Sierra de Guara 2010

This spring, I joined and organised birding trip to Northern Spain with Naturetrek and I enjoyed several recording adventures.

Here is a taster with my account of an incident on an afternoon comfort stop near Radiquero in the Sierra de Guara. It was windless, sunny and warm and even the ubiquitous Nightingales were quiet. Further, it was our last full day and I was still ambitious to find a few more target species.

There were nine in the group and we tumbled out of the minibus. ‘Come back in 15 minutes’, ordered the leader ‘and don’t be late!’ I was recording on sufferance, so I took him at his word.

We all know that sound recording is not a team game so as always, I watched as the twitchers made their move and then headed off in the opposite direction.

I hobbled away as fast as my back legs would allow and after about 200 metres, I sat down in the shade to survey the scene. I found myself in a transitional zone between pine forest on the hill slopes and garrigue in the valley floor; a promising ecotone habitat in ecological jargon.

I cast around, listening via my headphones and despite being the hottest time of the day I soon located Bonelli’s Warblers, a Great Tit, a distant Sylvia Warbler (probably S. cantillans) and Red-billed Choughs, high above and out of sight.

I would have liked to get closer to the warbler, as I still needed a Spectacled Warbler (S. conspicillata). However, I am too infirm for hot pursuit so I stayed at my post, biding my time and hoping for something closer.

There were a few scattered pines invading the scrub where I started recording a couple of jangling Serins, in the absence of anything more interesting.

My allotted time was ticking away uneventfully, when a common Chaffinch started to sing from one of the pines; not on my target list but nevertheless, music to my ears! I am quite partial to Chaffinches and I realised immediately that I was listening to a continental song variant; the first time I had ever heard this song type.

Now for the benefit of beginners, I should explain that the Chaffinch is known for regional ‘rain-call’ dialects, but the song phrase is apparently stereotypical throughout its range. This is not strictly true, rather most song variants are too subtle for the human ear to differentiate.

However, a distinctive version with a ‘kik’ unit after the terminal flourish occurs in continental Europe, and crucially, is easy to recognise. The extra note is often likened to a woodpecker call and I believe that one of our members has recorded this in England?

I have been after this for years, so forsaking the Serins, I directed my parabola at the songster. It was not really close enough but the Chaffinch has a loud voice and I captured a ‘souvenir quality’ sample, thankfully without the customary backing track of Nightingales. I attempted to sneak up closer for a better level but only succeeded in spooking the bird. Then it was ‘game over’ and time to rejoin the group.

Back at the minibus, I reported my find to the twitchers, but inexplicably, my exciting news fell on deaf ears. Apparently, the philistines had been ‘digiscoping’ an obliging Woodchat Shrike; a sitting target in full song to boot! You win some; you lose some!

My ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to win over the twitchers had stalled and I failed to recruit any new members for the Society. Still, I enjoyed the moment!

Unfortunately, I could not follow up my lead, as we moved on. However, I heard Chaffinches every day on the trip and this was the only time I heard the motif in question. I understand that this song type occurs widely on the continent, but most commonly in central Europe. Listen here to the ‘aberrant’ Chaffinch


I will eventually offer a full trip report to the Journal Editor with more gripping tales of derring do.

El Gordo

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