Sunday, 7 April 2013

What's in a name?

It’s good to be seeing Collared Pratincoles again!  These migrants typically start arriving back here in Portugal in late March, some staying to breed in the Algarve, at Castro Marim and in the Ria Formosa, but many more continue inland into the Alentejo.  The earliest date on which we have recorded them is 22nd March (2010) but this year it was April before we saw any.

Pratincoles nest colonially in small groups choosing flat open areas, dried mudflats and ploughed fields, usually with short patchy vegetation.  Nest sites change from year to year as conditions vary.  A clutch of three eggs is usual and incubation takes about 18 days.  The young leave the nest after two or three days and fledge after about a month, although the parents may still continue to provide food after that.

From early July the adults undergo a partial post-breeding moult but this is suspended for the southbound migration and by early August most will have left to spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa.  Although lingering birds have been seen as late as September, most Pratincoles probably spend only about four months here in Europe.

In flight, Pratincoles look a lot like terns; on the ground they seem almost like plovers.  They feed on insects, such as grasshoppers and crickets, which they catch in flight.

Wood Sandpipers mostly pass through the Algarve in March and April on their way north to breed in Scandinavia and Russia (or even Scotland) and then again in August and September on the return journey to spend the winter in Africa.  They are never numerous here (anymore than they are in the UK) as their main migration routes lie further east.  Perhaps it is because they are relatively scarce along the western fringes of Europe that it has sometimes surprised us to find them so numerous when we have been travelling in various parts of Africa.

During migration, they are birds that avoid seashores or tidal areas, preferring shallow fresh water habitats, particularly those with wet grassy patches.  Most of the ones we’ve seen in the Algarve have been either at Lagoa dos Salgados or at Castro Marim.

Although Wood Sandpipers usually nest on the ground in dense vegetation they do occasionally use an old tree nest of a Fieldfare, much like Green Sandpipers do.  They usually lay four eggs, which are incubated by both parents but it’s quite normal for the female to depart the scene soon after hatching, leaving the male to care for the young.

So what is it that connects Collared Pratincoles and Wood Sandpipers?  Well, the answer lies with their scientific names: Glareola pratincola and Tringa glareola.  It seems that glareola is derived from the Latin word glarea, meaning gravel.  Seven species of pratincoles have the generic name Glareola and perhaps it is just possible to accept that at least some of them have some sort of association with gravel.  However, glareola does seem to be a rather inappropriate specific name for Wood Sandpiper and so far we haven’t been able to find any explanation for how it came about.

Talking of inappropriate, the name pratincole is derived from Latin words meaning 'inhabitant of meadows', a description which hardly fits Collared Pratincole and definitely doesn't apply to Rock Pratincole and some of  the world's other pratincole species.

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