A Fantastic Tail

A Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin keeping its tail in tip top condition © Inglorious Bustards

Whether you call it the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, the Rufous Bush-chat, the Rufous-tailed Bush Robin or maybe even the Rufous-tailed Scrub-Bush Robin-Chat, one thing that we can all agree on is that this little bird is a stunner.

The Spanish name Alzacola – meaning “lift-tail” – is arguably more descriptive than the plethora of available English names!  The dazzling, distinctive pattern of this bird’s frequently displayed tail is a large part of what gives it its charm.

Peering through the organic vines you might see that distinctive tail flick! – Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin © Inglorious Bustards

This striking appendage is almost constantly on the move, slowly up and down or dropped and spread like a fan; often it is cocked vertically, or held almost flat along the back, the wings meanwhile being flicked forward or part-opened and drooped, tips nearly scraping the ground.

The tail is a multi-functional tool.  It serves to beguile a mate and to warn off potential competitors. It’s also a lure, to distract predators and draw them away from the nest, perched just inches from the ground among the vines or hedgerows of its agrarian habitat.

Evolution has whittled this tool to perfection! Studies have shown that the size of the white terminal patches positively affects reproductive success – the larger the white bits, the more desirable the bird!  Conversely, the size of the black sub-terminal patches has a negative relationship with nest predation – the larger the black bits, the more successful the bird is in drawing predators away from the nest.

But the evolutionary intricacy of this extremity is even more complex!  The Alzacola is a nomadic bird, migrating thousands of miles to winter in as yet poorly-understood areas of sub-Saharan Africa.  As the breeding season wears on, the delicate white end of the tail wears off, becoming abraded and eventually disappearing.  The black patches, strengthened by melanin, do not wear so easily and effectively form the new terminal part of the tail.  Mind-blowingly, it’s thought they delineate the perfect aero-dynamic shape for a long-distance traveller, a shape which is reached just as the bird is ready to leave on its migratory journey. How cool is that?!

In its breeding areas, the bird often collaborates uneasily with nearby Woodchat Shrikes, striking up a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme.  They make handsome partners, sporting a matching colour scheme of rufous-y bits, with prominent flashing black-and-white wings and tail.  The Shrike takes a look-out from the tops of trees and posts, keeping an eye out for Eurasian Sparrowhawks and other aerial predators.  Meanwhile, the lower-level Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin is alert to ground predators like foxes, mustelids, snakes and feral cats.  Each bird knows the other’s alarm call, enabling double the vigilance!  This partnership surely takes the sting out of what must be a bit of a contest for grasshoppers, spiders and beetles!

Across its range – which extends from Portugal, southern Spain and the Balkan Peninsula, through the Middle East to Iraq, Kazakhstan and Pakistan, and also Africa, where it breeds from Morocco to Egypt and south of the Sahara as far east as Somalia – the bird is split into numerous sub-species. Many of these population numbers are stable, and considered of Least Concern in conservation terms.

Sadly though, in Spain the migratory race Cercotrichas galactotes galactotes is considered Endangered.  In recent decades the area of traditionally and extensively managed vineyards in Andalucía – one of the bird´s main population strongholds –   has decreased by nearly 70%.  Just like in wider agriculture, vineyard and orchard production is being intensified – herbicides, pesticides, habitat removal and mechanical harvesting drastically reduce biodiversity.  The ecosystem is broken from the bottom up, and the Alzacola is no longer able to find nesting sites or large-bodied insect prey amongst sparse vine monocultures. 

In the area of Trebujena however, Alzacolas are getting a big helping hand from Nature-friendly viticulturalists! 

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin in the Nature Friendly vineyards of Trebujena © Inglorious Bustards

These farmers are caring for their lands and their cultural and natural heritage, producing excellent, organic, Nature-friendly vino oloroso in the Marco de Jerez region, with the Xeres-Sherry Designation of Origin. We’re extremely proud to be working with this project through our not-for-profit arm, the Flyway Birding Association, and you can read more about it here.

With its organic, hand-harvested artisanal vineyards rich in insects and habitat, this area is a 1000-hectare oasis for Nature amongst a desert of intensive agriculture. No surprise that it holds the highest concentration of Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin nests in the Iberian Peninsula. Each year approximately 129 pairs are recorded, which is likely if anything to be an underestimate.  That’s one reason why one of the first tasks of the project is to formalise an annual census in order to be able to accurately monitor the population going forward.

If you’re a follower of our social media feed, you will have seen that we spent some incredible days in the area this week, with active territories all around us.  At one point we were in the midst of a skirmish between four different individuals!  We’re certainly looking forward to finally being able to share them with you again during our Swift Weekender Tour 2022 or perhaps a guided day tour of the area.  If that doesn’t make you want to shake your tail-feather, we don’t know what will!

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin action! © Inglorious Bustards

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