Your obscure word for this month is ophidiophobia, which is the fear of snakes, horrible slimy things which will kill you if they get the chance by digging their fangs into you, or coiling round your neck and strangling you to death.
All utter nonsense, of course (for the most part), but even when you tell some people that snakes aren’t slimy, and far more scared of you than you are of them, they still shudder with dread when they think of snakes, and no amount of persuasion will convince them otherwise.
So flying in to the rescue for these deluded people is the champion for snake-haters, the Short-toed Eagle. It is an uncommon bird in our area, with a handful present over the winter; the numbers increase somewhat during the summer when more birds arrive from south of the Sahara where they have spent the winter. It is a medium-sized raptor, about the same size as the Booted Eagle which is fairly common in our area over the winter. As you can see from my photo, the Short-toed Eagle has very light underparts with a hint of barring, and a light brown head.
Its alternative name of Snake Eagle gives a hint of its prey preferences, it will also take lizards, other birds and occasionally rodents, but its appetite for snakes gives us a clue as to where it is most likely to be seen. One or two have appeared in the Clot over the past few years, but their preference is for cultivated areas and low scrub, ideally with a few tall trees or cliff sites to nest in – they only raise a single chick during the breeding season.
The Spanish population is reasonably stable, with up to 3000 pairs present during the breeding season, and their range spreads throughout the Mediterranean basin eastwards towards Kazakhstan and India, however in these eastern areas it is a declining species due to habitat loss, shortage of prey and hunting. It does not occur in more northerly areas due to the lack of snakes, and has only been seen in the UK on one or two occasions.
For a bird which relies so much on snakes as its main food source, it may be surprising to hear than unlike some other species which prey on snakes, it is not immune to snake venom. It is not unknown for the Short-toed Eagle to have protracted struggles with larger snakes on the ground, as they need to take care that they themselves are not bitten.
The Spanish name is Culebrera europea, and is well worth watching out for; they spend a lot of time soaring and hovering over suitable hunting ground, so keep your eyes peeled!
You can see more photographs of birds from our area by visiting www.marketheridge.smugmug.com
See you next month.