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Waiting for spring in Mérida

So far, I have been spending a fair amount of time in Extremadura, Spain and in particular it’s capital city, Mérida. I have a lot of familiarity with the city having visited it for the past six years. During that time I have amassed a city list of 72 species thus far.

Mérida is a small city of 100,000 or so inhabitants and is essentially surrounded by countryside. Most tourists visit the city to see its rich Roman heritage as there are plenty of ruins around, not least the Roman Bridge – the world’s longest of its kind. It cuts across the Guadiana River seperating the old town from the more recent part of the city on the westside.

Birders also come here, primarily to stand on the Roman Bridge to search for Purple Gallinules foraging alongside the reedbeds. It is indeed, one of the best places in the whole of Extremadura for this oversided moorhen.

Currently the water levels are artificially low because the local council are clearing the margins of a Water Hyacinth, a virulent invasive alien plant that has been choking everything in its path.

The draining has created some interesting looking muddy margins that I was hoping would have yielded a few waders. Instead, I have only been treated to a Common Sandpiper once and a scarce Pied Wagtail or two.

My patch is essentially the riverbank on the western side of the Guadiana from the Roman Bridge to the Iron Bridge (a railway bridge) 1.5 miles north downstream. There’s an interesting area of land that is currently being churned up by bulldozers. Despite that there are some small areas of thick vegetation, muddy puddles and piles of compost. All looking very inviting to passing migrants. The compost heaps have been crawling with Chiffchaffs with at least 30 snapping up the insects the other day.

I have flushed Snipe and found two Little Ringed Plover from the muddy pools and in the vegetated bits I’ve watched Hawfinch, Sardinian Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler and Spanish Sparrow. From the Iron Bridge sing Spotless Starling and on a reeded island in the middle of the river a pair of Marsh Harriers display.

Anyway, here are a selection of the birds that I have seen in the last month – and spring is not even here yet!

The draining has created some interesting looking muddy margins that I was hoping would have yielded a few waders. Instead, I have only been treated to a Common Sandpiper once and a scarce Pied Wagtail or two.

Marsh Harrier on my Mérida patch

Yesterday, I discovered a Marsh Harrier harrassing the local Black-headed Gulls and Coots whilst I stood on the Roman Bridge. It was always just a little too distant for decent photography but I managed to rattle off a few record shots. This bird had clearly buffy forewings and head perhaps more what that a typical female would show.

It’s not the first Marsh Harrier that I have seen from the bridge because I had one in mid-October this year when I was co-leading a tour at the time. No doubt they are regular visitors.

I also saw a couple Red Kite – a typical winter visiting raptor to the region. Finally, couldn’t resist snapping a Stonechat. They are such photogenic little birds!

Bat Patch – Mérida, Extremadura

Every day I seem to be seeing additions to my growing Mérida list. But I wasn’t expecting to see a bat hunting in broad daylight.

It was flying around the top of a riparian tree chasing after insects with extreme agility. It had the body size of a House Martin with longer wings.

Probable Noctule Bat

Whilst marvelling at the bat a group of cranes flew over plus I caught a glimpse of rapidly passing Crag Martin.

A couple of Red Kites decided to appear with one choosing to dive-bomb some nearby feral cats. One of the moggies pelted up a tree!

There was plenty of calling eminating from the trees with most of the sounds coming from the throats of the abundant Serins. Many of the males were in full display mode replete with their Greenfinch- like slow flappy display flight.

I also glanced at an Iberian Grey Shrike, a bird (the same bird?) that I noticed equally briefly last week.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Pied Wagtail in Mérida

Whilst birding from the Roman Bridge I came across a Pied Wagtail feeding around a floating island of debris vegetation.

Then two things struck me. The first I always thought that Pied Wagtails were predominantly found in the British Isles to be replaced in mainland Europe by White Wagtails. So to be confronted by a lone Pied in southern Spain was quite a surprise.

The key identifying feature is the black rump. White Wagtails have a grey rump. The thing that confused me was the rather pale grey mantle and the sharp demarcation between the black nape and grey mantle.

Some of my more learned colleagues have suggested that it may be a hybrid – a thought that also had crossed my mind.

Later however, I came across another Pied Wagtail on a lawn within the Roman Theatre ruins in the city. It looked like a blatant Pied to me – perhaps supporting the notion that they are very scarce winter visitors.

Pied Wagtail in Mérida

Urban birding Mérida, Extremadura

For the next few weeks I have switched location from Wormwood Scrubs, West London to Mérida, the principle city of Extremadura, Spain. It’s all about recharging batteries before wading back into the fray in 2016. So, seeing as I am staying in this ancient city why not study the birdlife to be found within its confines.

Currently, I have identified two potential local patches. The first is the environs around the Guadiana River that courses through the city and in particular, birding from the pedestrianised Roman bridge, literally 10 minutes walk from where I’m staying. Known simply as The Roman Bridge it straddles the Guadiana River in the heart of the city and at 790 metres, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

The habitats along the banks of the river includes roadbeds, scrub and waterside woodland. Within the river are a couple of wooded islands that are good for roosting egrets and herons. I’m familiar with the Roman Bridge and some of the riverside habitat having had led tours in the area etc for the past six years.

The other place I identified as a place to watch over is an area of brownfield land just five minutes to the west of where I am based. I have only noticed Crested Larks and sparrows there but it would interesting to see what I find there over the next few weeks.