Birding From La Manga Spain - April 2018

Our latest trip took us to another new destination, La Manga, on the south east coast of the Spanish mainland. This essentially holiday resort is located near the ancient Moorish city of Murcia and near to Roman Cartagena, once reportedly the home of Hannibal and now the base of the Spanish Mediterranean fleet.

The area has lots of fantastic beaches, a famous golf course, and many interesting buildings and history, but it also has a number of quality nature reserves, particularly on or near to the coast. So with the migration season in full swing, we had high hopes of great birding too. We were not to be disappointed – recording 96 species in our two week stay.

Here is a Google map of the area [click on a photo for a larger view].

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As can be seen, La Manga itself (English translation “sleeve”) is a curious narrow strip of land 22 kilometres long and only 50 yards wide at its narrowest. It largely separates a vast salt water lagoon called the Mar Menor (minor sea) from the Mediterranean. This lagoon is reportedly the largest salt water lake in Europe – over 700 km². Larger than Lake Geneva, it dwarfs our Lake Windermere, for instance, at 15 km².

Here is an image of part of the lake taken from our hotel balcony, on the 7th of 8 floors, halfway along the strip.

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And here is an evening view, with the sun setting over the lagoon.

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The whole strip is surprisingly very heavily built-up – with many high rise apartment blocks, hotels, shops and posh villas. So when we first arrived, the environment did not look promising. Neither were we encouraged by the very windy weather – such that the hotel’s plastic chairs were being blown about outside on the patio and had to be taken in. Apparently this is quite typical of the resort, though not normally with such fierce strength, and goes some way to explaining why the whole La Manga strip seemed largely deserted at this time of the year. There was even occasional heavy rain, such that I had to change the hire car as the windscreen wiper blades needed replacing.

As to the birding, very few birds were to be seen on the lagoon itself, apart from ubiquitous Yellow-legged Gulls and hunting swifts (mainly Pallid and a few Common). But the gardens of four rows of posh villas (and intervening plots of waste-land) between our hotel and the lagoon beach proved a surprising magnet for small birds.

Here we saw the usual Blackbirds fighting for territory, Spotless Starlings bathing in villa pools, Chiffchaffs, noisy Monk Parakeets, lots of Collared Doves and Woodpigeons, and House Sparrows. Yes, House Sparrows, not Spanish Sparrows. Those are to be found further inland apparently.

Here is a close-up of a male House Sparrow in full regalia, taken at a nearby restaurant.

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Even more surprising towards the end of our stay was the arrival of a male Iberian Pied Flycatcher, which liked to use wire railings for its perches. The Spanish version differs slightly from our UK species – having more white on its forehead and wings.

Also seen by our hotel were a pair of Linnets in full breeding plumage feeding in the waste ground, a Whinchat, a Sardinian Warbler, a Wheatear which perched on a roof, Greenfinches constantly calling, a passing Kestrel, and a Hobby. The latter floated past our balcony at a slightly lower level so that we had a good view of its upper side.

Near the start of the La Manga strip were old salt flats (a common feature of the area). Now largely unused, many were filled with water too deep for most birds. But not for a few Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, Shelducks, Little Egrets, and the Greater Flamingo. Here is an image of 4 adult Flamingos having a nap, but showing off their lovely pink legs and wing flashes.

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Also at the start of the strip there was a small peninsular - the Cabo de Palos - surmounted by an enormous lighthouse. This almost enclosed area is now a wildlife reserve called the Islas Hormigas. Apparently it is also one of the best diving sites in Europe. Here is an image of the area. Note the profusion of wild flowers and low shrubs- ideal for small migrating birds.

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And here is the lighthouse itself - built in 1865 on the site (according to Pliny) of a temple to the Carthaginian god, Baal, and subsequently to the Roman god, Saturn. Reportedly it transmits a beam of light for 40 kms.

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One particular plant I liked is this miniature wild iris, which seemed to like bare ground even on footpaths!

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As to the birds, a few visits to this area produced our first Barn Swallows, a flock of Spotless Starlings, a Kestrel, a White Wagtail, a single European Robin, and some interesting warblers. Here we tracked down only my second ever sighting of a Western Bonelli’s Warbler (like a Willow Warbler but more greenish and with a pure white breast), as well as Chiffchaffs and several Sardinian Warblers.

The small birds were too active to get any decent photos. So I had to be content with this image of a Collared Dove posing for me, unusually, on a cactus.

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The area at the end of the La Manga strip (where it descends into mud flats and tiny rocky islands) proved great for nesting gulls, terns (mostly Sandwich and a few Common), waders, and birds liking the scrub behind the shoreline.

Here is a distant view of the terns sitting on posts in the water of the narrow channel between the two seas.

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Here we saw also, for only my second time, a few Slender-billed Gulls, this time in breeding plumage with lovely pink tinged breasts, a most unusual sight in a gull. The area is apparently one of the few breeding areas in the Mediterranean for this relatively scarce species.

Other birds present were 6 Grey Herons (which landed briefly on a sandbank and then took off again), a single female Curlew (with a very long bill), a couple of Whimbrels, a group of Redshank, the odd Spotted Redshank and an amusing Greenshank. The latter was extremely active rushing about frenetically in quite deep water, apparently chasing small fish.

The scrub areas behind the shoreline also proved rewarding. Whinchats flew from the top of one spindly bush to another, Iberian Chiffchaffs and the odd Willow warbler hunted insects in the bushes, and a Spectacled Warbler suddenly appeared on the top of one bush (a seemingly miniaturised version of our Whitethroat). Then a Subalpine Warbler conveniently flew into a nearby bush (only the second time I have seen one of these) and I got this close-up. Note the distinctive orange eye and the white moustache.

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And here is an Iberian Chiffchaff showing its yellowish frontal supercilium and chest as it clambers for insects in the reeds.

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A handsome male Common Redstart flew on to a branch of a tree, a pair of Hoopoes flew across and a noisy group of Monk Parakeets clambered about in a palm tree overhead. One pair was particularly lovey-dovey, preening each other in the photo below.

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Wheatears (essentially a flycatcher) on the other hand preferred to stand look-out on piles of seaweed by the shore. Here is a male.

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Or stood on top of rocks like this dowdier female in the harbour, ready to fly up or down to make a catch.

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At this point I have to slip in this image of a beautiful, but sinister, plant I saw flowering in the scrub– the Cistanche or Broomrape. Having no leaves, I read that the plant relies on parasitizing the roots of other plants underground to fuel its magnificent blooms.

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For a birder, another great place to visit in the area is the Calbanque regional park (see map – near La Manga on the coast just below Los Belones). Boasting some of the best beaches in the south of Spain (almost deserted at this time of year) it is a scrubby wilderness, dotted with trees, full of wild flowers, clumps of bamboo, and contains some disused Salinas. It is surrounded by tall hills suitable one would have thought for raptors. Here is an image of the area.

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But no raptors! Our best sighting here was a Green Woodpecker, though not surprising really, given the number of ants we came across. From down near the beaches, we heard it calling continuously. Finally we spotted it, on a rock at the top of one of the hills and silhouetted against the skyline. With a telescope you could clearly make out the red crown, black eye cover, and the yellow rump. As we watched it began to preen.

Also spotted here were two Woodchat shrikes, a pair of Greenfinches, Fan-tailed warblers, and a number of larks. As well as the usual Crested Lark, here we saw this Thekla Lark, with its crest lowered.

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Two hides overlooking the salinas were somewhat disappointing – too much water again. But we did add a pair of Audouin Gulls, several Ringed Plovers, a Cormorant, and a single Kentish Plover to our list.

The park has other wildlife too. A tall hare scurried away through the scrub, the white showing well on its long ears. Then this lizard appeared. The pretty Spiny-footed (aka Spanish Fringe-toed) Lizard is apparently indigenous to Iberia and North Africa and is reportedly one of the most agile of its species – gone in a flash.

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The villages along the western edge of the Mar Menor also provided some good birding. Here is a pair of ungainly Black-winged Stilts foraging in the stagnant marshes of Los Narejos.

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South of Los Alcajares in the scrub area opposite an abandoned military zone we watched a splendid male Stonechat and a Red-legged Partridge which flew past at speed.

In the harbour area at Los Urrutias we watched a Grey Plover and this pair of Wood Sandpipers- no doubt refuelling on migration from Africa to the Arctic.

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And on the road back to La Manga a grey male Marsh Harrier emerged from some reeds to quarter the field next to our car.

However, the best birding experience of our whole trip was, undoubtedly, two visits to different parts of the El Hondo reserve (see map at the start of this blog), accompanied by local guide, Graham Critchell. This huge reserve (2387 hectares) is located an hour and a quarter north up the motorway from La Manga towards Alicante. It is particularly known as being one of the very few places in Europe to see Marbled Ducks (aka Marbled Teal) in the wild (a globally threatened species) and for its successful breeding program for the Red-knobbed Coot (a species in Europe restricted to southernmost Spain).

Here is my shot of a pair of the ducks at the reserve – which I have only previously seen in a zoo.

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And here is one of the Coots (with a band round its neck to denote one of the “starter” birds). Note the two weird red knobs on its head above the white frontal shield, and the blue bill. A Common Eurasian Coot is swimming in the foreground for comparison. I was told that the two species get on well together. But I also read that the Red-knobbed Coot is even more aggressive than its cousin – even towards its own young, few of which are normally expected to survive to adulthood.

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Apart from these two lifers, our greatest treat was a flock of 200 or more resident Collared Pratincoles (a summer breeder/visitor) lazing on a small island in the reserve. Conveniently one flew across the water to stand by the shrubs in front of the hide. Here is the image I took.

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Only the third time I have ever seen one and never so close. Note the red at the base of the bill and the neat black throat-surround (which is lost in the winter). As readers will know, this species is classified as a wader though its primary source of food is catching insects on the wing. We also watched several in flight, showing long wings and tail streamers and behaving very agilely in the air like a lake Tern or Swallow.

Another treat was a pair of Purple Swamphens (Europe’s largest Rail) foraging on the edge of the reeds, accompanied by two very tiny chicks. Here one of the parents broke cover for my camera.

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Another good sighting was this pair of Glossy Ibis foraging in the cut reed bed.

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Other birds at the reserve that we added to our growing list of sightings included my second only close view of a Moustached Warbler displaying on top of the reeds in front of a hide, a group of 6 Black-necked Grebes with breeding ear-tufts, Little Grebes, Great crested Grebes, Moorhens, a Purple Heron, a Squacco Heron, several Whiskered Terns in flight, one Gull-billed Tern, White-headed Ducks, a male Garganey, Red-crested and Common Pochards, Northern Shovellers, Teal, Mallards, groups of Curlew Sandpipers and Black-tailed Godwits, a group of Little Stints, Dunlins, Ruffs, a brilliantly coloured Yellow Wagtail, two Iberian Grey Shrike, a pair of Peregrine Falcons sitting in a tree, one Booted Eagle, and briefly a Common Cuckoo.

After the reserve Graham took us to another reserve with a hide closer to the coast – Santa Pola and thence to a large pond at his local golf course, La Finca. En route and at the reserve we added Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls and Serin to our list. We also saw a pair of Slender-billed Gulls facing up to each other close, and stretching up their unusually long necks and long beaks in what seemed to be a courtship display.

At the golf course, we watched a huge colony of Cattle Egrets in full breeding plumage in a thick reed bed (along with some nesting Glossy Ibis), a small charm of Goldfinches, a Great Tit singing away, a pair of Black-necked Grebes doing a courtship ritual, several flocks of Jackdaws, and finally a White Stork which flew overhead, feet outstretched.

Peter M
May 2018

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