Spring fever in Andalucía

Mid-April saw me back in Andalucía for a week. Predictably my first venture into the countryside was to Fuente de Piedra, one of my favourite birding haunts. On 18 April a vicious but warmish wind howled in from the south, piling huge clouds upon the mountain tops to the south of Antequera. The mass of cloud was such that the limestone massif of El Torcal, that towers above the southern vista from the town, was invisible.

The largely dry lagoon at Fuente de Piedra from Las Latas viewpoint (Chris Feare)

My arrival at Fuente de Piedra in the afternoon revealed that the main lagoon remained obstinately dry, with what little water was left piled towards the northern part of the shallow basin by the strong wind. But despite the low water level, the result of a winter rainfall considerably lower than the norm, two groups of Greater Flamingos found the lagoon sufficiently attractive to retain them at the reserve.  The smaller group, of about 700 birds, was feeding at the water margin at the south-west of the lagoon, whereas the larger group, numbering a few thousands, occupied a small area nearer the centre. These birds were packed closely together and indulging in a communal behaviour unique to flamingos, parading in a compact mass with heads twitching from side to side. These guys and gals were clearly intent on breeding – let’s hope their prediction of sufficient water later in the year for chicks to receive adequate food is more optimistic than my hunch that the lagoon will continue its evaporative decline as summer progresses.

Black-winged Stilts foraging in shallow water (Photo Chris Feare)
Avocets looking beautiful (Photo Chris Feare)

The smaller pools beside the entrance to the visitor centre, and El Laguneto, a small lagoon behind the centre, retained water and proved to be a magnet for aquatic birds. Coots and Black-headed Gulls revealed their intention to breed by carrying nest material, and indeed some Coots and Moorhens already had chicks. On El Laguneto some pairs of Flamingos indulged in their rather tricky copulations and Avocets and Black-winged Stilts will doubtless soon begin their courtship rituals. Pochards and Red-crested Pochards were the most numerous of the ducks but it was a delight to see that three White-headed Ducks appeared to have taken up residence as well.

Copulation can be tricky for male Flamingos – especially when his mate won’t stop feeding! (Photo Chris Feare)

While Fuente de Piedra is an important breeding site for birds, many other species, especially shorebirds, value the moist lagoon borders as a refuelling stop on their migration from low to high latitudes, some continuing as far as the arctic. Little Stints, Little Ringed Plovers, Ruffs and Curlew Sandpipers, the last changing into their rust-red breeding plumage during their stay, tend to be the most numerous but they are joined by Redshanks, Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Dunlin, Ringed and Kentish Plovers and several other species in some years. In addition to the waders, on this visit a minimum of 72 Whiskered Terns were roosting on the pool by the entrance road during their migration , occasionally making foraging forays, dipping to the water surface  to pick off insects.

Bird diversity on a small pool: in the fra,e are Gull-billed Terns, Shelduck, Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Dunlin, Little Stints and a Black-winged Stilt (Photo Chris Feare)

Wherever large number of aquatic birds congregate, predators are sure to follow and this visit did not disappoint. A male Montagu’s Harrier and a female Goshawk, doubtless also on migration, created panic among the waterbirds, with gulls and terns taking to the air in tight noisy flocks while others sought shelter in marginal vegetation.

 

Burrows made by Bee-eaters in previous years, awaiting the 2017 arrival of their owners (Photo Chris Feare)

The icing on the cake was two land birds, both newly arrived on their spring migration. First was a handsome Woodchat Shrike, followed shortly afterwards by two startlingly multi-coloured avian jewels – Eurasian Bee-eaters, doubtless eager to reclaim and repair their burrows in some dry mud wall.

Despite the relative lack of water, Fuente de Piedra continues to excite and is always full of surprises.

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