Short-toed Eagle

My best shot

The Short-toed Snake Eagle is one of the larger raptors I see most commonly in the Axarquia. That is partly because they are relatively easy to i.d., partly because they are pretty big – adults have a 6 foot wingspan – and partly because there is at least one pair that regularly fly over the Sayalonga valley.

I say they are easy to i.d. but should add a note of caution. There are juveniles, which will (obviously) be smaller, and all these birds can be hard to accurately pin down depending on the view you get. They have a distinctive white underside speckled with brown, with dark outer primaries but an angled view at a distance is a bad basis for an i.d. – the bird could be a juvenile golden eagle, a large Bonneli’s Eagle, or some other bird. I try to be honest when out with non-birders, in spite of temptation based on their ignorance – I’ve never forgotten the walker who said in surprise “Short-toed Eagle? You can see its toes? Wow!”

Wikipedia says they are fairly silent but I have many times witnessed, over several years a pair calling to one another in sharp shrill cries, and now an again seen them flying with a juvenile, presumable their offspring.

As you can see from the above I have taken one almost-decent photo of this bird – I was coming back from a long walk into the hills and, almost opposite Canillas de Albaida walked out onto a tiny promontory above the valley to admire the view and saw the eagle. The bird floated gently up from below me and past overhead while I frantically clicked and zoomed with my basic camera, and gawped with delight.

That was years ago now but I had a wonderful sighting just last week on a windy July day. I was at a music night at Bodegas Bentomiz near Sayalonga – a Flamenco performance due to start and people gathering in the forecourt beside the winery, with my friend Margot, who happens to be an excellent photographer and, even better, had her camera with her. Our Snake Eagle appeared from below the town and then slid across the valley towards us, turned and faced into the strong wind, effectively hovering like a giant kestrel while it inspected the land below for reptiles. Margot humoured me by taking a dozen shots, which I’m posting below. Wine, music and Short-toed Eagles – all round, a damn good night out!

White underside
Balanced on the wind
Short-toed Eagle, photo Margot Hillock
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Nest Defender

I have known for some time that there was a pair of Red-legged Partridge living somewhere near Bodegas Bentomiz – perhaps in the abandoned vineyard nearby, which would give good cover for ground-nesting birds. I often hear them clucking and one morning saw them heading up towards the vineyards, very unconcerned at my approach. I even got a little video clip of them, lazily heading away:

RL Partridge

I also knew that the Crag Martins that nest on the building there can be fairly territorial. They buzz visitors to the winery if they are standing a bit to close to the relevant corner of the building. They virtually attacked a woodchat shrike that stunned itself by flying into one of the windows – but considering the predatory nature of the shrike that is no surprise.

Today I heard a panicked partridge clucking and couldn’t place it. I scanned the vineyard, the neighbouring ground and the track. As I did so a Crag Martin shot past like a bolt from a bow whizzing over my head. I followed the line of flight and saw the partridge sticking its head over from the corner of the roof.

How did it get up there? I think of it so much as a ground bird, and it has always seemed so reluctant to fly, I had almost forgotten it can. Why was it in that particular corner? It was driving the martins crazy – and vica versa. They were mobbing it, pass after aerial pass low over its head and every time it squawked and flapped as if in surprise.

I was certainly surprised: pot shot at a partridge on the roof!

Incoming!
“I’m off!”

 

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The Crash

This is a story from Clara of Bodegas Bentomiz, the excellent winery found in the countryside 5 minutes or so from Sayalonga. Their lovely building is clad in slate, complete with balcony and overhangs, so Crag Martins have taken it for a lovely big crag and built their nest there, raising chicks each year. Every day Clara sees them swooping past her office.

Crag Martin at the nest
Crag Martin at the nest

Yesterday they seemed to be agitated but Clara was busy working and so did not investigate until a bird crashed into the window. This happens now and again; sometimes the bird is just stunned and recovers; sometimes they have sadly broken their neck. Clara picked up the little body – a small bird, not a martin, black and white with a red-brown head. She was not sure if it would live or die but put it on the balcony, hoping it would recover.

Then she noticed that the Crag Martins were flying at the crash-victim – mobbing it, as if hoping to force it from ‘their’ ledge. This year’s young Crag Martin is already a chunky flyer, but perhaps the bird was too close to their nest for their comfort. Clara took it out onto the terrace at the back of the building, well away from the martins.

However, the bombardment did not stop. To her astonishment, Clara found they were still flying at the bird, even while she was there. It seems strange that such a small bird could seem so threatening to them. As  it began, at last, to recover she took these photographs:

photos, Clara Verheij
photos, Clara Verheij

20160619_photo Clara Verheij

 

This handsome bird is a Woodchat – specifically a Woodchat Shrike, a species I haven’t previously seen here and know little about.

What surprised both Clara and me was the aggression of the Crag Martins; the Shrike may have flown into the window in the first place because of them mobbing it.  Aware that I am ignorant about shrikes, I looked them up on Wikipedia and this sentence sprang out:

eats large insects, small birds and amphibians

How could such a small bird eat such big prey? Well, it turns out the Shrike is the butcher bird: it impales its prey on thorns, barbed wire or any other handy spike to eat fragments off as they loosen and come back for more the next day – a meat larder – which may help them tackle beasts they can’t gulp down.

Given that it was about the same size of as the martins I can’t imagine the bird attacking an adult and can only guess they feared for future nestlings and wanted to beat the stranger out of town to be on the safe side.

This time they failed though. The Woodchat flew up onto the roof, rested for another quarter hour and then flew off, possibly blowing a raspberry at the martins on the way past. They were happier though – they had ‘their’ balcony back.

Crag Martins at Bodegas Bentomiz
Crag Martins at Bodegas Bentomiz

 

With thanks to Clara Verheij of Bodegas Bentomiz for the photos and story.

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