European roller in flight

The noisy neighbours are beautiful

For this month, I’m sneaking you across the border out of the Algarve region onto the plains in the neighbouring lower Alentejo. This is where you will find the stunning European roller breeding during the summer months.

On my first trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa, I was astounded by the beauty of the common lilac-breasted roller, an incredibly colourful bird. And when I moved to Portugal four years ago, I discovered a not-so-colourful-but-still-beautiful European relative. The European roller (Coracias garrulus) is the only species of roller found in Europe and they can be spotted in the open steppe plains of the lower Alentejo region.

During the winter months, they migrate to southern Africa and make the long trip back during the late April where they breed and leave again before September.

They are stocky birds with a large crow-like beak and can be up to 32cm in length with a large wingspan up to 60cm. As with most species of roller, they are colourful; bright light blue covers most of the plumage with darker blue and black wing patterns. The back feathers are a contrasting rusty brown colour.

As you can imagine, they are easily identified and both sexes look the same. The juveniles are slightly duller in appearance. I titled this article “Noisy Neighbours” as they are very noisy birds with a loud harsh crow-like call and they make a chattering noise if they are feeling nervous.

Unfortunately, here in Portugal (and other European locations) these birds have been in decline, however, with the help of both locals erecting nesting boxes and the LPN (Liga para a Proteção da Natureza – League for the Protection of Nature) constructing a nesting site, they are breeding very successfully.
The name roller is derived from their spectacular display. If you have witnessed lapwings displaying, it is similar, but the roller’s version is like a crazed daredevil pilot. They fly almost vertical to a huge height and then tumble towards the ground like a rollercoaster, twisting and rolling at high speed.

Although I have witnessed this many times, I still always think they are going to fly into the ground!

Nests are usually holes in trees, but you will often see them nesting in holes in ruined buildings, and at man-made nesting sites. They perch in prominent locations such roofs of ruins, fence posts and trees, where they scan the area for insects to prey upon. Beetles, centipedes, crickets and grasshoppers are favourites.

They are very territorial around their nest site and, due to the lesser kestrel also favouring ruined buildings, I have witnessed many high-speed chases where the roller aggressively chases the lesser kestrels away, screaming their harsh call whilst they do so.

Just one clutch of eggs is normal, with four or five eggs laid between May and June, the female mainly taking the duties of incubation. Once hatched at around 20 days, both parents feed the chicks for approximately 27 days, then continue to do so for 14 days after fledging. It is believed that the “family” stays together until migration.

The chicks have a clever defence mechanism – they vomit a foul-smelling liquid which deters predators and also alerts the parents of any predator nearby.

The European roller is shy of humans and it makes getting up close difficult. All my close-up photographs have been carefully planned and I have hidden fully camouflaged before sunrise to avoid being spotted.

That being said, it is still fairly easy to observe them from a distance with binoculars and telephoto camera lenses.

The best starting point is the LPN Centre, near to Castro Verde, as they have a dedicated nest site and whilst you cannot approach this for obvious reasons, you can observe them around the site fairly frequently.

Other areas to look at are remote ruined buildings as they are often at these locations, usually combined with lesser kestrels. As these birds are quite vulnerable, I would suggest either keeping a good distance or taking a guided trip with a respected bird guide operator. If you are lucky enough to ever see one of these amazing birds on the plains of the lower Alentejo, I guarantee it will be something to remember.

By Craig Rogers
|| features@algarveresident.com

Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit
www.craigrogers.photography

European roller
European roller in flight
European roller performing its aerial display