Last week I was in southern Spain near Malaga, one afternoon I went with my Dad to a nature reserve on the coast called ‘Rio de Gualdehorcé’ which was where a river split in two before hitting the sea – between the two arms is a series of pools, reeds and scrub. This was purportedly a great place for birds; it being the only coastal wetland site for many miles in either direction, when we arrived the sun was high and alone in the empty sky and burning strong. The main river flowed sluggishly along its straightened course, despite being high with spring rainfall – House Martins and several Red-rumped Swallows were hawking above it for insects. This close cousin of our familiar Barn Swallow is rather attractive and evocative of heat-hazed rocky valleys; it is smart with a crisp black under-tail covert patch, a clear peach-red rump mirrored by similar colouring on the throat and face.
We wandered over the bridge and into the reserve proper; here the dense patches of reed were surrounded by a sea of white, blue and yellow flowers of various species – buzzing with insects and brimming with pollen. There were a few hides scattered across the reserve, the first one we came to overlooked a large shallow pool that had sandy margins and was surrounded by dense thickets. One species made their presence immediately obvious both with their striking plumage and raucous behaviour; Black-winged Stilts were loitering across the pool and three individuals swooped and scythed over the water in a noisy chase that went on for some time. Somewhat sedately pottering along the shoreline were several Little-Ringed Plovers, which had nests on the ground (simple scooped out hollows) and although sharing a pretty black-and-white plumage with the stilts they were acting in a contrasting subdued and secretive manner typical of their species. Even less obvious than them however were a couple of Kentish Plovers (rarely seen in Kent or anywhere else in Britain for that matter) hunched up on a small island.
In one corner of the pool, curled up underneath some overhanging branches, was an unusual looking duck with a smoked-paprika coloured body and white on the head. We spent a good ten minutes trying to get a better view of this bird and hoping it would take its head out from under its wing so that I could positively identify it. At last it did just that as a couple others of its species (except dull plumaged juveniles) approached it – revealing itself to be what I had suspected; a male White-headed Duck. This species has been of some conservation concern for the last decade or so, its numbers were declining and the entire species was threatened by hybridisation with the American Ruddy Duck (which is why we shot them all). Thrilled with this sighting we carried on towards the beach; a small flock of violent-green and blue Monk Parakeets screeched overhead – clashing terribly with the not-at-all tropical surroundings. The beach yielded little besides a hot-looking Crested Lark and a Corn Bunting rattling out its short-but-sweet song; the dry tinkling ditty that this bird was repeating fitted very well into the slightly arid and sun-seared scrub-land.
We stopped off on the way back at another hide which overlooked a second (but deeper) pool, the view made me feel a little foolish for spending ages worrying over the White-headed Duck as the water was host to about twelve of them sauntering about in the open. The whole time we had been walking around the reserve there had been a near-constant song from many individuals of the same species; a repetitious ‘dzip…dzip…dzip…dzip’ uttered in a sustained and wide-ranging song-flight. Only now, while walking back towards the bridge did I get a decent view of the bird in question; it was a titchy thing with a sandy-cream base colour overlaid with darker stripes running down the back of its head and body, its tail was short and fan-shaped. Not exceptional in its appearance, though rather cute, it happens to have one of the most wonderful and ridiculous names of any European bird; the Zitting Cisticola.
To end a hot, dusty, exciting walk there was a Great white Egret fishing in the river, a passing Kestrel and in the middle-distance a golden-brown Marsh Harrier floated nonchalantly over the reserve.