Category : environmental education

Not just swallows!!

Now that Summer is almost here I’m sure you have noticed that the greatest air acrobats have come to our cities, villages and fields: the swallows.

These birds are expert insect hunters, some of them as annoying as flies and mosquitoes. In fact, they could hunt up tp 150g insects per day, which means around 55kg per year! We think this is more than enough to help for the preservations of these species. What’s more, it is always funny to watch them and enjoy their pirouettes in the air. Don’t you think so?

But… not all the “swallows” we see belong to the same species. We have nine species in the Iberian Peninsula (plus another one in the Canary Islands) spread in three groups: martins, swallows and swifts.

They resemble each other in many ways, all of them are fast and fond of pirouettes, they have similar habits for nesting and they visit us only whith good weather: they arrive in spring and leave at the end of summer. Only the crag martin lives in the peninsula throughout the year.

Let’s see how to tell them apart from each other, helped by Marco Nunes Correia illustrations and a J.A. Sencianes Ortega watercolour.



Crag martin and sand martin.

Crag martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)

Its scientific name is related to the places where they build their nests: rocky walls, bridges, dams.

Description: it is ash-brown above and paler brown on the underparts, except for a dark stripe on the wings. The tail is short and square and, when it is open, shows white patches near the tip of the feathers.

Nests: are open half cups built with mud and lined with feathers or other soft material. They usually nest alone.


Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

It is the smallest martin in the Iberian Peninsula.

Description: just like the crag martin, it is evenly ash-brown on the upperparts. However, is white on the underparts except for a brown band on the breast. The tail is slightly forked and has no white patches.

Nests: in contrast to all other species, these are not muddy nests but galleries dug in earth banks.


Swallows 1

Barn swallow, red-rumped swallow and house martin.

House martin (Delichron urbicum)

It is, by far, the most abundant species of those we are talking about. It owes its scientific name to its regular presence into the cities.

Description: it is steel-blue on the upper side except for the rump (right above the tail), which is white. The underparts are completely white as well. The black tail is not as forked as in other species.

Nests: they hang their nests on house eaves, bridges, dams, etc; nests are built with mud and they are cup-shaped, with a narrow opening at the top. They frequently breed colonially.


Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)

It is the biggest swallow in the peninsula and also the most common.

Description: the most distinctive trait is the red patch from the forehead to the throat. The upperparts are steel-blue and the underparts are off-white or reddish (males and some females) or white (females) excepting a dark blue breast collar. The tail is deeply forked with the outer feathers very thin and elongated. It is completely black with some white spots in the central sections of its feathers.

Nests: are half cups built with mud and are hung on buildings eaves or between barn beams.


Red-rumped swallow (Cecropis daurica)

It is similar in appearence to the barn swallow but prefers open and rocky spaces.

Description: although it resembles barn swallows, with dark upperparts, it has a white and reddish rump. The red patch on its head goes to the back of the neck, leaving a white throat and a steel-blue cap. It has off-white underparts and the tail is black, without white spots.

Nests: made with mud, they are half-bottle-shapped and they are placed under bridges or into building ruins.


Finally, let’s talk about swifts, known for their wide wingspan (lenght between the wing tips once they are spread out).

The scientific genus name, Apus, is from the ancient Greek “apous” (footless), given their small legs and their highly aerial life style.

One of the most peculiar traits of these birds is they spend most of their lives in the air, flying. They only take land to lay eggs, incubate them and breed the offspring.


Swifts 1

Common swift and pallid swift.

Common swift (Apus apus)

Is the most frequent swift species in the peninsula.

Description: it is completely dark but for the throat, which is paler. The tail is forked and the wings are long, thin and pointed, giving it a sickle-shape.

Nests: they are placed into holes and crevices both from rocky places and buildings.


Pallid swift (Apus oallidus)

It resembles common swift so much that sometimes is hard to tell them apart.

Description: even though it has dark colouring, is paler than common swift’s and the white patch on the throat is wider. Wings are shorter and blunter. The tail is also shorter and not so forked.

Nests: they are placed in cliffs but also in eaves or bridges.


Swifts 2

Alpine swift.

Alpine swift (Apus melba)

It is the largest swift species in the peninsula, with more than 50 cm wingspand, and the one with slowest flight speed.

Description: it is dark brown above and a dark brown collar separates the white underparts. The wings are long and thin and the tail is slightly forked.

Nests: they are built into holes and rock crevices as well as in old buildings.


White-rumped swift

White-rumped swift

White-rumped swift (Apus caffer)

Besides being the smallest swift, is a rare species in the peninsula. Not present in Asturias.

Description: it is completely dark except for the white throat and the white rump. Wings have a narrow white band on the tip of the feathers closer to the body (secondaries).

Nests: it seizes red-rumped swallows nests and decorates the entrance with white feathers.


To conclude, let’s mention the plain swift (Apus unicolor), a regular species on the Canary Islands. Despite the resemblances to the common swift, it is smaller than this one and it has uniform dark brown plumage and a pale throat.

Have you seen any of these species where you live? And in the field? Which one do you like the most?

Recap of the course “Initiation to ornithology”, last weekend in Bejes

Last weekend, from 26th to 28th May, we gave an Initiation to Ornithology course at the Albergue La Aldea, in Bejes (Cantabria). The objectives were simple: learn how to identify birds, get to know something about these essential living beings and, most of all, have fun and spend a weekend in contact with nature.


Bejes at dawn

Begoña and Miguel organized the weekend and had everythng ready and under control. They run the hostel La Aldea in Bejes, a beautiful little village on the Cantabrian side of Picos de Europa. We highly recommend everybody to spend a few days there, you will not be disappointed. They thought about everything, even the rain schedule: it only rained at night, so that we would not get wet during the day. Begoña was in charge of the kitchen and the feasts she kindly cooked for us, there is no other way to talk about such delicious and plentiful dishes! as for Miguel, he guided us through the surrounding hills as well as he kept us entertained good mood.

The course was aimed at inexpert people willing to learn about our winged friends but Gabriela and Luis, who alredy are bird lovers and know a lot about them, decided to join us and spend the weekend in a new environment. They were also expecting to spot some new birds.

Watching vultures

Watching a griffon vulture’s nest, on the opposite side of the velley.

For the other participants, Isa, Pepe, Susi, Paco and Yolanda this were their first time bird watching. Our biggest concern was to lead them through their initiation and have a fun weekend at the same time. The lessons were: how to use binoculars, how to handle guides to birds and a lot of hiking in order to practice what they learnt al the hostel.

Birds from the woods are constantly moving from one branch to another, getting the birdwatcher into troubles to identify them. Especially when you are learning and you don’t have enough time to notice any defining details from the bird. Sometimes our birdwatchers didn’t even have time to locate the bird through the binoculars. But we also found some individuals who decided to colaborate: the stood still so that our rookies had plenty of time to pay attention to the details and, once they had memorized, look throughout the guide to, finally, identify the species.

Looking up in the bird guide

Looking up in the bird guide. Team work!

And then, at this right moment, magic showed up: their looked like kids, aware of what they had done, with their eyes sparkling. However, there were other times they didn’t succeed, something normal when you are learning. But even on those moments they enjoyed with all the aspects about birds they were learning and they had never noticed before.

We spotted a common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) perched in a tree very close to us, so quiet we had enough time to get the scope ready, aim him, focus and all of us observed him through the telescope. They were able to appreciate in detail the colorful feathers, the beak and the eyes. It seemed he had been hired for this performance. At this moment, as they were letting the next one look through the telescope, their eyes were sparkling again. And all their comments encouraged them to keep searching and observing.

Common chaffinch

A common chaffinch perches on a sycamore branch.

Finally, after the banquet on Sunday, the course was closed with farewells and promises to buy a bird guide and keep practicing with what was learned at the weekend. As for us, we are delighted with our double goal achieved: everyone goes back home with a new way of looking to our winged neighbours, besides of being able to spend three unique days in Picos de Europa.

We hope that, sooner or later, we meet them again and they tell us their new adventures of this bird watching new world that gives you so many satisfactions.

Winter wren

A winter wren perched on a wire.

Now, there it is the list with the spotted species. Maybe there are one or two missing:

– Egyptian vulture. Neophron percnopterus.

– Griffon vulture. Gyps fulvus.

– Golden eagle. Aquila chrysaetos.

– Common swift. Apus apus.

– Great spotted wood-pecker. Dendrocopos major.

– Barn swallow. Hirundo rustica.

– Crag martin. Ptyonoprogne rupestris.

– Tree pipit. Anthus trivialis. This was a hard one. Thanks, Luis!!

– White wagtail. Motacilla alba.

– White-throated dipper. Cinclus cinclus.

– Winter wren. Troglodytes troglodytes.

– Dunnock. Prunella modularis.

– European robin. Erithacus rubecula.

– Black redstart. Phoenicurus ochruros.

– Common redstart. Phoenicurus phoenicurus.

– Common stonechat. Saxicola rubicola.

– Blackbird. Turdus merula.

– Blackcap. Sylvia atricapilla.

– Common chiffchaff. Phylloscopus collybita.

– Spotted flycatcher. Muscicapa striata.

– Blue tit. Cyanistes caeruleus.

– Great tit. Parus major.

– Eurasian nuthatch. Sitta europea.

– Short-toed treecreeper. Certhia brachydactyla.

– Common magpie. Pica pica.

– Carrion craw. Corvus corone.

– House sparrow. Passer domesticus.

– Common chaffinch. Fringilla coelebs.

– European serin. Serinus serinus.

– Common linnet. Carduelis cannabina.

– Eurasian bullfinch. Pyrrhula pyrrhula.


When Spring arrives, birds start their procreation process, mate and focus on a really hard task: breed successfully their offspring. Sometimes they repeat this process twice each year.

Once the eggs hatch, the chicks spend a few weeks in the nest growing up until, at last, they can fly away and leave home.

This phase of the breeding overlaps with an intense hicking activities in the filed, due to the good weather. We also go out more often because there are more light hours per day and we like to enjoy the blooming nature. Sometimes, while we walk, we may find a little baby bird on the ground. If we follow our basic instincts, first thoughts we have are: poor little guy, maybe fell from the nest, maybe is an orphan, I should help him….

The question is: will we face properly thi kind of situation? Following their good intentios, some poeple take the little birds home, to feed them and take care of them. But they are wrong, though.

We should let these chicks right where we found them. Most commonly they have fallen from the nest but this doesn’t mean they are necessarely abandoned. Although they are not into the nest anymore, their parents still feed them even when they are on the branches under the nest or even on the ground. Sometimes we also might find fledged youngsters: they are quite grown up ones who might have fallen from the nest during their learn-to-fly exercises.

But now and then what we discover is a precocial bird: they hatch with open eyes and a coat of down, which lend them a certain degree of independence. Obviously the parents are always around looking after them but sometimes we might think the chicks are lost or abandoned.

But finding a little bird with little or no down is a different story, since they are incapable of generating heat. In such cases parents could only feed them but no warm them. Even though we feel sorry, we should never take the little bird home, nor try to raise it. And don’t think about feeding it with bread and milk like you might have seen in some films, birds don’t drink milk!

Best thing to do is get in touch with a willife recovery center or the authority (in Spain, we have SEPRONA, for example; just dial 1 1 2); they know the best way to do the right thing and they will tell you what to do.

Find more information at the Spring Alive website.


We’d like to share with you the experience we’ve had at the Tudela Veguin School, a little school for the kids from the surrounding area. We planned two workshop sessions with ALL the students: 11 children form pre-school, 12 from the first and second class of primary school and 15 more from third to sixth class of primary school. From the very first moment we felt the headmaster’s enthusiasm, José Manuel: he was thrilled about the workshops, you can say he loves his job.

With such an assorted group of kids we were, let’s put it in good words, a little bit worried. Not to mention the fact of teaching 3 year old kids, who hardly hold their pencils properly!

Intructor speaking at a nest box building workshop

An intructor explains how to build a nest box.

The workshop consisted of two sessions: first day we were building 10 nest boxes, kids divided in two groups: pre-school and first and second classes together and the rest of students in another group. Second day we’d hang three boxes, one per group and chosen by voting. After that, we would go for a birdwatching walk.

From the moment we saw the first kids we started cold sweatting. How would we handle such a disparate group? How could we give our speech and attract their attention with it? And most important, where is the toilet?!?

The school lent us the music classroom and we thought “we’ll need lots of music to calm these beasts”. Along with the kids their teachers came in and, suddenly, the classroom was full of people. We are deeply grateful to the teaching staff, it wouldn’t have been the same without them and their generous contribution.

Kids building nest boxes

Two teachers supervise some kids building nest boxes

Strangely enough, this first stage started very smoothly. We like to alternate video watching with box assemblying in order to make it easy for the kids and trying not to bore them.

As we were progressing with the boxes we were reassuring, we didn’t babble so much and we were able to speak more fluently. Every time we needed some help, there were the teachers, who know deeply these kids. We saw the kids very focused, really on-task! Some of them even had a smile on their faces!

Kids painting nest boxes

Some kids in four groups are painting nest boxes.

Second group was more quiet, so we didn’t take more pills to soothe the stress. They built their boxes really focused and asking lots of questions about the videos they were watching.

Finally, they voted for the nest box they liked the most, which would be hanged on the next session.

Several nest boxes, painted by kids.

Several freshly painted nest boxes.

The second session consisted of two activities: hanging the nest boxes and an introductory walk to birdwatching. This time they split in three groups: pre-school, first and second classes and third to sixth classes.

First shift was for the elders, who were very keen on learning how to use binoculars and enjoyed a lot watching thourgh the telescope. We went back to the school with our mission accomplished: enjoyment and learning all-in-one.

A bunch of kids near a next box hanging on a tree.

A bunch of kids pose nearby their nest box hanged on a tree.

Second shift was easy as well, kids from first and second class at primary school are curious about almost everything. We hanged their nest box in a different tree and fights for being the first to use the telescope began. Luckly for us the teachers kept order and everybody enjoyed birdwatching by using binoculars and the telescope.

A kid looking through the binoculars

A kid is looking through the binoculars while other kid looks at him.

And time came for the little ones. If they can barely hold a pencil, how would they handle with binoculars? How would we explain them how tu use them? How would we explain them how to use a field notebook? Stress was back and this time we didn’t have Trankimazin pills.

Kids learning to use a guide to birds.

Three kids are using a bird guide.

But they wanderfully learnt to use the field notebook and drew trees and big birds on them, which coloured later, back into the classroom. They watched birds with their binculars as well and even with the telescope, we were amazed. We dare to say they enjoyed a lot!

Three little girls using a telescope.

Three little girls looking for birds with binoculars and a telescope.

Once to this point, we had to say goodbye and thank all the teaching staff and José Manuel, the headmaster, for their lovely help. Al last, we could throw away the pills: our legs didn’t tremble as the first day, we got rid of the fear!

It has been a great experience for everyone: kids, teachers and, above all, for us.