Towards the end of an arid summer

The dry salt pan that is Laguna Fuente de Piedra in September 2015
The dry salt pan that is Laguna Fuente de Piedra in September 2015

No, not Britain! Arrival in Andalucía, in southern Spain, in mid-September revealed a landscape textured by a total lack of rain since April. Scorched earth is an apt description of much of the countryside although much of the crop land has already been cultivated in preparation for the next sowing – clearly someone is expecting rain!

In the general countryside there appears little evidence of bird migration, in fact birds seem fairly hard to find. Even Barn Swallows and House Martins, normally present in large numbers at this time of year, are few and far between. But the main outcome of the earlier searing heat is the absence of standing water. All of the lagoons in the area around Antequera, including the large Laguna Fuente de Piedra and the larger of the two lagoons (the smaller one regularly dries out)  at Ratosa, are bone dry, depriving migrating birds, especially shorebirds, of important stop-over sites. Fuente de Piedra is famed for its Greater (and even a few Lesser) Flamingos but few have remained this year, most doubtless having left in search of wetter conditions elsewhere. On my arrival in Antequera I was met by Elisa Pérez-Ramírez (whom I had met in 2009 at an avian influenza conference in Athens, Georgia) and her boyfriend Lorenzo Pérez González (who undertakes research on Spotless Starlings), who had both earlier in the year participated in the annual round-up and ringing of Fuente de Piedra’s Flamingos. Interestingly, their visits to the lagoon had been in the dark in order to catch the birds at daybreak and they had not been to the visitor centre before. But all I could show them from there was a vast area of baked salt flat, with a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the remains of some Flamingos, mainly juveniles, that had failed to make it. Lorenzo subsequently helped me to negotiate the geography of Sevilla while I attended a conference there, importantly highlighting some of the good tapas bars! Local knowledge is invaluable.

Eroded limestone pinnacles at Et Torcal
Eroded limestone pinnacles at Et Torcal

The highly sculpted limestone massif of El Torcal, just south of Antequera, is similarly dry but its altitude confers somewhat moister conditions, especially in its shaded valleys and on the occasional days of mist. More birds were apparent here, a highlight being a juvenile Rock Thrush. Its relative, the Blue Rock Thrush is common here throughout the year but the more colourful Rock Thrush is much less frequently seen. Single Garden Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher were seen here but the only numerous birds were Greenfinch and Goldfinch. On sunny evenings, however, the tops of some of the tallest limestone pinnacles revealed Iberian Ibex (wild mountain goat) catching the last rays of the sun.

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