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's first 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. This time 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. Remember too that as this site becomes better known (as its rapidly becoming) it may not just be you trying to 'tape' birds in. Further, as I discovered, even as late as mid-September they can be feeding young so playback might then be distracting adults from feeding them. 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.