It may have something to do with how much time we have to spare or perhaps how poorly we plan ahead; maybe the outrageous cost of petrol is a factor. Whatever the reason, it’s a fact that these days our cross-border excursions for birding in Spain are few are far between.Certainly it’s a measure of how good the birding is here in the Algarve that we are tempted so infrequently to venture ‘abroad’. Our base in Tavira is less than a two-hour drive from Doñana (also known as Doñana National Park and Coto Doñana), considered one of the most important wetlands in Europe and yet we probably head off in that direction no more than two or three times a year.
We were actually in Doñana just a few days ago but it proved to be a rather disappointing day. The problem was simply the weather. We picked a day when the forecast promised wall to wall sunshine but when we got there what we had instead was fog! Visibility was really poor until early afternoon and, of course, there was little or no light for photography which was the main purpose of the trip. During the day we recorded about 70 bird species and came away with a few useable images so it wasn't a total waste of time by any means but the morning was more than a little frustrating.
We managed to photograph one or two Common (Eurasian) Kestrels, easily the most numerous of the raptors present. Our previous experience of Kestrels has been that they don’t sit still very long to pose for photographs but this time a couple of birds did oblige, one when the light was still quite poor, the other later after the sun broke through. What they had in common was that they both chose really unattractive perches!
No such problems with the weather back here in Tavira where we have again been out trying to photograph Short-eared Owls. There are now three birds regularly hunting over the local saltpans but getting near them requires time and patience plus more than a bit of luck. As the afternoon light fades and the ISO value has to be increased, so the birds seem more inclined to come within range! Today we watched for more than an hour without even pointing the camera at an owl but earlier in the week we did get a few more reasonable images.
Short-eared Owls feed predominantly on small mammals and their presence, hunting over the saltpans provokes very little reaction from the hundreds of waders that are present. In contrast to this, a male Hen Harrier that has been regularly quartering the same area sends Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Avocets and others flying in panic in all directions even though smaller birds are probably its more realistic targets.
The owls are clearly defending feeding territories and we have seen and heard several mid-air skirmishes. They are fun to watch and we hope they stay around for a while.