2 May 2014

Bee-eaters, booted eagles and wild boar were among the sightings at the start of Lancaster Environment Centre’s annual field course to Southern Spain. In the first of a series of blogs, Professor Nigel Paul recalls what is so special about these yearly visits.

They are red, yellow and turquoise, and look like they should really be living in an exotic tropical rainforest. Pairs sit side-by-side on power lines as if posing for a particularly colourful Valentine’s card. For me they have become one of the things I always look forward to on the Lancaster Environment Centre’s field course to Doñana National park in Southern Spain.

“They” are bee-eaters, and in spring are just arriving in Doñana after wintering further south, so part of the excitement each year is how many will have arrived at the right time to coincide with our students who are annual spring visitors from the north.

This year the bee-eaters have turned up in good numbers right from day one, so I am looking forward to seeing, and hearing, them every day, and I am not even the bird ecologist on the trip. That’s Dr Stuart Sharp, who can tell you that a spoonbill is in its second year just by its plumage, and that the bird singing in that tree is a short-toed tree-creeper. I’d always assumed you had to see its toes, but I am just the trip’s plant biologist after all.

Visiting the National Park
Stuart is currently out with half of this year’s students on a tour of the National Park - it’s the only way to see inside as it’s completely off-limits to the public otherwise. I did the tour with the rest of the students this morning, along with Dr Rosa Menendez, our invertebrate specialist. We always do the tour the day after we arrive. It’s a good way for everyone to orient themselves, plus a great chance to see some of the local wildlife.

This morning we saw red and fallow deer, as well as wild boar. As for birds, the list included hoopoe, woodchat shrike, azure-winged magpies, glossy ibis, Audouin’s Gull, booted eagles, and more red kites, black kites and white storks than we could count.

Come rain or sunshine
Rosa and I are back in our cabins getting ready for tomorrow, when the students will have the chance to get hands-on with the local ecology. In Rosa’s case, that means insects, not least beetles, so she popped in ten minutes ago and put a beer glass on the table that was full of dung beetles she’d just found. Of course, it is not just the beetles that Rosa has been collecting – it’s the dung too. Fortunately that didn’t appear on the table. It’ll be stored away safely, ready to see what sort of interesting fauna it will attract for the students she is with tomorrow.

While Rosa is doing that tomorrow, Stuart will take another group around the local wetlands to get some insights in to the ecology and behaviour of the birds they find.

As for me, I’ll be taking some students out for a full day in the pine forest, sand dunes and scrublands that are the key habitats over much of the National Park. At the moment the weather forecast isn’t great but I can’t decide whether I want it to turn out dry or not. A day’s field work in the rain is always a good way to see who has really got what it takes to be a field ecologist! We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Tuesday's blog - Identifying plants, a 5D experience

Read all Nigel’s blogs about the rest of the trip. Learn more about studying Ecology and Conservation, or other biology and environmental degrees at the Lancaster Environment Centre, and about the fieldwork on offer to students.


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