Monday, 11 March 2013

The accidental Spanish wildlife reserve

Looking back through the Vistabella Golf course urbanisation, this was once Orange groves and countryside
Cold, clean air, brilliant sunshine and bird song everywhere. Welcome to a February morning on an abandonend building site on the Costa Blanca.

Serin, Sardinian Warbler, Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Goldfinch, Corn Bunting, and migrant Chiffchaff and Black Redstart at every turn - could there be anywhere on over-developed coastal Spain that would have this number and variety of birds?  Based on places we were later to visit during our week in Spain, apparently not.

Late February seems a strange time to be visiting Spain, but thanks to an eccentric school half-term timetable and our good friend Hazel's holiday home, we found ourselves on a week's break 45 minutes from Alicante. We stayed on a new 'urbanisation' complete with it's own golf course (if you should want it). Our base was one of many hap-hazardly built retirement estates that seemed plonked into a pressure landscape of low rise development, golf courses and Orange groves. We were told that the urbanisation (just 10 years old), was once a landscape of orange groves and artichoke fields and is now a partly-built housing estate with acres of uncompleted, scrubby building plots.

In the early morning, Artichoke pickers intensively work their prestine fields - I'd recommend washing your hearts before cooking..

For mile after mile out of Alicante, Orange and Lemon trees were laden with fruit waiting to be picked.
On the face of it, not a home for wildlife, but like so many other 'urbanisations' in Spain the property bubble has burst, and unfinished building plots have, in some way, become a temporary respite for wildlife displaced from lost habitat the length of Costa Blanca.

Before construction stopped, the Spanish builders left in place a pristine network of pavements, street lights and tarmacked roads dividing building plots, and these were to be my footpaths to an over-looked Spanish wildlife.

Venturing out through our estate at dawn, with artichoke farmers and orange pickers already collecting their fruits in the surrounding fields, retired British pensioners walked their dogs as only the English do.

Walking a 2 hour grid through the over-grown building plots, my first walk was in beautiful weather and little wind. The air was alive with the sound of bird song that, despite the desolate scene of abandoned plots, couldn't help but bring a smile to your face.

As I left our apartment, Black Redstarts flirted from every house top in the company of House Martins already at their nest sites, and fed in the company of Crag Martins, not yet ready to return to their mountain breeding sites. Occasionally we saw Swallows heading North (high in the sierras too). Back down at ground level it seemed that every bush and fence top had a migrant Chiffchaff singing away - accompanied in the scrub by Black Redstarts and resident Sardinian Warblers.

Migrant Chiffchaffs were abundant and sang the mornings away between feeds, ready for their next trip to the UK

Black Redstarts common everywhere - if only they'd come to Kent ( and take advantage of low exchange rate!)
Serin - so common everywhere
Also, flirting amongst the undergrowth, Sardinian warblers would occasionally pose in the sun before disappearing off again. In the spoil mounds Serin, Crested Lark, Stonechats, Corn Bunting, Gold-, Green- and Chaffinches all fed in good numbers in beds of opportunistic weeds. And then to my surprise it seemed every abandoned plot had a little flock Stone Curlew roosting the day away. Never have I seen so many Stone Curlew, occasionally flocks of 50 birds would fly over head.

Resident Stone Curlews stayed hidden away in the undergrowth during the day, but I often saw flocks of 30 - 50 birds, perhaps dispersing North for spring.

So despite a landscape that seemed to have no space for birds, we found ourselves immersed in migrant birds and Spanish residents benefitting from this accidental environment. My walks were to get more enjoyable still, in the more remote areas of the complex a pair of Great Grey Shrikes perched in the higher scrub looking for prey.
Great Grey Shrikes seemed to be common everywhere on the Costa Blanca, even on our urbanisation wasteground

Never seen so many Hoopoes on any Mediterranean trip. In February they're very vocal and easy to spot as they chase each across their territories
Even better, Hoopoes posed and called the day away. Never, in many visits to the Mediterranean, have I seen so many Hoopoes. Back in the scrub a brief view of a Ladder snake (eats rodents) and a resident pair of Kestrels added more interest, and at night they'd be joined by Little Owls and Nightjars. Another bird easy to make you jump was the Iberian Green woodpecker a seeming cleaner more brilliant coloured version of our own.

We returned back to the UK at the beginning of March and before Spain's own Summer migrants had arrived back. No doubt that Bee-eaters, Scops Owls and Nightjars will soon be arriving back in Spain for the summer. I hope they can find a true Spanish countryside to live on, and not just the short-lived building site environment we'd witnessed.

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