Down-turned bills on the up

A Glossy Ibis at Fuente de Piedra on 3 May 2019 (Photo: Chris Feare)

My arrival at Fuente de Piedra on 3 May was greeted by a group of black-looking birds feeding close together at the edge of the shallow pool on the left side of the entrance road. During frequent visits to this Natural Park from 2003 onwards, I had never seen a Glossy Ibis until April 2016, although I was aware that they were resident in Doñana National Park, about 150 kilometres to the west. My first view of them had been a flock of 17 that flew over – blackish birds with long thin necks and long downcurved bills.

The small group of birds was feeding intensively at the edge of the pool (Photo: Chris Feare)

My views of them on 3 May this year were very different. The 9 birds feeding at the edge of the pool were surprisingly unwary and allowed close approach, even when I got out of my car. While I was watching and photographing them, my birdwatching colleagues Andy and Ron arrived and still the birds were unperturbed. At this stage of the morning, around 1030, the light was coming from behind them and it was not until later, at about 1300, that we saw them in their full glory, with superb green, purple and bronze iridescence of the adult birds in breeding plumage.

Feeding Glossy Ibises with a migrant Greenshank in the foreground, all oblivious to the courting Greater Flamingos in the background (Photo: Chris Feare)

Glossy Ibises were formerly widespread in southern Europe but for reasons not entirely clear (possibly including drainage of wetlands, land use change, hunting, pesticides and other factors) they underwent a major contraction of range from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. In this region they became virtually extinct, apart from sporadic breeding attempts in southern Spain. It was not until the 1990s that breeding became regular again in Spain, especially in the marshlands of Doñana National Park.

Fuente de Piedra has extensive reed beds at water margins, a favoured feeding habitat for Glossy Ibises. (Photo: Chris Feare)

Since that time the numbers wintering in Spain, mainly in Doñana and at the Ebro delta in north-eastern Spain, have increased dramatically. This increase has been accompanied by an increasing number of sightings in other parts of western Europe, including Portugal, France, Britain and Ireland, even including a failed attempt at breeding in at an RSPB reserve in Lincolnshire on England’s east coast.

Glossy Ibises showing off their breeding plumage gloss in good light – does this signal future nesting at Fuente de Piedra? (Photo: Chris Feare)

A possible stimulus for the increase in numbers in Iberia is the increase in rice production, for rice fields are very attractive feeding areas for Glossy Ibises in winter. However, the species’ dramatic range expansion has led them to frequent wetlands remote from rice production. This could be good news for Fuente de Piedra – rice is not cultivated there but there are extensive marshes and reed beds surrounding the main lagoon. Perhaps the Glossy Ibis’s increasing presence at Fuente de Piedra could lead to the establishment of a nesting colony there – we live in hope!

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