Tag : birds

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.

 

Martins

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

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.

I FOUND AN ABANDONED BABY BIRD, WHAT SHOULD I DO?

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.

A GREAT EXPERIENCE AT SCHOOL

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.

HAVE A NEST BOX IN YOUR LIFE

Urban pressure and changes in landscape have reduced the chances of many animals to find places to install their nests or lairs to breed. At this very moment, is our time to spring into action and do something to balance out the situation.

How can we help? Building and hanging nest boxes. That way, we will provide animals with a safe place for their nests, where they’d raise their offspring with less risk.

Nest boxes

Nest boxes for birds

But, which are the advantages of placing these boxes? there are several and all of them really interesting:

– we provide birds and bats a safe place for nesting and raising their brood and a refuge against predators.

– we promote biological control of pests, reducing the use of chemical products, such as insecticides and rodenticides (rat poison).

– we’ll have the opportunity to obvserve closely the birds and their routines (but always without interfearing!!)

– we contribute to environmental education by increasing people’s awareness about how to help preserving the environment.

Perhaps you didn’t know, but a pair of barn swallows are capable of take big ammounts of flying insects on the wing!! Can you imagine how many mosquitoes’ they spare you from? Well, it’s the same with bats since they also feed on insects. When we hang nest boxes, so they manage to breed and to hide out, we are helping them with their offspring and they are helping us! Interesting, isn’t it?

In the same way, insectivourous birds are also really helpful to agriculture. There are scientific studies which confirm that the placing of nest boxes near crop fields allowed for reducing the application of insecticides. This is very good for us: less chemical products over the fields, less chemical products into our bodies.

Nest boxes

Nest box for starlings – Nest box for bats

In addition, if you like to watch birds coming in and out of their nests, carrying food for their chicks, a nest box will ease you these observations! You will witness this feeding process and you’ll witness

In addition, if you like to watch birds’ life, a nest box will make these observations much easier. You will see parents coming in and out with food for their chicks and you will also have front row sits to witness their first flights! Now, remember that we must NEVER interfer with our winged friends’ lifes and neither we should open the boxes during the Spring. And by no means we should grab or even touch the little babies. Parents might get scared with your presence and could abandon the nest… and this would be a disaster!!

Starling with bait and a chick

Starling with bait and a chick in a nest box.

So, join us to build a nest box and hang it next to your place, where you can observe it. Besides, if you like takin pictures o drawing this will be a unique opportunity!

AGAINST THE WINDOWS

A few days ago there was a frontal crash against the windows at home, again! This time was a youngster Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major).

Lets count how many accidents there have been since the Spring began.

The first one having a collision was a Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) and I think, looking at the long tail, it was a male. Once we verified he was alive, we put our knocked out little friend on the top of a fierwood pile, just in case some cat from the neighbourhood came to visit us (they do it all the time, indeed). It only took fifteen or twenty minutes to our little guy to get well and go back to his aerial pirouettes.

Injured swallow

Injured barn swallow

After that incident, we decided to stick an old dvd inside the wondow, in order to avoid more crashes with the reflections of the light.

But three or four weeks later, we heard again a thump: a female Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) fell on the ground. We had a bad scare, it seemed she had broken neck or something like that, but fourtunately she was alright. Once again, we put our winged fellow on the top of the firewood pile, far from nosy cats’ claws and let her rest in there.

Injured female great spotted woodpecker

Injured female great spotted woodpecker

She needed more time to recover than the swallow, in fact it was only after half an hour that she flew to the neigbour’s balcony. She knows well this place: she usually steals nuts from there!

Female great spotted woodpecker recovering

Female great spotted woodpecker recovering

Well, there she was, perched on one of the balcony posts, waiting patiently for the daze to go away.

As we were saying at the beginning, the last victim has been a youngster Great spotted woodpecker. This time was against a different window which opens to a field next to the house, full of wandering cats. So, we decided to bring him into the garden and protect him from the cats and from the hard sun at this tiem of the day (yes, yes… belive it or not, we also have heavy sunny days in Asturias!) And what a fuss he made while we were moving him!

Youngster great spotted woodpecker

Youngster great spotted woodpecker

He was, definately, the one wo needed more time to get well maybe because of his age, who knows… He spent around one hour, hidden between some oak branches, changing from one to another with little jumps. Suddenly, he disappeared.

If, somtime, a bird crashes aginst your window try not to touch him too much, in order to avoid hurting him. If possible, place him in a high place, out of reach from cats and dogs and let him to recover from the blow. Most likely he will fly soon, as our little friends did! With some cds or dvds glued inside the window you might low the chances of new accidents. If you find a chick and looks healthy and well feeded leave him there: probably his parents would be around and keep feeding him even though he felt from the nest.

Uppsss… someone just “knocked” on the window again… let me check!

MARZO ÑERARZO, ABRIL HUEVERIL AND MAYO PAJARAYO

There is a proverb in Asturias that says “Marzo ñerarzo, Abril hueveril y Mayo pajarayo”, which means “in March nests, in April eggs and May chicks”. (Please notice that ñerarzo, hueveril and pajarayo are words from the Asturian dialect)

Well, it is totally untrue: around here, birds are in a non-stop “brooding mode”. It is true that this winter has been very mild, almost a toy, and this has provided the birds coming earlier into heat as well as with nests and broods. Moreover, we are in June and we have seen the second covey of mallards which, by the way, have a hard time keeping together their offspring.

Mallard

A couple of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos)

 

Some of them live in the Güeña River, in its way through Cangas de Onís, giving that the river is channeled. But they love to sniff around, even though they have to cross the road nearby as best they can. A few weeks ago we had to stop the transit trying to gather together a mallard family. We were afraid of them being run over and turned into sliced duck. What a beautiful scene we made, running after six little ducks… hopefully there was anybody filmming! I don’t know why people call “duck” to someone clumsy (at least in Spain)… what a way to run! When we could finally gather the family and

Finally we got the family gathered and we were talking proudly about our efforts with an old woman who had been watching us, when suddenly she drove us to ruin: “this morning she had ten or twelve chicks, I don’t know where they could be”. The only thing we could think about, with our hearts pounding, was hoping they had managed to reach the river. It so happens that we did not see them anymore, so our legs were extremely grateful…

Besides mallards, we have pinpointed a whote-throated dipper’s nest. They are said to be bioindicators who only inhabit rivers with high quality waters. And this river has them, no doubt, since they are frequently seen. This pair of dipper have raised the second brood of bioindicators and they are alredy looking for accomodation.

White-throated dipper

White-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus)
Photo courtesy of Ana Míngues Corella.

 

But barn swallows are the most remarkable case. In front of our home there is a stable, with its cows and all that stuff. The owner sais that they are able to raise three broods in good years and this is what happened this year: we’ve seen some swallows incubating the third clutch. They make the most of the heat inside the cowshed as well as of the food that cows provide them: an insectivourous diet just right next to their nests. With such attractions they can not say “no”.

Barn swallow

Four barn swallow chicks into their nest.

 

At the beginnig of the Spring you could see a few swallows but now they are everywhere. They fly at full speed, some of them learning to avoid obstacles and to take flying insects on the wing. At this rate, they will eat all the flies and mosquitoes in the area… good neighbours!!

 

READY, STEADY… OPENING!!

Hello everyone and welcome! We are starting a new project with a clear objective: bring you closer to Mother Nature, showing you how you can contribute to her preservation by interacting with Her.

You can find us right next to Picos de Europa, in a place where Mountains and the Sea come together. Our experiences will be shaped by the forests that surround us.

lago Ercina

Oaks, hazels, chestnut trees, sycamores and hollies are close to our homes and they provide shelter to a huge variety of birds, insects, amphibians and mammals. We are delighted just going out and taking a simple walk!

 

camachuelo 2

Through our social networks we will keep you updated with our posts describing the incredible things that our little winged friends will be doing.

During the summer, we offer the families who visit Cangas de Onís and its surroundings two different workshops: one about birdwatching and the other about nest boxes. With the first one you will learn how to identify the little birds around us, while with the second you will learn how to build a fantastic nest box.

We hope that you find our project as attractive and fascinating as we do. In the same way, we’d be pleased to share with you the privilege of enjoying what we love the most.