All photos ©Ignacio Yúfera taken in the Gredos Mountains, Avila, Spain, between April and June.
The Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) is a small migratory passerine with a mostly Eurasian distribution, although a small breeding population exists in Western Alaska, making it a treat for American birders. Depending on the author, there are ten or eleven subspecies recognized, based on the colour and size of the spot found in their bright blue breast ("bib").
Bluethroat male displaying on broom.
Bluethroats that breed in Spain have been traditionally included within the Central European cyanecula subspecies. However, a number of recent studies suggest that they form a distinct subspecies, L.s. azuricollis, due to its geographical isolation and the fact that a large percentage of males show very little or no white spot at all in the blue bib (the ornithologist Corley Smith, in 1959, claimed that 80% of the breeding bluethroats he observed in Central Spain had no white spot). The reddish breast bar is often wider, and the white line separating it from the black-bordered bib tends to be very faint, or even absent in many cases. Some males also show significant amounts of blue in the lore. Spanish birds are also larger, which would be consistent with their high mountain habitat, and have longer wings than their Central European counterparts.
Male Bluethroat I digiscoped in 2005, showing blue in the lores and no white in the bib.
A different male with faint white spotting in the bib.
By mid April, bluethroats start arriving to their Spanish breeding grounds. These comprise two main areas: the Galician-Cantabrian Mountains in SW Spain and the Central Mountain System, 250 km apart. In both areas their populations are fragmented due to the scarcity of their preferred habitat: gentle slopes with dense low vegetation, mostly broom (Cytisus) and heath (Erica), mixed with open meadows, never far from water. Unlike Central European birds, in Spain the Bluethroat is almost exclusively a high mountain bird, breeding above 1,700 meters. Population densities are also lower than in Central Europe. Numbers in Spain appear stable, with 9,000 -12,000 pairs.
Depending on the weather, males in the Gredos Mountains start establishing their territories between late April and early May, displaying well into June. Especially active right after sunrise, some of them can be bold and very showy, singing from exposed perches in bushes or rocks, and also in flight. They have a clear and varied song, often starting with imitations of other birds, among them Nightingale and Quail. Females are much more discrete and are seldom seen.
A Spring visit to the sierras of Guadarrama or Gredos is one of the most rewarding birding experiences one can have in Spain. Bluethroats share their habitat with good numbers of Ortolan Bunting, Rock Bunting, Northern Wheatear, Common Accentor, Skylark, Water Pipit and Yellow Wagtail, and up in the rocks it is possible to see male Rock Thrush performing their display flights. The mountain streams, swelled by the thaw, often have pairs of Dipper. In certain areas of Guadarrama, Spectacled Warbler is also present. The once almost extinct Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) has made a spectacular comeback and become remarkably tame in several areas, especially Gredos.
Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana)
All this makes these mountain sites one of the few in Spain where bird and wildlife photography is possible without the aid of a hide. With patience, a long lens, and trying to avoid weekends when the affluence of visitors can be overwhelming, it is possible to get quite close to many of the birds as they display. Most species are at their most active and bold in May, although June offers some beautiful extra colors added by the bright yellow broom flowers.