Birding On Menorca

We have just returned from our second recent visit to Menorca – this time with a local birding guide, Javier Mendez, for two full days of our fortnight holiday.

It is a beautiful place, especially in spring, with over 900 species of wild flowers carpeting the fields and cliffs. For walkers, there is a trail called Cami de Cavalls, which runs for 100 miles around the circumference of the island. There are very few high-rise buildings – the island having been undeveloped during the Franco years because of its republican history- and virtually every single building is white-washed. Apart from a few more commercialised tourist resorts, the rocky coast is dotted with pristine uncommercialised coves and small sandy beaches. Algaiarens (below) on the north coast is one of the best.

[click on a photo for a larger view]

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Mahon, the capital, is one of two large towns at each end of the island. Famous as the inventor of mayonnaise (for the Duc de Richelieu), Mahon has the second largest natural deep water harbour in the world (second to Pearl harbour) and has plenty of history, but it is not as pretty and interesting as Ciutadella, the old capital, at the western end of the island. Here is the Placa d’es Born in the centre.

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And here is a fruiting orange tree in the garden of the St Augustine monastery in Ciutadella.

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It is easy to get around in a car. The most northerly island of the Balearics, Menorca measures only about 35 miles across and 10 miles north to south. It is virtually in the centre of the western Mediterranean and on the flightpath for many European birds migrating to and from Africa in April and September. Over 300 bird species can be seen, depending on the time of year.

Though very rocky (dry stone walls are the norm) it is surprisingly green and low lying (El Toro at 1000 feet is by far the highest point). Yet there are enough hills, gorges and sea cliffs for it to be a haven for raptors.

Of the larger raptors, Javier reported 40 pairs of breeding Red Kites, 70-80 pairs of Egyptian Vultures and 70 pairs of Booted Eagles- apart from a few nesting Ospreys and the first nesting Marsh Harrier pair (at Son Bou). All these species were easy to see on a daily basis, particularly the majestic Red Kites, as they drifted low down over fields next to the roads. Here is my closest shot of an Egyptian Vulture, apparently quite a rare bird in the rest of Europe.

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Smaller raptors were more accommodating. Here is a close shot of a female Kestrel on the lookout for its next meal. I counted as many as five within 50 yards.

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Grasshoppers as large as locusts, like this one, are in their diet.

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But our best find was a juvenile Red-footed Falcon, on its way from Africa to breed in the Russian Steppe.

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And surprising too was a Little Owl, which screeched three times and landed at 10pm on the side of a palm tree just outside our balcony in S’Algar.

As regards hirundines, we saw many Barn Swallows and the occasional House Martin (especially one at its nest), and lots of swifts –many Common, some Pallid, and the occasional Alpine Swift. The latter is of course quite distinctive, being larger and with a snow white belly. We watched a few near their nesting site on the Cala Galdana cliffs.

As regards corvids, there are surprisingly no crows or jackdaws on Menorca, nor magpies or jays. So the large black birds we saw were Ravens. And we did spot the odd Spotless Starling, and a Yellow Wagtail in a field full of cattle. My 1996 Menorca bird-watching guide said that the Spotless Starling (a species common in Spain, the N African coast and southern Mediterranean islands - and without the usual spots!) is a rare migrant on Menorca. However, Javier says that since about 2001 it has started to breed there and is now colonising the whole island.

But there are also marshes (with water in the spring) which attract Marsh Harriers (and in our case, also an Osprey fishing), warblers, shrikes, ducks, herons, egrets and a few wader species. At Son Bou and Son Parc marshes, as well as the more usual ducks, we saw Grey, Purple and Squacco Herons, Little Egrets, two Purple Swamphens, Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous Ducks, Black-winged Stilts and even one Redshank! In contrast at the large S’Albufera lagoon (a large reserve just north of Mahon) there were 1694 Coots and 148 Little Grebes (and a few Great Crested grebes)- but not much else! Javier reports that the waterfowl move to the lagoon in late summer, when the marshes dry up.

Here is a pair of Woodchat Shrikes at Son Bou marshes (good of course for insect prey). Known also as the Butcher bird, they catch insects and pin them on the thorns of shrubs as a sort of larder.

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For more waders, we went with Javier, to a brackish pool near the Favoritx lighthouse (north east) – to see a pair of Kentish Plovers, several Ringed Plovers and one Little Ringed Plover.

As we drove in Javier’s 4X4 across the island, a fellow birder travelling with us spotted a single White Stork in a field we were passing. It was foraging with Yellow-legged Gulls. A real bonus for our scopes – apparently a rare migrant, no doubt on its way to mainland Europe.

There is now a single breeding colony of some 200 Cattle Egrets, in a copse of pine trees just north of Cuitadella. Here is one of the Egrets in full nuptial plumage, perched at the top of the colony and looking down suspiciously at me as I took the photo.

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The farmer, whose large house adjoins the colony, was apparently at first angry that the colony had taken up residence next to his house, but local naturalists persuaded him to relent. The Egrets provide a free pest cleaning service for his cattle, just like the Oxpeckers in Africa. Here is one in action at Son Bou.

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As regards Warblers, Javier reported that we needed to rise early to see other than the common black-headed orange-eyed Sardinian Warbler (whose scolding song was everywhere) and the Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola) performing its aerial acrobatics at Son Bou. But the hotel breakfasts were too appealing this year. So our sightings were very limited!

One of the commonest birds arriving to breed in the spring is the Nightingale. Rather like Cetti’s Warbler (also common on the island) the Nightingale is absolutely everywhere there are bushes and shrubby trees, singing very loudly with a very extensive repertoire, day and night, until the middle of June. But despite the numbers, it is virtually impossible to see them unless you are very patient. I was fortunate, this year, to get my first sightings, one deep in bush at Cala en Bosc (enough to see the pale eye ring) and another later at Son Bou, where I saw the rusty red tail as one flew by.

Another relatively common summer breeder is the Turtle Dove, becoming so rare in the UK. Maybe they like Menorca because they get less hunted here than in the rest of the Med. Here is an obliging pair close by the car park at Es Grau (north east coast). Another bird was purring away on a telephone wire nearby (a quite different noise to any other pigeon I have heard).

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Another common island resident is the Blue Rock Thrush. Encountered everywhere near the coasts, they also seem to like hotels to perch on, apart from their more usual habitat of rocky cliffs. Here is a splendid male outside our balcony at Cala en Bosc in the very early morning.

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Also quite common, and not intimidated by humans, are Spotted Flycatchers. Here is a sweet image of one close to our car in Punta Prima (south coast). A pair was even nesting in a low branch directly above the Cami de Cavalls track at Algaiarens and even in our hotel garden at S’Algar.

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Apart from several Hoopoes, and other than the raptors, European Bee-eaters were the most spectacular birds we saw. There are several small breeding colonies (in from Africa), the largest being in a sandy field near Fornells. Surprisingly, they nest there in long excavated tunnels underground in a field, rather than in the usual sandy cliffs. Pity, I could not get close enough for a decent photo.

The cliffs around the island are virtually all very rocky. The most colourful birds we found there were a few beautiful Linnets in full breeding plumage, a pair of Red-legged Partridges scurrying in the low vegetation and rocks, and occasional Stonechat pairs perched on spindly vegetation. But we came to see the more unusual larks and pipits. Here is a close-up of a Short-toed Lark on a wall at Punta Nati with its bill full of food for hungry chicks.

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And here is a Thekla Lark perched, with Crest raised, among the rocks also at Punta Nati. Slightly smaller than the more common Crested Lark, there was no ID problem as Crested Larks don’t occur on Menorca.

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A first for me, though quite common on Menorca, was also the Tawny Pipit. Slightly larger than our Meadow Pipit, much paler, and with hardly any streaks on the breast, it is a summer breeder here too. This is my best photo, of one standing on a wall near Alcalfar (south coast).

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As regards sea birds, we scoured the sea for nesting Cory’s Shearwaters but in vain. Apart from the usual Yellow-legged Gulls, we did however see several Audouin’s Gull. A beautiful pelagic gull that rarely scavenges apparently and plunge dives for fish, it is still quite uncommon in the Med generally. They often perched conveniently on rocks close to the water. Here is a photo taken at Favoritx point showing the completely white head, dark eye, grey legs and red yellow-tipped bill.

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We also saw several of the Balearic sub-species of Shag. On Menorca these birds replace our Cormorants as the coastal resident.

As regards other non-human inhabitants, Menorca does not have any large mammals, large reptiles or poisonous snakes. But it is home to the delightful Hermann’s Tortoise, seen here on the Es Grau reserve having lunch (despite the lack of teeth).

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There are many lizards too, such as the common and pretty Italian Wall Lizard- seen here on the Alcalfar headland.

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As regards insects, there was a welcome lack of midges and mosquitoes. But I have to include in this blog a photo of a spectacular dragonfly - the Broad Scarlet - on the Es Grau reserve.

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Peter M
June 2016

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