I confess to feeling a privileged man; guiding as I do in various countries throughout the world. During the course of my globe trotting, getting excited about all the wildlife I get to share with so many friends and fellow travellers, I somehow always look forward to returning to my home patch here in the Serranía de Ronda, Andalucia, Spain.
Here [in the Serranía de Ronda] is an area of outstanding beauty where, like giant waves across the landscape, large mountain chains rise high into clear blue skies and cascade into deep hidden valleys of green and where rivers flow even in high summer. It is an area where I am at home, knowing the secrets of the sierras and discovering each of her crooks and crannies, each revealing natural wonders to surprise and thrill. One of my life’s greatest pleasures is to share this, my backyard, with the many visitors that accompany me on tours to this hidden treasure.
Another reason to be so passionate about my home area is its ability to always surprise. It doesn’t matter how many times I visit certain sites of interest, I normally manage to find something unusual or out of the ordinary. It was one such occasion on Wednesday 13th June 2012. Travelling with a group of fellow birders, I took a familiar off road route near to Acinipo (Old Ronda), primarily to show them a few target birds they were keen to find such as Melodious Warbler, Subalpine Warbler and actual sightings of numerous Nightingale. Along our route we were able to witness the subtle differences between Crested and Thekla Lark, see a myriad of interesting species including eagles wheeling overhead. All pretty normal with nothing to prepare us for our next encounter.
The route we had taken was linear and after parking in a shaded area admiring scampering Nightingales with cocked tails, making their familiar call that sound like a very good impression of a frog, we decided to head back up the track. I wanted that we paid particular attention to the reeds and brambles along a stream bordering our track; the idea was to find more Melodious Warbler and perhaps the scarce Reed Warbler. We were soon in luck and found our warblers in a wide green area between us and the stream, thrown in to the mix were a number of Whitethroat playing chase with the other warblers. At first we all ignored what we had taken as white plastic or tissue paper stuck on a briar of bramble until a member of the group, John, proclaimed ‘it’s a bird!’
From a distance, with rounded head and large looking shape, I had thought out loud it might be a sparrow. Then realising it was all wrong for a sparrow, we set-up scopes and I was able to see it was in fact an albino Stonechat. Making the excuse for my first impressions by way of recounting my wife’s assertion that ‘a white dress makes you look big and a black dress makes you look slim’ I convinced the others I was still an okay birder! We watched in absolute wonder at this remarkable quirk of nature and just enjoyed the glory of bearing witness to such a rare occurrence. After some time, insects made staying any longer a trial, so with my promise to return the next day armed with camera, we set about enjoying the rest of our birding day. In all my many years I have only ever seen a couple of true albino birds¹ in the wild and never a stonechat, so for me and for my group it was a thrill of a lifetime.
<iframe width="854" height="480" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/JQgbnZyiPl0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
¹ Albinism is an abnormality found in some plants, animals and birds. Except in plants (caused by a lack of chlorophyll), albinism is caused by the absence of natural pigment in, this case, feathers. In true albinos, as was with this bird, the eyes are peculiarly affected; the iris is pale rose colour and the pupil bright red, owing to the lack of pigmentum nigrum, the colouring matter of the eye membrane. The condition is congenital and should not be confused with any seasonal variation. Many ‘white’ occurring birds are not true albinos, because normal pigment is retained in the eyes, beaks and feet, only the feathers are deficient in pigment. So not only is ‘our bird’ a true albino, but is also extremely rare.
Article by Peter Jones
Head of Guiding Spanish Nature