In the past few weeks the estuary of the Río Verde in Marbella has been playing host to a new guest which was not only unexpected but is also a remarkable sight in Malaga province: a red-knobbed coot, also known as a crested coot.
This bird is a member of a family of rallidae in serious danger of extinction; they are mainly found in Ethiopia and there are very few of them in Spain and Morocco. In fact, in Andalucía they are normally only seen on the Guadalquivir marshes and some lagoons in Cadiz province.
The situation of this species is very delicate everywhere it inhabits, mainly due to the regression of the wetlands and the pressure of hunting, because these birds are sometimes confused with their close relative, the Eurasian coot.
The species is officially classified as being in Critical Danger of Extinction, which is the highest degree of threat to any species, according to the Red Book of Birds in Spain which is produced by the SEO ornithological society and published by the Ministry of the Environment.
It is calculated that in the best of cases there are only 50 to 80 reproducing pairs in this country and the situation in Africa is no better, so the sighting in Marbella is very unusual indeed.
Juan Caracuel, a member of SEO Malaga, was able to photograph this lovely bird on 7 December, but other people say they have seen it before and after that date in the same place.
Juan says this is not the first time a crested coot has chosen to spend time at the Río Verde estuary in the winter. The same thing occurred in 2011 and 2013, and he believes that it will probably stay for a few weeks, as it did before. This is long enough for it to enjoy abundant food from the Río Verde, especially the submerged vegetation and stalks of marshland plants it enjoys so much.
“Once the breeding season is over, these birds go from one place to another to look for food, but without a fixed route. We don't know where they come from, because there's no way we can find out. They may have been in a wetland in Valencia, or Doñana, or even north Africa,” explains Juan, who believes the bird in Marbella is probably the only crested coot in the province at present. Two others were spotted a few months ago on the reservoir at Cancelada, in Estepona.
His expert eye does not let him down. “There is no way of confusing a crested coot with a Eurasian coot,” he says, “because among some other differences it has two red protuberances on its head, and it's slimmer and smaller than the Eurasian variety.”
The one on the Río Verde is medium-sized, and about 40 to 45 centimetres long, but Juan Caracuel says it is difficult to know how old it is. “It doesn't appear to be a young bird, though,” he says.
The presence of the crested coot is not the only surprise on the Río Verde at the moment. A western swamphen has also been spotted there.
This bird can be seen all over Spain and, although it is not an endangered species as it was in the 1950s, it is unusual to spot them in this region because they do not breed in Malaga province.