Monday, 18 October 2010

Birdies

It's always nice to be able to add a new species to your life list.  I must be a bit odd as I have several 'life lists',  for birds, for plants, for invertebrates, for mammals and for 'others'.  Our trip to Portugal has added to most of these lists.  We will start with the one which has had the biggest gain; the Birds list.
Staying near to an area of wetland is always a good start if you want to see birds as they are usually very rich in species and numbers.  Staying as we were, next to the Salgados Wetlands, we were not disappointed.  The first new species was also the smallest we saw.  A little bird with a big name - in fact two big names - A Fan-tailed Warbler (Cisticola juncidis).
It may be a bit difficult to spot in amongst the dry grasses and shrubs of dunes, but that is, after all, the whole point of camouflage.  I mentioned that this little bird has two names, apart from Fan-tailed Warbler, the other name it goes by is the Zitting Cisticola.  Weighing only about 1/4oz and being entirely insectivorous, it can sometimes have a very difficult time during cold weather when it's food source is scarce.  It is the only member of the Cisticola family of Warblers to be found in Europe.  Most of it's cousins are native to the African continent.
Secondly, a slightly larger bird and one which really has no business being in Portugal.  Native to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild) has become resident in Portugal over the past few years and is spreading into Spain.  We were lucky enough to have a small flock of about 10 individuals which regularly visited the trees next to our apartment.  Always flitting about and never sitting still for more than a few seconds at a time, these handsome little finches took a lot of patience and not a little luck to capture on camera.  The red markings on it's face give it the the look of wearing a mask.
Moving up the size scale just a bit more, we saw several Crested Larks (Galerida cristata) scuffling around the dry, dusty ground of the car-parks and footpaths, leaping into the air as soon as I managed to focus on them. So, these were also rather difficult to get a good 'shot' of, but here goes...
Bigger still now and a bird which blended so well into it's environment, that it was all too easy to miss.  However, as we peeked over the wall which ran around the golf course nearby, I was astonished to see another 'new' bird for my list.  This time, it was standing absolutely motionless on a rock by the side of a small river which ran through the greens of the golf course.  A Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides).  This a is a very small member of the Heron family measuring only about 18" tall.  Wintering in Africa, they are very seldom seen further north than these Southern European and Mediterranean coasts.  Pale in colour when out of breeding plumage, they show shocking, white wings when they take to the air, as this one did a few seconds later.  What a beauty!
I have saved the best for last...
Crashing around the reed-beds and making strange 'mooing' noises was a large, heavily built bird, rare (indeed endangered) in Europe and nowhere very common.  Related to our more familiar Moorhen, but much bigger, the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio subspecies porphyrio) is a sight to behold.
You can get a good idea of size when compared to the Coot next to which this one was standing.  We did in fact see several Purple Swamphens (also called Purple Gallinules) while we were walking around the wetlands, never straying too far from the reed beds and always ready to scuttle off and hide among the tall stems at the first sign of threat.  Purple Swamphens feed on the reeds, especially the white 'pith' within the stalks.  They cut the reeds off at the base with their formidable bill, then hold them it their huge feet while nibbling the stems from the soft base upwards.  They have also been known to eat eggs, small ducklings and invertebrates (especially water snails) but what a stunning bird and what a wonderful 'tick' for my list!
More new ticks tomorrow...
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