As we said before, in ‘Our birds in winter’, there is a great variety of birds in Lagartera, so this topic deserves a number of articles. This time we are going to talk about birds that are here all year round, some of which are seen more frequently in winter.
There are different families of birds that group several species with common characteristics. One of these families is comprised of birds of prey. They attract our attention and impress us some by their size, while others are impressive because of their majesty.
Maybe later we will dedicate a chapter to all of them to get to know them better. For now, we will start with kites, a medium-sized bird of prey that can reach a wingspan of up to 1.70 meters, i.e., from wingtip to wingtip, although it is not one of the largest birds of prey. In this area we have two representatives of this genus: the red kite (Milvus milvus), and black kite (Milvus migrans); the latter will visit us later on, when the breeding season begins.
Kites have a characteristic that helps us to distinguish them from other birds of prey: their forked tail. No other raptor has a tail of this shape. In the red kite you can see it with the naked eye because it is very pronounced. in black kites the fork is much gentler and the end of the tail can sometimes appear to be straight.
If we are lucky enough to be able to distinguish the colours of the red kite’s plumage, we can enjoy its beauty: the tail is a light orangey-brown colour, while the torso and belly are a darker shade of brown, and the wingtips are an even darker shade, a sort of black-brown. The red kite has black wingtips with a characteristic white spot in the centre, and a grey head and neck. Up close, its sharp yellow eyes are impressive.
It is easy to see red kites flying over our fields and olive groves. In winter, in addition to those kites that spend the whole year with us, we are accompanied by some kites from central and northern Europe that spend the winter here. At night they gather in communal roosts, where they can be counted by the hundreds.
The buzzard (Buteo buteo) is another raptor which you can often see here. It is also a medium sized bird, with a wingspan that can reach 1.30 meters. It is characterized by a very varied plumage of a dark brown mottled with white areas under the wings and a robust appearance. The wings are rounded in flight. If it is observed standing on a perch you can make out a kind of clear collar on the chest, which is what most helps with identifying it. Buzzards like to wait for their prey perched on turrets, poles, and old buildings in the countryside.
We all know magpies (Pica pica). They are very abundant around here. They seem to me worthy of mention, though they are not popular with farmers and gardeners who suffer the consequences of their feeding habits. They can eat almost anything, from fruit, eggs, insects, and carrion, to what they steal from other birds. They are very intelligent and adapt very well to a wide range of environments, hence their success. They have an iridescent black and white plumage, which emits shades of greenish, sometimes purplish, and also blueish black, depending on the light. They also have their charm.
Iberian magpies (Cyanopica cyano, or Cyanopica cooki*) are a close relative of the black and white magpie. Iberian magpies are more strikingly coloured, with bluish tones in the wings and tail, a grey body and a black head. They are characterized by always travelling in groups. In some places they are also known as ”mohinos”. They also eat everything they can find. They love cherries, so they are not popular with people who have cherry orchards! They can be seen in the surroundings of the pueblo and also in the rocky land to the south, and the pasture land to the north where there are Holm oak trees. It’s rare to see them in open fields.
Another bird which is easy to find and which is very beautiful is the hoopoe (Upupa epops). The first thing you notice is its plumage with orange tones on the head and body, black and white on the wings and its crest on the head that unfolds and gathers as appropriate. It has a long, thin, slightly curved bill curved bill that allows it to find larvae and insects on the ground and in leaf litter.
I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard its song on warm spring days, although perhaps not all of us have. It emits three notes “pu-pu-pu”, then a pause, and it starts again. The hoopoe is announcing that it is in its territory and looking for a mate. It can be heard from a great distance.
We are also accompanied in winter by the song thrush (Turdus philomelos). They are greenish-brown birds about the size of a blackbird, with mottled bellies that hide in the undergrowth in olive groves and orchards. Like the red kites, they choose our fields as a good place to spend the winter, fleeing from the cold of the rest of Europe, then, during the breeding season they abandon us. But their relative, the Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus) is with us all year round. It is slightly larger than the song thrush, and much lighter in appearance. It is greyish brown, also with speckles on the belly.
On winter days when we have to avoid puddles and streams while walking, it is not difficult to see, at the water’s edge, a little grey and white bird with its tail wagging up and down continuously and with a kind of black bib on its throat and a black hood on its head. These are the white wagtails (Motacilla alba). They can even be seen in the streets of the pueblo. They are called ”gollorías” in Lagartera.
There is another species of wagtail that lives locally, the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). It differs from the white wagtail by its yellow belly and it does not have the white wagtail’s black bib. It is a little more timid than its relative. If you want to see it, you have to look for it in more secluded places in the countryside, also near water.
Among our smaller birds, we can often enjoy the sight of a great tit (Parus major), birds which here we call “chichipanes”. This is a little bird with greenish and bluish tones on the back and yellowish tones on the belly, with a black tie and a black hood, and white cheeks. They move nervously among the twigs of bushes and trees in gardens and olive groves, pecking at the tender buds. The great tit has a varied song repertoire, although it often repeats a characteristic ”chi-chipan, chi-chi-pan”, which is easy to recognise.
And the tiniest bird we’re going to talk about today is the blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), which very often accompanies the great tit. It is very similar but is smaller and with bluer tones. It doesn’t have a black tie, just a small stripe in the middle of the belly, and the hood is blue. It owes its Spanish name ”herrerillo” or little blacksmith, to one of the sounds it makes, which sounds like a small hammer bouncing against an anvil. It is a beautiful little bird which is also common in parks, gardens, olive groves and orchards.
Well, now you have a few more birds to look out for on your walks. Good luck and enjoy nature!
Text by Irene González Sánchez
Photos by José Miguel Millán
Lagartera, Toledo, February 2023
If you’d like to know more:
*The Iberian magpie (Cyanopica cooki) is one of two species belonging to the genus Cyanopica (Cyano = blue, while pica = magpie, i.e., blue magpie). The other species belonging to this genus is the Asian azure winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus) The Iberian magpie used to be considered a subspecies of the Asian version, although the Iberian and Asian populations were separated by some 9000 km. However, following genetic analyses, they are now seen as two different species.
Inferring the phylogeny of disjunct populations of the azure–winged magpie Cyanopica cyanus from mitochondrial control region sequences | Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)
Synchronic east–west divergence in azure‐winged magpies (Cyanopica cyanus) and magpies (Pica pica)* – Kryukov – 2004 – Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research – Wiley Online Library