The raptor nut (Part 1)

Juvenile peregrine. I got the impression this was a male.

There’s always been something special for me about birds of prey. In my “youth” (OK, I was about 30) I did several summer contracts for the RSPB which usually involved raptors and I seemed to identify with them. The peregrine was “my” species and I still seem to have a particular affinity with them. But I spent many weeks with white-tailed and golden eagles on Mull, and with various species in Wales, Scotland and England. Not to mention gyr falcons and peregrines in Greenland! So you could say that since then I’ve been a bit of a raptor nut. I’d rather spend four hours watching a peregrine eyrie – even if virtually nothing happens – than four hours counting waders on an estuary.

Over the last two springs and summers I’ve been keeping my eye on several raptor eyries – from a distance, of course. It started in early 2021, during lockdown, when I discovered a pair of peregrines on a cliff within cycling distance of my home. This was exciting for me because until then I was under the impression that inland peregrine eyries had long been abandoned in Ceredigion. I followed them through to mid-summer and saw at least one juvenile in the vicinity of the cliff. On an early visit this year I saw both adults visiting the same ledge together, which bade well for the current breeding season.

This year, following a tip-off, I found another pair nesting in an old raven nest on another cliff even closer to home. By that time the three youngsters were already well-developed and on my second visit it looked like two of them might jump and flap off the nest at any moment. One can only imagine the sense of excitement and trepidation that these young birds experience as they prepare to take their first flight. I had found a comfortable perch for myself on the opposite side of the gorge where my presence didn’t seem to worry their parents. On my third visit, a few days ago, as I approached the gorge on foot , I saw that two of the now fledged youngsters were actually using the my own perch for themselves! So I hung back and let events take their natural course. There was plenty of activity as the juveniles raced around after each other and their parents, screaming raucously. There’s nothing more stimulating to the senses than peregrines at full throttle!

I began to make plans to return to the site with my picnic chair and pop-up hide, but the truth is that I am getting very poor results from my current photographic equipment, and I don’t know why. (The image above is very much the exception.) I’ve ruled out my long lens (a Panasonic 100-400 zoom), so it looks like the problem lies with the body – an Olympus EM1 mk 2, which is now almost three years old. I’m wondering if the “in-body image stabilisation” (IBIS) is faulty or whether my settings have become corrupted in some way. Unfortunately I am a bit of a technophobe so all this is rather a challenge. But needless to say, and incredibly frustratingly, any attempt at long range bird photography is having to take a back seat for now.

In summer 2020 – again following a tip-off from a friend – I heard that merlins were nesting in a dramatic, cliff-enclosed cwm a little further away. I was not familiar with this species, so I visited the site, and was excited to see a female merlin flash by on the walk in. It all seemed very promising. Reaching the cwm I noticed several small raptors perched on erratic rocks on the grassy hillsides around the lake. I decided they were merlins but then noticed that, in the air, one of them seemed to be hovering like a kestrel. And then…….. oh….. that one’s hovering like a kestrel as well……….. Eventually the penny dropped. They were kestrels. It was all a bit puzzling. I read “The Merlins of the Welsh Marches” , by David Orton, and that whetted my appetite even more for merlin experiences.

Cliff-nesting merlins are unusual; merlins nesting anywhere in Ceredigion are unusual. In fact, merlins in Ceredigion are unusual, full stop! But last summer I managed to locate this pair’s nest on a heathery ledge part way up a low cliff above the lake. I visited the cwm several times with a few trusted friends and we all enjoyed some exciting raptor action. They are such lively, feisty little birds, especially the tiny, blue-grey male, that in a sense they almost put peregrines to shame. I visited the cwm again this spring and noticed that the merlin pair were present and showing an interest in a section of cliff high, high above the lake. Would they be nesting there this year?

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Birding in Mallorca -and coots in particular ……

Red-knobbed coot : just look at the size of those feet………

Mallorca has been a destination of choice for British birders for many decades. It has a wide range of raptors, notably the massive and very rare black vulture (once close to extinction) and the exhilarating Eleonora’s falcon, plus S’Albufera – one of the Mediterranean’s best wetlands. The latter is a great place to see a wide variety of resident and migratory waders, herons, and other wetland birds. I’ve already described this year’s first visit to S’Albufera in a previous post : it didn’t go too well! But a second visit was more successful. I was surprised to discover that stone curlews breed there. One pair was nesting directly in front of a hide, and I was able to photograph a changeover – one bird replacing its incubating mate on the eggs.

Stone curlews changing over at the nest

In some ways the Mallorca is an outdoor laboratory for rare bird conservation. The black vulture survived in the mountains whereas it had died out almost everywhere else in Europe. Thanks to various conservation measures it is apparently now doing reasonably well. Several species have been re-introduced there, with varying degrees of success : Bonelli’s eagle, griffon vulture, white-headed duck, marbled duck, red-crested pochard and purple gallinule to name but a few. A couple of days after arriving I added red-knobbed coot to that list. This species – also known as the crested coot – is VERY similar to the familiar bird of UK wetlands. It is found mainly in Africa and is described as “critically endangered” or “rare” in Europe (Collins Bird Guide); “occurring locally and very rarely as relict populations” in Andalucia (Birds of Europe); and “one of Europe’s rarest breeding birds” (Bird Guides). I would have start looking at coots!

I’ll be quite upfront about it : the coot is one of my least favourite British birds. They are found just about everywhere, are easy to identify, and are always fighting (or so it seems). I barely give coots a second glance. The crested (red-knobbed) coot is distinguished from it – in the breeding season anyway – by what look like two redcurrants perched on top of its head. At S’Albufera I noticed a coot in a nearby ditch and quickly noticed its red knobs. Time to get the camera out!

Hand-out time

It turned out to be the easiest bird I have ever photographed; I could have done it with a wide-angle lens. Not far away a birding couple sat down to have their picnic and the coot clambered out of the water for a handout. Didn’t it realise it was critically endangered? I just wish I had managed to include the “Do not feed the birds” sign nearby!

Other birds seen and photographed were Kentish and little ringed plovers (both diminutive but both feisty), glossy ibis, avocet and black-winged stilt. I know I missed seeing several species at S’Albufera and elsewhere on the island, but this trip was not about making a tick-list. I know this sounds corny but we did want to experience the “real” Mallorca as far as that’s possible, not rush around seeing the sights and the species. In this respect it helped that we didn’t have a hire car; instead we had four bases and relied on the island’s excellent train and bus services to get around. This did have its limitations, of course. I would love to have explored the spectacular Formentor Peninsula, which has no bus service, to see Eleonora’s falcons at their nesting cliffs. But as a consolation I was able to watch a flock of these elegant and sociable raptors playing around some coastal peaks near Puerto Pollensa towards the end of our stay.

I’d love to go back to Mallorca. There’s so much more to see there. But would I hire a car next time? That’s a difficult one………

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A promised land.

The Albarca Valley, north of Lluc monastery (click to enlarge)

You’ll probably be relieved to know that I’m not going to write in great detail about every aspect of the Mallorca trip. Instead I’ll just write a short piece about individual aspects or locations which particularly struck me. For this post I’d like to talk about Lluc, a small settlement based on a monastery, centrally positioned along the north-west facing side of the island.

This part of Mallorca – the Tramuntana – is uncompromisingly mountainous with vertiginous cliff faces in many places. Roads wind through the mountains with hairpin bend after hairpin bend, sometimes clinging precariously to mountain sides. Driving them is sometimes not for the faint hearted. I particularly admired the bus drivers who had to deal with scores, if not hundreds, of cyclists every day, often riding two or three abreast on narrow, winding, carriageways. Ancient trackways, suitable only for walkers and donkeys, traverse the same terrain rather more steeply and directly.

The conventional story of Lluc goes like this. In the middle of the 13th century an Arab shepherd named Luke, newly converted to Christianity, discovered a dark wooden statue of the Virgin in a cleft in the rock there. The image was placed in the local church but three times it miraculously returned to its original location, whereupon villagers recognised a message from God and built a shrine to house it. It thus became a place of pilgrimage.

But according to the Rough Guide to Mallorca, its religious significance goes back much further than that: it already was a pilgrimage site. The area’s prehistoric residents were animists, who deified the holm-oak woodlands surrounding it. The Romans later renamed the site “Lucus” or sacred forest. With the arrival of monks, it was decided to overlay a Christian explanation for the significance of the locality. History is not my strongpoint, but isn’t that a sequence of events often put forward to account for sacred sites in our own islands?

I’m not sure if there are still any monks living in the monastery at Lluc. There is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a museum, and – outside – a slightly eccentric but interesting botanical garden showing plants of the mountains. But more than anything else, Lluc is dedicated to tourism. It has over a hundred rooms of various types, and there is a restaurant, bar, grocery store and gift shop. Not that I’m complaining about the accommodation – it has some of the only reasonably priced rooms in the Tramuntana . It was there that we stayed for four nights.

Behind the monastery buildings, a few minutes walk uphill on a cobbled track will take you to a cross set on a rocky prominence. From that point you have a panoramic view of the Albarca valley, set amongst rugged wooded cliffs and mountain tops. It is without a shadow of a doubt the most fertile area for miles around, as you can see from the main picture above, and so different from the unforgiving limestone mountains and ravines that surround it. For me it had the feeling of shangri-la, a promised land which would have delighted anyone coming across it. Did those early animists stand on this very same spot, entranced by the valley below them? It wouldn’t surprise me.

It is apparently now owned by the March family, once the 7th richest in the world, it is said, whose riches came from a variety of sources, ranging from tobacco smuggling to banking. You could say that the family has a somewhat “controversial” background, with wheeling and dealing and political chicanery to the fore.

I had discovered the Albarca valley on my first visit to Mallorca, probably thirty years ago, when it was full of the display flights and mating calls of booted eagles. Not so this year, unfortunately: if present they would probably have been sitting on eggs. On my earlier visit it was possible to explore the valley on foot. It is now only open to the public one day a week, so we had to admire this wonderful landscape from above and afar. But as I looked across the valley and watched a mixed flock of griffon and black vultures soaring around the summit of Puig Roig in the background I felt that whatever conservation initiatives are in place here, the land is in safe hands. I do hope I am right.

This post is for Jane, who accompanied me on this Mallorca trip, and whose birthday it is today!

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