Tuesday, 30 September 2014

My Spanish Patch

I (James) visit expat land in Spain with a fair degree of regularity due to a doddery old relative who lives on the Costa Blanca near Torrevieja. This is an area which is full of the usual full english breakfast eating, beer swilling, slightly racist, slightly sexist stereotypes you see in the sitcom Benidorm but I had heard a rumour that my 'auntie' lived adjacent to a nature reserve. Over six years ago before I first visited my wife told tales of such exotica as Hoopoe's and Flamingoes from the villa. I naturally was sold as I had done next to no birding outside the UK and was able to swallow my pride and head to what in my head was the cultural equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. I was wrong about the place - yes, it has the cultural clout of a piece of candyfloss but the people are  pleasant (and not all English) and the birds, oh boy the birds!

I can still remember the first morning I went birding clear as a bell. Full time nights, full time uni and a very broken car were stacking up and I needed a week of warmth and escape. I woke early and could feel the late March sun, already over 20c warming me in my bed when a sound drifted in. 'Hoop hoop hoop'. I was up and away. Within minutes I had seen half a dozen lifers with Woodchat Shrike, Slender-billed Gull, Sardinian Warbler, Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Crested Lark (it was actually Thekla I now know) and best of all two scrapping territorial Hoopoes. On a visit these days the birds would barely garner a mention as all are pretty common as are the Black-necked Grebes which winter here although numbers have never rivalled the number I saw that day (4-5000 and apparently the largest wintering population in Europe). The reserve is La Mata y Torrevieja and it is a pair of salt extraction lakes with La Mata being used to control the water levels of the workings on La Torrevieja.

Over the last 6 years I have made more than annual visits at all times of the year and seen a lot of what is to offer. I have found breeding Booted Eagles and Montagu's Harriers which are replaced by wintering Hen Harriers. There have been Hobbys and Ospreys, three species of Swift, all the European Hirundines, wintering northern European species including Siskin and Redwing, both species of Nightjar, falls of Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts and Wood Warblers. And endless Stone Curlews. Hundreds of them. These days when I visit I often head further afield for Bustards or Spotted Eagles but I always take time to enjoy what is on my doorstep, a mere 4 yards away.

One of my favourite sightings would have been extremely mundane on either of my two patches in the challenge. I heard a crest calling and another reply. The default in Alicante and at La Mata is Firecrest so when my neck bristled through familiarity I was surprised. I played a bit of Goldcrest call and low and behold two Goldcrests emerged on the edge of the reserve which I promptly photographed and forgot about. It wasnt until I showed this photo to a local birder that I realised how rare these birds were in the area with no fully documented records in the province and hearsay of the odd bird in the mountains in winter. I was pretty chuffed!

The site is a very large lake which you can watch from the southern side. At the west end there are citrus groves and a reedbed over which three species of harriers have been seen and a solitary Great Spotted Cuckoo. The citrus groves are a favourite of passage Wheatears and chats. The south side is stone pine scrub and xerophytic salt marsh which is filled with shrikes and Sardinian Warblers with waders in the water. There are a couple of small islands which hold breeding terns. The east end has some light allotment type land use and is more touristy with cycle trails and picnic areas including a wood which has corsican pine and broadleaved trees favoured by Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests and Western Bonelli's Warblers on passage. East of the site itself is some grass covered wasteland which holds chats and Quail. A strip of coastal ribbon development shields the site from the sea but less than a few hundred metres away are some low cliffs which have given up coastal waders and Balearic Shearwaters. And looking up always helps with a fine selection of raptors and aerial insectivores.

 At present my patch list stands at 117 species but I have some glaring omissions including Little Ringed Plover, Monk Parakeet, several easy heron species and Reed Bunting. Also on my most wanted are Rufous Scrub Robin and Richard's Pipit. The former breeds discretely I am told whilst the latter winters in small numbers on the allotments amongst hordes of Meadow Pipits.

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