It’s impossible to go for a walk at this time of year and not hear any birds. They are euphoric, even though this spring has been a little different from usual, with so little rain and such high temperatures.
The overwintering birds have already left and in mid-February we saw the first barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), who were beginning to look for a place to build their nests or reuse those of other years. When I was small, I remember that my grandparents had a nest in their home, and every year I was fascinated to see how the swallows fed their insatiable chicks, that kept asking for more and more. People often had nests in their courtyards. Now it has become less common. People say that swallows make the courtyard dirty and are noisy, but they don’t realize that swallows get rid of mosquitoes for free. We should respect them, there are fewer and fewer swallows these days, and their nests are protected by law.
A little later the house-martins (Delichon urbicum) arrived. They are similar to swallows but not quite the same. If we look closely we can see that they have a shorter tail, they are completely white underneath, they don’t have the orange spot on the throat that swallows have, and they also have a white rump, the part above the tail. They nest in colonies and make their nests on the ledges of buildings using mud. Their nests are also different from those of swallows which make a kind of bowl with an open top. House-martins only leave a small hole through which they enter and leave.
Another relative of the swallows are the swifts (Apus apus). We can see them flying through the streets of our town, especially in the early and late hours of the day. They have very narrow wings and are completely black. They spend most of their lives flying, only stopping to breed. They take advantage of small holes in tall buildings. One of their characteristics is that their legs are very short and they need to be up high to take flight. If you ever find one on the ground, there’s a good chance that if you put it on a high place it will just fly away, if it is not ill or injured of course.
As I said at the beginning the birds are all singing now. Some are real artists of interpretation, for example the nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), which arrived with a great yearning to find a partner, so they sing day and night. They don’t have a very striking plumage, it is a fairly uniform orange-brown, lighter on the ventral part. They are difficult to see, but their song is a delight. Here is an example:
We have all seen beautiful goldfinches, (Carduelis caeduelis) in gardens and orchards. They are also called ‘colorines’ here in Lagartera. These birds are really striking, both for their song and plumage. They are with us all year round, but in winter they don’t sing, and gather in quite big flocks to withstand the cold. It’s easy to find their nests in bushes and reeds and in the gardens. Of course, we should respect them, and not disturb their nests, as they are wild birds.
A fairly common relative of the goldfinch is the green serin, (Serinus serinus), which now sings insistently from the top of a tree or from the power lines along the streets of the village. From a distance it looks like a completely brown bird but when it flies you can distinguish the yellow of the rump quite well. The males have colourful plumage to attract a mate in spring, with a yellow forehead, throat and breastplate.
But the serin can’t compete with bee-eaters, (Merops apiaster) for colour. Beekeepers don’t like them very much because the birds feed on their bees. In their defence, bee-eaters also eat other flying insects that can be harmful to humans, thus compensating for the damage they might cause. They make their nests by digging a hole in banks, so it’s quite common to see their nests as holes in roadside banks or near cuttings where they can nest. Photographers enjoy taking photos of this species.
Among groves and in pastures we have golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus), which are more difficult to spot, but if you ever catch sight of one you will not forget the beautiful yellow color of the males contrasting with the black of their wings. The females, as always, have duller, greenish colors, as do the young. You may have heard their fluttering song in the early hours of the day.
Common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are also heard, but are more difficult to see. They are medium-sized and grey with yellow eyes. They hide in holm oaks and pastures, looking for nests of other species where they lay their eggs to be raised. They are not very good parents! They can imitate the color of the eggs of the species they parasitise so that they are not detected. When the little cuckoo is born, it deals with its competitors by throwing them out of the nest to receive all the parents’ attention exclusively. The cuckoo’s song can be heard from a great distance. It should not be confused with that of the hoopoe, which we mentioned in a previous article. The cuckoo emits two notes: cu-cu, and the hoopoe three: pu-pu-pu, or four: pu-pu-pu-pu-pu.
And to finish for today, we’ll mention its relative the great spotted cuckoo, (Clamator glandarius), which has similar behaviour, although this species doesn’t get rid of its companions in the nest. It emits a sonorous song while moving, which is quite loud, so it is easy to catch sight of the greater spotted cuckoo. It mainly parasitises magpies. Sometimes, I’ve seen three or four magpie chicks accompanied by a young greater spotted cuckoo that stays with them once they leave the nest, as though it were another magpie. This species is similar in size to the common cuckoo, but has more varied plumage, with a dark torso speckled with white, a light belly, a yellowish throat and a grey hood with a small crest.
Of course we have many more birds, but we’ll tell you more another day. We hope you like this spring selection.
Text: Irene González Sánchez
Photos: José Miguel Millán, apart from the swift, photo from SEO
Lagartera, Toledo, May 2023
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