regret, the temptation of a shorter drive and precise directions to where they'd been seen persuaded me to focus on the Chiclana area. Knowing that they arrive late, I set aside the first three days of May (and the last of my break in Spain) to search for them. What I failed to factor in was that, being on a ridge overlooking the Bahia de Cadiz, the place is often swept by a fierce Levante wind. Naturall,y it was blowing so hard on my three allotted days that I could barely stand up let alone look for birds!
This autumn I decided to investigate the circular route north of Trebujena again, something I'd been meaning to do since my first visit since the habitat looked interesting. As I've raised the topic I ought to confess that I've never quite got my head around what constituted prime habitat for the species. I've seen them scuttling about small allotments at Los Palacios, glimpses of them on rocky hillsides dotted with olive trees above Bolonia and along a tamarisk choked dry streambed at Marchenilla (but never in the prickly-pear hedges that some books suggest they favour). I knew too that they were supposed to like vineyards but, despite looking several times, I'd never seen one in such habitat. The area around Trebujena I was set to explore, though, is dominated by vineyards and ones which, it seemed to me, were tended by more traditional low-intensity methods than most in the 'sherry triangle'.
Since it was already the 5th September, a time when the bushchats start to move south, and, as I still wasn't sure exactly where to look, I wasn't confident of success when I turned off the A 471 on the Lebrija side of Trebujena (a). At first the good, if narrow, tarmac road (b) was largely flanked by arable fields with most vineyards relatively distant but I soon found myself in areas dominated by grapevines right up to the road. Promisingly, there were a few spots that still had a few scrubby trees and shrubs indicating that this was no over-managed agricultural desert. I'm still not entirely sure what made me opt for my first stop. It was probably a mixture of somewhere convenient to pull off, a good view down a likely looking slope and maybe the sight of a small enclosure girded a chain link fence supported by concrete posts. I've found that Rufous Bushchats sometimes like perching on fenceposts which gives them a better view of their surroundings and, consequently, birders a better chance of viewing them. On my second or third scan of the area, I picked up a rufescent bird perched on a fence post - a Rufous Bushchat! I'd never picked one up so easily before. Calling over my birding pal Chris Cox, this time there was no two-hour wait and the bird continued to 'perform'. Better still we quickly discovered that two adults were feeding two well-grown young and even picked up a fifth more distant bird. Seeing five Rufous Bushchats in ten minutes was enough to make me feel giddy!
Keeping a sensible distance, we 'scoped the birds relishing their handsome colours, cocked and fanned tails before moving on the check elsewhere. Our first stop near a ruined building (c) had the habitat but (apparently) not our target species. Chris, though, had a Spanish Sparrow here - always a good bird to see. I tend to be an impatient birder so, perhaps prematurely, we moved on. Our next stop by one of a number of agricultural tracks (d) was much more to my taste - another open vista allowing views across and into the vineyards. Another five-minute scan and, yes, another Rufous Bushchat! Pottering along the track for a few hundred meters we found another three birds one of which gave superb views. Our total was now nine birds! We continued around the circuit stopping briefly as we entered Trebujena (e) to look at a noticeboard giving details of the Sendero de las Haciendas and to consider whether to turn left to complete the circuit or the press on towards the Guadalquivir. We decided on the latter stopping briefly en route (f) to scan another area favoured by bushchats albeit without success.
On the 16th September my Kent birding friends Rob Ratcliffe and Virginia Fairchild, fresh out from the UK, came over from their apartment in Sotogrande (see here) to join me on another search for this iconic species. Once more, being conscious that the migration clock was still ticking, I wasn't over-optimistic of success. I should have been. Within minutes of our arrival at the first location out popped a bushchat which obliged by giving us excellent views.
The next stop, of course, was the second site where I'd seen them earlier. It took us a little longer to see than last time but our target again showed itself. Then something quite magical happened. A man working the land nearby came over to see what the excitement was and it was clear from the start that he knew the species very well. Not only that but he told us there were still some on his plot and invited us to come and look for ourselves. We did and there were! We walked around with him, sure enough, saw our quarry - 3 or 4 of them. "Seňor Paco" was evidently delighted by our success telling us to come back any time. He plainly knew and cared about his "Caberrubia", the species' local name in Trebujena (that it has one tells its own tale). He was a lovely bloke not only insisting on giving Virginia a straw hat (concerned that she was hatless) but also collecting a small crate of his produce to present to us. It was a terrific end to a wonderful morning.
After such a wonderful high point further visits risked an anticlimax but with an old friend and colleague, Alan Cooke, arriving on the 17th it had to be done. Picking him up in the afternoon we went straight to Trebujena but in the heat of the afternoon, we struggled to find any passerines still less a bushchat. (That we missed seeing a bushchat is hardly surprising since one study found that 85% of sightings were made between 07.30 - 11.30 - see here). It seemed that my pesimism was, at last, justified although a passing juvenile Goshawk (a lifer for Alan and the third of my autumnal visit) was some compensation. On the 19th we headed off early in the morning to visit the Bonanza area but couldn't resist a quick last-ditch attempt to see a bushchat (a much-wanted lifer for Alan) in the vineyards around Trebujena. A fool's errand I thought, but within minutes of our arrival at the first site one flicked up on to a gate and then into a bush giving us a great view - a fitting finale for my search for this most charismatic bird.
When I read online earlier this year that the Trebujena area harboured the highest density of breeding Rufous Bushchat in Andalucia, 130 breeding males in 300 hectares of vineyards, I admit that I couldn't help but feel a tad sceptical. This is an increasingly scarce and declining species (see here) listed as 'Endangered' in the Libro Rojo de las Aves de España. The idea that so many persisted in such a small area seemed improbable. Yet seeing so many birds so easily so late in the season suggests that it really is .... and I hesitate to use this word .... common in the vineyards around the town. However, visiting birders shouldn't allow such an evidently strong population make them forget that this is a rare and threatened bird in Spain and that they should act accordingly. So if you really want a photo make sure you're not disturbing or 'pushing' the bird particularly if it could be nesting nearby. For the record, my feeble shots were taken with a bridge camera at the equivalent focal length of 2000mm and heavily cropped. (For excellent photos of the species taken in the area by a local photographer can be seen here). The use of 'playback', particularly in spring when they're establishing territories, is unacceptable. Keep in mind that, as I discovered, even as late as mid-September they can be feeding young so even at such a relatively late date using playback might be distracting adults from thending their offspring. Remember too that as this site becomes better known (as its rapidly becoming) it may not just be you trying to 'tape' birds in.
The good news is that the local community is actively supporting the conservation of this species via the Colectivo Alzacola de Trebujena (backed by a clutch of local organisations including the town council). Hence it's important for visiting birders to act as ambassadors for their hobby by parking sensibly, being careful not to indavertently disrupt those working here, sticking to tracks and paths, politely explaining what you're doing to anyone who asks, etc. As my experience demonstrates, when you do so you can be treated with wonderful kindness and generosity. It helps too, if possible, to spend money locally in hotels, guest houses (see here), ventas, shops etc. and, if your binoculars are still dangling from your neck, locals will guess why you're there.
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks (all of us are still birding!) at Taunton's School in Southampton. 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.