Chorlitejo patinegro – Kentish plover

By Conservation, Ecology

I was asked to participate in the “Save the Kentish plover” campaign.  I didn’t know so much about the Kentish plover and I was very limited with time but as there was no one else in my local area to carry out the census I accepted the invitation. The Kentish plover is a ground nesting shore bird and being a ground nesting bird suffers from the impact of tourism to the beaches of Cadiz. 

This was one of the species that did well as a result of the pandemic. People weren’t allowed to go to the beach for long periods, a time that coincided with the breeding season. Left undisturbed by people walking through dunes, dogs, quads and all the other threats, the kentish plover did rather well. 

Still, this is a bird that has seen a 70% decline in numbers in Spain. Being widely distributed worldwide, the kentish plover is considered a species of least concern. However, it is considered vulnerable in Spain, because its coastal habitat and breeding area is under threat. Of eggs laid only a small percentage make it to hatching, most are trampled by unknowing humans or straying dogs. It is close to being lost from certain areas.

Interestingly in English the name Kentish plover comes from Kent, where the bird was once resident but has not been present for a long time, not there nor anywhere else in Britain now. I learned this and more about the kentish plover and the threats it faces. Mostly what I learned is what it is like to follow a bird through a season. 

I committed to a minimum of a two weekly census of my local stretch of beach where the Kentish plover are present and breeding. Early in the year this meant bracing walks in the wind on empty virgin beaches. There is an area where a freshwater stream flows into the sea, there is a small lagoon area and there are always kentish plovers. My first encounters it were exciting, this small yet distinctive bird has a special charm. As time went by, I saw a drastic change in the same beach environment; the water in the pool reduced and there was an increasing presence of human activity as the weather got nicer; humans and dogs, quads, bikes and horses. 

All this time I followed the bird. As the crowds grew on the beach I saw it dash between people. Mostly, it seemed to go unnoticed. Which can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it can exist at the same time as this increased human activity. A curse because it’s nest is camouflaged, easily trodden. One time I came to the beach to find a chiringuito, a beach bar, right next to the once pretty natural lagoon, the most important habitat of the chorlitejo on this particular beach. A bar, with wooden walkways, loud music and people, lots of people, and their rubbish. 

I became quite depressed by the plight of the Kentish plover. I had grown very fond of it. I couldn’t see how anything could be done to help it. No one is going to convince people to stop going to the beach in the heat of the Andalucian spring and summer. Tough job to convince people with dogs to keep them on their leash, they take them to the beach to run free. Signs warning that the dunes are a “sensitive habitat” seem to attract people, to hang their towels, sunbathe, picnic underneath. I despaired. I am witnessing extinction, I thought. 

Then on one of my visits, an especially grim day, late evening, windy and hot, some party in the “Polo Club” on the beach, loud music, something decadent in the air, I saw two Kentish plover in the distance then I saw a tiny chick. I was astounded, one had made this far, despite it all. A glimmer of hope. 

So whilst it seems futile sometimes there is hope. There is hope in raising awareness and education. The “Salvamos el chorlitejo patinegro” group which I am now part of works to bring awareness and educate people with travelling exhibition and workshops for schools. Different local groups in the province are linked, networked in collecting data with regular census of local populations. Local councils are asked to collaborate, to provide resources, to help by protecting certain areas where the birds are known to nest but often the help is too little or uncoordinated. The same council might put up a sign to warn people to take care with the chorlietjo but them “clean” the beach daily with tractors that scrape and rake the sand, destroying nests.

I am still processing what I learned through this experience. Processing and thinking about what other solutions can be implemted. Conservation can be complex.

2022 Birds

By Ecology

This year I didn’t take in so many birds. I took three swifts from the SGHN project. Two other swifts came to me. There was a swallow, the first swallow I have ever cared for. It was flighty but not flying enough. At first it resisted the mealworm I offered it, I had to gently pry open its beak, but then it gobbled them down hungrily. It was like it wanted me to know it resented taking food from me. It was so beautiful but I kept my distance. I adopted a sort of limited care approach. I put it perched on an artificial nest I had made under our porch. It had never been used, half occupied once by a wren and it had interested some swallows but was never taken up. It was a good place for it to perch and I fed it from there. 

Usually I would be concerned at night, maybe I would have taken it into a box for its own protection from night creatures and dangers, but I didn´t, I left it there alone. It was fine. One morning it wasn´t there and I thought it had flown away. Then M spotted it in the jasmine. I gave it a few mealworms there in the tangle of jasmine branches and then it flew to the washing line. It hung around for a morning, flying between different places around the house, and then it was gone. 

The most unusual guest was a gull. I really didn’t want to take it, I had no idea what I would do with it but I pleaded with, it would only be a few days. I didn’t know where to put it. This was such a different experience to anything before. It smelled like fish and tried to peck me. I had to learn how to handle it, so much bigger than the small birds I am used it. I was quite in awe of it. 

It was paralysed, which I was told was probably the result of ingesting toxins. Children had been throwing stones at it as it sat there unable to move. The hope was that it would recover if fed and cared for. I fed it fish which it gobbled down. It stayed in one place. After a couple of days of eating well I thought it might be able to fly, and it did. Such an impressive wingspan. Unfortunately it didn’t manage to fly far, it landed on my neighbours roof terrace and I had to go and retrieve it. I took it to someone else to care for, someone with more experience than me, but it died a few days later. 

I since learned that gull paralysis is a thing. A thing that has been affecting thousands of sea birds. It is called paretic syndrome and you can read about it here:

Paretic syndrome in gulls

Researchgate: Paretic Syndrome in gulls from Southern Portugal

Swifts and a little owl which was found at the side of the road, hit by a car – this was picked up by the CREA the wild animal rescue centre.

World Swift Day 2022

By Ecology, Education, Swift

Celebrate what you love! I love swifts. World swift day is a good day to share my love with other people. I organised an activity in the Vejer library making paper swifts with children. This was followed by an urban bird walk, we actually didn’t see many swifts but we did see a lot of kestrels, some from the nest boxes Ecoágora installed in different locations in Vejer.

Join with others and observe. Appreciate the biodiversity that exists in your town. Vejer is priveledged, the geographical location for the passing of migratory birds and proximity to the sea; there is so much to see when we look up at the rooftops, up to the sky or look down, look closely, but most importantly just LOOK!

6th International Swift Conference Segovia

By Birds, Conservation, Ecology

Swift lovers of the world unite! This was a highlight of my year. The aqueduct of Segovia is full of swifts, early morning and in the dusky evening the skies around this impressive structure are filled with the screams and flight of swifts. It is breathtaking. I loved being in Segovia, with its textured and decorated buildings. An unfamiliar Spain to the South I am used to. 

It was great to participate in this event. By participate I mean join in, listen, engage, meet people. I wasn’t giving a presentation. The first person I met, as I shly, awkwardly wondered how to speak to people during the first morning coffee break was Lyndon Kearsley, a swift expert whom I had actually been in touch with via email but never met. Lyndon had answered my call for help about the swifts in Vejer, he had also GPS tracked a swift which was spotted right over my house in the South of Spain. A more than happy coincidence which made me feel like I was in definately in the right place, and things just got better from there. I also met Dick Newell swift brick engineer extraordinaire and Edward Mayer who had both been very helpful and instrumental in guiding me through the swift colony crisis I had the previous year.

I listened to days of talks. I learned about swift behaviour, nest boxes, morphology, so many details and so much information. I connected with people who had the same concerns as me, the same interests, working to the same goal. It is so reassuring to find people who will freely, happily, generously share information or even tools with you because they have the same goal. Lynn Fomison and Tim Norriss of Hampshire Swifts kindly donated me swift calls with speakers to attract the swift to the nest boxes I am installing in the school in Vejer. 

More than swifts I saw the Choughs of Segovia. Elusive to me during my time in Cornwall this population of city dwelling Segovian choughs are noisy and very present in the city, circling the beautiful towers of the churches and being brawdy on the windows of the cathedral. Impressive. I also saw two tree creepers on a walk around the river, the only tree creepers I have ever seen other than the one that stinned itself on a glass window in the Sierra de Grazalema, which given the circumstances didn’t  feel very fair. Also crag martins, that was a beautiful experience. 

It was decided that the next swift conference will be in Trieste, Italy in 2024. There is no doubt that I will be there. With my swift friends.

Photo showing a crowd of seated people in a conference type room / gallery space.

Women in Science: Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural

By Birds, Conservation, Ecology

I was asked to give a talk about the swifts in Vejer by the Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural (SGHN). I don´t really talk in public. Even in those situations of a small group of 5 people when you´re asked to introduce yourself I feel really anxious. So generally I would never accept an invitation to speak in public. But speak in public I did. And in Spanish.

Sometimes what you have to say, what you have to share, is bigger than yourself, bigger than your own feelings of discomfort. This is a subject that is important to me and I had to get over myself. This turned out to be an interesting learning experience and I reflected a lot on my feelings of anxiety. Sometimes anxiety serves a purpose. I learned this from a therapist I once went to and it helped it to contextualise my anxiety.

Poster for a Women in science event for the Natural History Society in Spain.

When I was first faced with the destruction of the swift colony I felt anxious but at the same time I found peace in my resolve. I channelled my anxiety into action. I know that this isn´t always possible but I recount how this was possible for me because it is interesting to record it for myself. 

Firstly, I understood that this feeling of anxiety when faced with the destruction of the natural world is NORMAL. In fact I think it would be abnormal to not feel in response to the destruction of another species. The clarity which came with this realisation was helpful. Secondly, I decided to use the energy of my anxiety to ACT – to create, to move things, to communicate.

I recounted all of this, along with the story of what happened with the swift colony in Vejer to a crowd of people. I recounted how it was to feel alone and to find a network of support. I recounted how it feels to accept your own limits, to do what you can. I spoke out loud my gratitude to all those who have helped and guided me. It felt good. 


By Birds, Ecology

Summer 2021: my teenage daughter has a three month holiday and not a great deal to do. I have a house full of wild birds I am caring for. I am deeply concerned about a swift colony that I love and is going to be lost in my local town. There is a short film competition in our local town for under 18s. (I am also yelling at her to do something / anything other than use her mobile phone). The stars colide.

Sometimes your children surprise you. Sometimes they just completely floor you. My 16 year old daughter made this beautiful sensitive film about the swift colony I was working to try and help in Vejer. I had no idea how she had approached the subject or told the story until I saw her first version shortly before enetering the film into the local film festival. She had never edited a film before. She was using an open source editing software that drove her crazy. She did this all by herself. The narration shows such a sensitive maturity and sweetness, and tells the story in a way that helps people to connect.

This film did so much to help the swifts in Vejer, by telling their story.

I am her mother

Avenida Andalucia

By Birds, Ecology, Education

In July 2021 one of my worst fears came true.

There is a beautiful colony of swifts in Vejer that I have watched and documented for years. They return each year to breed in an abandoned building on Avenida Andalucia. It is a thing of astounding beauty, hundreds of swifts fly together at dusk and dawn, it is incredibly moving to stand still as they screech past lightening fast.

I had always had an anxiety that the building would be developed at some point. This is why I documented it in photos and videos each year. This is what happened in July, one day as I was passing I saw that building works had begun, right in middle of the breeding season when the swifts were nesting. A strange thing happened to me, like a cross between a panic attack and deep calm strength of conviction. I breathed and vowed to turn my anxiety into action, to do everything I could for the swifts.

The first thing I did was to call Seprona (the environmental police), I knew it was illegal for building works to happen when swifts are nesting as they are a protected species. The builders were told the work would have to stop until the swifts had migrated. This was a short relief but the start of a whole project to try and make sure measures were introduced to ensure the continuance of the colony. What I learned is that whilst it is illegal to carry out the works whilst the birds are present, there is no legal obligation to provide an alternative.

I resolved to do all I could to do create something positive faced with what seemed like a bleak outcome for the swifts.

It was the start of a journey in which I found I a support network, a whole community of people working to help swifts. To feel small and reach out and find you have people willing to help you is a very special thing. I am grateful to so many people and organisations who helped me on this path. Fernando Gómez Tineo my colleague from the Assocation Ecoágora is very special person who has always guided me with great patience. Edward Myer and Swift Conservation UK were also a great help, a great resource and Edward put me in touch with a lot of other swift people. Dick Newell from Action for Swifts another UK organisation, was also very helpful in providing information on specially designed swift bricks.

Locally, I also had the support of the Sociedad Gatitana de Historia Natural, I was taking part in their swift project, adopting grounded swifts when this happened with the colony in Vejer. The problem facing swifts was glaringly obvious, what is the use of caring for a grounded swift (or 10 in my case) if a colony of 100´s can be <legally> destroyed? I am especially grateful to Iñigo Sanchez and Alvaro Pérez Gómez of the SGNH.

I am also grateful to Beatriz Sanchez, head of biodiversity for the SEO (Sociedad Española de Ornitologia) who got in touch with me and supported me throughout the process of attempting to offer solutions.

My source of inspiration and guidance came from the Colegio Esclavas in Jerez, they have an amazing educational conservation project in which the children learn about swifts by observing them and carrying out census of the swifts that nest in their school each year. Ignacio Quevedo and Jose Nietos, teachers from this school offered me guidance and support but more than anything INSPIRATION that it is possible to do something positive, this was the greatest guide during difficult circumstances.

I also have to openly thank Joaquin Nuñez, the developer of the building, who listened to me. We exchanged a sensible and educated dialog and Joaquin made his own commitment to the protecting the natural world by investing in artificial nest boxes. It is because of Joaquin that 20 artificial nest boxes were made and I was able to start an educational project in Colegio Los Molinos and IES La Janda in Vejer.


2021: 28 Birds

By Birds, Conservation, Ecology

The summer of 28 birds. Suddently it seems birds just fall from the sky. The summer of 2021, I took in 28 wild birds, 4 died, 24 survived:

1 Sardinian Warbler
2 Blackbirds
9 Swifts
11 House Martins
5 Sparrows



Swift Speaking

By Birds, Ecology, Education, Swift

Talking about swifts to a group of children in the Granja Escuela Buenavista with other members of the “Proyecto Vencejo” of the SGHN (Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural). We made simple paper swifts and my friends 8 year old daughter talked to the other children of her experiences caring for swifts.

Blackbird Rubbish

By Birds, Ecology

I got a call from a friend to say he had found two blackbird chicks in a bin. In a bin, thrown away like rubbish, alive, nest and all. I felt an anxious urgency and deep sickness on hearing this. I had children to gather and deliver before I was able to go and pick the birds up but then I ran, as if arriving early would make a difference to the cruel fact that someone devalued life so much that they threw it in the bin.

It turns out blackbirds are very resilient. The will to live was fierce. They are noisy and hungry and demanding. And they never seemed to get full. Blackbirds are omnivores, they primarily eat insects but forage fruits and seeds. I fed them meal worms, when they got bigger I sometimes gave them an insect paste which has fruits and oats in it too.

I am always conscious in caring for wild birds to minimize my contact with them to avoid imprinting. Part of me wants to gaze them, fascinating as they are or hold them but I know it is not best for them so I keep interaction to a minimum. Hard with blackbirds I found, they are proactive in their demands.

As they got bigger and grew feathers (remarkably quickly, they sprouted and grew in front of my eyes!) I kept them outside during the day on a platform we built for my daughter in a wild olive tree. There they would hear the other bird sounds and were out there experiencing the elements. Of course they would be missing the parental education in blackbird behaviour. And for all my care I know that this is disadvantages to them in the wild. But I do the best I can to give them a natural upbringing. My best attempt at what rehabilitators of wild birds call hacking.

I read that blackbird young can survive alone from a very early stage in their development. It is a survival mechanism, a trait to protect against predator attacks. Blackbirds often nest low to the ground so can be an easy target for predators. Before it can fly a young blackbird will leave the nest and hop between low branches and will forage for its own food whilst continuing to be fed by its parents.

Unfortunately one of these birds had to be put down. After tending to it for a week it became obvious it was not developing as it should. Its legs didn’t work although they hadn’t initially appeared to be broken. It used its wings to maneuver which seemed ok at first and I hoped it would develop but it didn’t get any better. It was then soiling inside the nest unable to move itself. Blackbirds spend a lot of their time foraging on the floor, a blackbird without legs stands no chance of surviving in the wild. It was a difficult decision to make.

The other blackbird grew big and strong. These were the first blackbirds I had cared for. I am used to swifts and house martins that once they can fly just want to leave. This blackbird did not seem to want to leave. It spent three nights sleeping in the top of the tree but would fly down to me for food when I came. It foraged for food and also ate what I left for it below. I did not anticipate how tame it would become with me as provider, I began to despair that despite my best efforts I had ruined its chances of survival. Then just like that it flew away.