Saturday, August 5, 2023

Ancient Murrelet

For various reasons at various times, I never managed to go for the Lundy Ancient Murrelet – a fact that I have often quoted as what has driven me on twitching ever since. Nor have I been to the west coast of America – a planned trip to California immediately pre-Covid didn’t come off for various reasons too. So when I was in Canada and one was found in the most unlikely of spots in SW Spain, my ears pricked up, though it did not seem likely that it would stick around. But it was still present a few days after I got back, so, with work done and out of the way, I made plans to make a play for it.

On the evening of Sunday 4 June I flew from Bristol to Malaga, arriving just before midnight. It’s over 300 km to Huelva from there, but it meant I could be there for dawn, rather than a night drive to Gatwick for an early flight to Seville and an hour or more’s drive to arrive only by late morning. I stopped a few times, including at Mollina, where I was due to be staying the following night, and a Red-necked Nightjar was calling almost continuously not far from the hotel.

Eventually I went through Huelva and started the 15km down through the Paraje Natural Marismas de Odiel to the Odiel river mouth where the bird had been seen, arriving just about 6 am. It was just getting light and a few Crested Larks started to sing. There were plenty of other cars at Pasarela 6, but they were all fishermen about to cycle down past the locked gates to the point. Lots of Little Terns to-ing and fro-ing from the nearby colony kept me amused, as did 4 Audouin’s Gulls that flew over. At about 7 I was joined by Mick, an ex-pat Brit originally from Shropshire but now resident in Granada, then at about 7.20 I told Mick ‘I’ve got an auk’. All I could see at that point was the back end of it and that it looked small as it drifted downriver with the tide. Then it turned sideways on – bingo! Tiny, pale bill, white head stripe, the works. I was actually looking at an Ancient Murrelet! Mick had seen the Lundy bird, long before he emigrated, but it was a huge Spanish tick for him, so he was very happy too. A few Spanish birders rocked up too, and were also very appreciative. Then the murrelet, which had drifted quite a way down and away by now, flew up past us and ditched just off Pasarela 3. Cue a bit of Wacky Races to get up there, but the views were a bit better, though we were looking into the early morning sunlight, which was becoming an issue. Eventually at about 9 am I gave up, very satisfied with the views I had had – the bird had by then drifted a long way down again with the tide, though one of the Razorbills it was loosely associating with was still about (what were they doing there in June, by the way?)

I spent the next hour and a half pottering around the marismas – Osprey, lots of Greater Flamingos on the saltpans by the visitor centre, several Spoonbills, Sardinian Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas, more Crested Larks, and a group of about 8 Pallid Swifts. Standard stuff, really, though all very welcome. My next planned stop (if successful with the murrelet) had been due to be Brazo del Este, but Mick told me it was dry, and for the same reasons that Doñana is dry this summer (illegal water extraction in a drought), so I decided not to spoil the brilliant memories from 5 years ago by visiting this time. I decided to drop in at Laguna de la Mejorada, though, near Villafranca de los Palacios, and kind of regretted that, as it too had obviously been dry for ages. No sign of the Rufous Bush Chats I’d seen on my previous visit, but I did hear a singing Western Olivaceous Warbler and a very nice pale phase Booted Eagle drifted over as I was leaving.

I decided to head back towards Mollina and do Laguna de Fuente de Piedra this evening – it was a pleasant enough drive, enlivened by a Griffon giving zero shits about being mobbed by another Booted Eagle, and a roadside Roller. Southeast of Estapa a stunning male Montagu’s Harrier flew across the road, and a Lesser Kestrel too a bit further on. As the Laguna came into view distantly my heart sank – it looked bone dry too.

On closer inspection it wasn’t completely dry, but it only had water in less than a quarter of it, and the large colonies of Greater Flamingo and Gull-billed Tern were abandoned, with only small numbers of each species still present (and no Lesser Flamingos I checked).

The good news (I think) was that the small lagoon just before the car park was still full, so I concentrated on that for this evening. A Red-rumped Swallow was whizzing around the car park, and there were quite a few Avocets and Black-winged Stilts on the lagoon, plus a few Black-tailed Godwits. Also, a single drake White-headed Duck and, tucked away initially, 6 Marbled Ducks! Brilliant to see, and of course year ticks, but it gradually dawned on me that the reason they were there (unusually) was that they had probably had to flee serious drought at other sites.

At 6 pm I left for the Hotel Molina de Saydo that I had stayed at on that trip 5 years before and really liked. They do say never go back – it was perfectly fine, but no longer did food every night, so I had to look elsewhere for that. The beer was good enough though, and the Red-necked Nightjar started up as dusk fell – if only I’d known just how close I had been to easy access to the area the night before. I went back to finish my beer, but the nightjar shut up and didn’t call again by 11pm. Tiredness and alcohol were catching up on me by then, and the hotel locks its gates at midnight, so I didn’t risk going looking in the end, but I was pretty sure I at least heard a Scops Owl.

Next morning I slept in a little, but still managed an hour or so back at Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, looking round the bushes near the car park.  Western Olivaceous Warbler and hearing a bunch of Nightingales were the best before heading back to Malaga and my early afternoon flight back. One target, an early score, allowing me to connect with a bunch of really nice backup birds, so very happy!