The first GONHS outing of this year took us to La Janda, nr. Tarifa, the place to visit during the winter to see large numbers of Common Cranes and White Storks gathered together as well as a myriad of other wintering and passage birds that are attracted to this rich, open agricultural site. The trip was led by Dr. Keith Bensusan and was a little different to our usual outings as we were guided by Stephen Daly, a professional guide who knows the locality inside out, is very aware of what may be around at any given time and where best to find it. He also has privileged access to areas that are on private land and usually closed off, so although many of us on the trip have visited the area many times before, we were able to view parts of the site that were fresh to us.
A large group of members (21 of us), met up with Stephen at the Apollo XI venta, conveniently located a short way from the entrance to the La Janda site. After coffee and breakfast there was a little shuffling around to find everyone a seat in a 4X4, as the tracks around the site are weather-worn and not particularly friendly to 'normal' cars. We set off as a convoy of 6 cars, showing number plates from Gibraltar, Spain and the USA which evoked quite a bit of curiosity amongst other road users throughout the day.
We began our birding quest on land belong to el Cortijo de Haba, scanning the ploughed fields either side of a track. It was cold and quite misty there, but there were still birds to be seen, albeit mostly distantly; we saw our first Common Cranes flying and quite a few Cormorants crossing back and forth. There were Storks, Cattle and Little Egrets present, a Buzzard hunched up on a distant fence, Red-legged Partridge at the field's edge, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. We could hear Larks in the bare muddy fields, most likely Crested, but their superb camouflage made them difficult to pick out and although there was movement amongst them flights were low and short and not at all helpful to us.
We drove on to the La Janda site and turned in to be greeted by mist that shrouded the land to either side of us. The first birds we picked out were Lapwings that were flying around despite the reduced visibility that landed in the grassy field to our left.
The sun, quickly gaining in strength began to burn off the mist and birds began to move around more freely. Perching places are sparse in this part of the site; a sizeable mixed flock of Linnets, Goldfinches & Chaffinches flew into this small bush, with more alighting on the grass stems below to feed on grass seeds.
There was an interesting departure from our usual route at this point; we would have continued driving and made a left turn onto the long main track here, but Stephen had gained permission for us to pass through a post and wire gate to the right, so we left our cars and continued along here on foot.
The track leads between fields with the river on one side and a dry ditch on the other. There were numerous Chiffchaffs along here amongst the reeds, Stonechats perched up atop stems and posts and Corn Buntings sang from the wire fence. Stephen had visited the site during the last week when there were large numbers of Snipe and Common Cranes here, but the field was being ploughed this morning, moving the Cranes on. We did however see Meadow Pipits, a Green Sandpiper and more Lapwings and there were still Snipe in the field opposite, with Calandra Larks. With binoculars it was possible to see very large numbers of Storks gathered at the back of the fields and another perched Buzzard. By the time we turned around to walk back the sun had all but burnt off the mist and it was feeling much warmer. To our delight Calandra Larks were flying up high to sing and to display flights against the clear blue sky.
Calandra Lark-Melanocorypha calandra-SPANISH: Calandria común
Calandra Larks are big, heavily built larks with a large head, stout Greenfinch-like bill and a black patch on neck-side. Characteristic in flight, with dark wings (all black below) with broad white trailing edge. Display sings in circling song flight, often very high up; the long black wings and closed tail give the impression of a much larger bird. A typical Steppe species favouring fertile grasslands, widespread over much of Spain and parts of Portugal, generally below 600m. There has been a noticeable decline in numbers in recent years due to modern agricultural practises. Feeds on seeds, shoots & insects. Calandras are thought to be non-migratory.
A Spoonbill was spotted flying, seeming to be trailing a leg. Back at the bottom of the track we heard Fan-tailed Warblers 'zitting' amongst the long grass, heard a Cetti's Warbler from somewhere by the water and saw a pair of Mallard flying.
Driving along the main track we had some great views, a Swamp Hen (I still prefer Purple Gallinule), Coots, loads more Cattle Egrets, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. There were Little Egrets, Grey Herons, and a distant hovering Kestrel. We stopped to photograph 3 Cranes close by in a field, not brilliant, but turned out to be our best view of the day of Cranes on the ground.
The convoy came to a halt to admire three beautiful Spoonbills that stood at the edge of a flooded field, settling down to take a rest.
We stopped again a little further on as Golden Plovers, still in winter plumage and incredibly well camouflaged against the bare brown earth were spotted in a field together with yet more Lapwings. Visible only with the aid of a telescope, we may well have passed them by if they had not been pointed out to us.
We turned right off the main track, crossed the bridge over the river and stopped a bit further on to watch a well-spotted Black-winged Kite perched at the top of a small tree. The beautiful bird then flew out across the field it had been scanning, hovered Kestrel-like over a spot on the ground then returned to its perch.
We continued down the length of straight track that is lined with small willow trees, currently bearing catkins. The track surface here was full of potholes to avoid and from our position at the back of the convoy, the only birds we saw were a couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldfinch. We stopped briefly and getting out of the car inadvertently disturbed a bird we were hoping to see - a Great Spotted Cuckoo left the cover of the shrubs and flew low down, close to the hedge back along the way we had just driven.
The next spot was of a Little Owl that had been sitting up on one of the huge arms of one of the irrigating contraptions; it was long gone by the time we tail-enders arrived! We did see a Marsh Harrier here though, quite distant above the hills to our left, but still good to see. Causing a little more excitement a Hen Harrier flew into view on the opposite side of the track, again distant, but it was possible to see it was a female that was then joined by another bird, probably the male. As we drove off we spotted a very tight flock of dark-coloured birds flying away from us that turned out to be Glossy Ibis.
We carried on up to the farm, leaving the cars once again to the scan around the very different terrain here. To one side there is rough pastureland where cows were grazing around clumps of flowering Asphodels; this is part of the Hen Harriers' territory and they would have been around here when we saw them from lower down.
|A huge field full of flowering Asphodels with grazing cattle, cork oaks & distant mountains - this is Hen-Harrier territory|
Parked close to a cow shed with a very muddy enclosed area in front of it that was full of curious cattle, the air around us was rather pungently fragranced, which some felt added to the campo atmosphere but which others found strangely offensive (townies!). But, where there are animals there are generally insects and small rodents, therefore birds. There were large numbers of Jackdaws all over the place that Stephen told us nest on the rock faces of a local quarry, and a little crowd of Chiffchaffs that were perching in the squares formed by a wire fence surrounded by yellow mustard-type flowers, diving out acrobatically to chase flies. A single Barn Swallow was spotted and a Booted Eagle that was perched up on a telegraph pole pointed out, 2 Buzzards circled, then a Hen Harrier flew in and scanned the area in front of us (pastureland surrounded with olive and cork oak trees and other scrubby vegetation). We heard the distinctive honking of Cranes flying and two separate groups headed straight for us then passed close over our heads. Lovely views of these large, elegant birds.