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Observations of Little and Great Bustards, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Spanish Imperial Eagles and other wildlife in La Sagra (Toledo), February & March 2012

John Muddeman
15/05/2012 22:14:45

The exceptionally dry and generally warm winter conditions generally allowed better viewing conditions than normal given easy access onto the tracks in the arable land!

Posted in: Flora, Birds, Endangered Wildlife and Habitats | Castile-La Mancha | Mainland Spain, Central Spain


Great Bustard - Otis tarda © John MuddemanGreat Bustard
Otis tarda
© John Muddeman
Three visits to the core part of the agricultural area of La Sagra, plus the nearby Castrejón reservoir, revealed a wealth of birdlife.

The first was to scout for a trip which I lead for the Spanish Ornithological Society, which took place a few days later on a very cold day in February, plus it also became the core area for a day trip for a private Spanish client in March.

Given the time of year it was no surprise that birds were the principal objective of the visits, but the numbers of steppic birds and raptors exceeded our expectations.

While the numbers of Great Bustards Otis tarda were modest, they were seen on all visits, totalling some 40 or so individuals in 2-4 small groups, including one fine group of frisky, moustached males.

This was one of the closer birds to fly past (please remember that my camera is a simple bridge model!), but excellent views of birds on the ground were made on all the visits.

Landscape of La Sagra with Little Bustard flock - Tetrax tetrax © John MuddemanLandscape of La Sagra with Little Bustard flock
Tetrax tetrax
© John Muddeman
More surprising was the discovery of a large group of Little Bustards during the February visits, which totalled some 4-500 birds, nearly all in just one flock! This winter was either a particularly good one for locating large groups, or I simply got out more to the right places! A shot of some of the birds in the local landscape near Torrijos gives an idea of the area the flock covered in one stubble field!

One of the features of C Spain in winter is the association between Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Pterocles alchata and Little Bustards, but here they decided to remain apart, though not far from each other in separate fields.

Corn Buntings Emberiza calandra, Iberian Grey Shrikes Lanius meridionalis, wintering larks including plenty of Calandras Melanocorypha calandra and a range of raptors, including Merlin Falco columbarius, Immature Spanish Imperial Eagle - Aquila adalberti © John MuddemanImmature Spanish Imperial Eagle
Aquila adalberti
© John Muddeman
Western Marsh Circus aeruginosus and Hen Harriers C. cyaneus, plus Red Kite Milvus milvus were all seen too, though a couple of immature-plumaged Spanish Imperial Eagles Aquila adalberti really stole the show on the first visit, despite being seen on each of the trips, albeit in different places.

I have deliberately used the term immature-plumaged, since with the increase in knowledge of the species as it not only gradually returns to parts of its former range but also increases in density in many areas already occupied (e.g. in Madrid), cases of birds breeding in 'juvenile' plumage have now been found. From memory a second calendar-year female has even bred successfully, and 'checkerboard' birds such as the one shown here on the left, while usually in their fourth-fifth calendar year, may be younger or older than this, and on occasions breed perfectly well.

The younger bird shown below was interacting noisily with the apparently slightly older bird, though shows a far less advanced moult pattern, with just one or two replaced secondaries visibly longer than the rest. Immature Spanish Imperial Eagle2 - Aquila adalberti © John MuddemanImmature Spanish Imperial Eagle upperparts
Aquila adalberti
© John Muddeman


It wasn't just working out the ages of these birds which was fun, but also on one occasion, separating them from other species, especially when seen against the light. One immature Spanish imperial Eagle even 'transformed' into an immature Bonelli's Eagle when three or four eagles appeared at once, with the last note being that this latter bird was one of the individuals which has been reintroduced into the Sierra Oeste de Madrid, not far from where I live, using the hacking technique!

Good days out are often also accompanied here by a fine mixture of habitats and environments too, enabling a good range of species to be seen. OK, so a small flock of presumably feral Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea at a nearby reservoir were definitely unexpected, but the Purple Swamphens Porphyrio porphyrio were not, nor, in March, the first Purple Herons Ardea purpurea or nest-building Eurasian Penduline-tits Remiz pendulinus.

Views of the sandstone cliffs of the Castrejón reservoir © John MuddemanViews of the sandstone cliffs of the Castrejón reservoir© John MuddemanThe scenery here, as I said can be good too, and the sunlight picking out the edges of the weathered sandstone cliffs of the Castrejón Reservoir make a fine sight, especially when large flocks of migrant Common Cranes Grus grus and White Storks Ciconia ciconia can also be admired almost simultaneously in the background!

Keeping our eyes open we also saw a few Iberian Hares Lepus granatensis plus plenty of Common Rabbits Oryctalagus cuniculus, which are also making an important comeback after years of near-absence given the combined pressures of myxamatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease, which is of course very good news for the raptors too.

And as if to prove that it was not all birds, one of the short drives around in our search for both Little Bustards and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Giant Orchid - Barlia robertiana © John MuddemanGiant Orchid
Barlia robertiana
© John Muddeman
which had moved fields in the 6 weeks between visits, turned up a fine Giant Orchid Barlia robertiana in a dry trackside runnel.



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