There is no bird sighting better than pintail sandgrouse in Doñana, from my point of view. Well, ok, a good Spanish imperial eagle, a squacco heron in full breeding plumage, a black-winged kite hovering, a male Montagu’s harrier flying low, a close view of a red-necked nightjar, a short-toed eagle, an oriole, a roller, a bee-eater, a hoopoe,… they are all great sightings but when you get to see a pintail sandgrouse close enough… that is a magical experience, a wonder of beauty, the peak of bird design, something out of this world to me.
In good years, when most of the marshes are flooded, water push them closer to our route, making the sighting easier. The problem is that they are late breeders, they wait until the end of May to lay their eggs and by then they’ve got plenty of dry areas to choose from, normally away from us. In winter they move in large flocks, sometimes of 50-100 or more but they you don’t hear them very often. The unmistakable sound they produce, normally only in flight, is of a great help to us when it comes to find them in the vast plains.
The pin-tailed sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata) is a medium large bird in the sandgrouse family. It has a small, pigeon like head and neck and a sturdy, compact body. It has long pointed wings, which are white underneath, a long tail and a fast direct flight. Flocks fly to watering holes at dawn. The call is a loud kattar-kattar. This gregarious species breeds on dry open treeless plains and similar habitats. Its nest is a ground scrape into which two or three cream-coloured eggs with cryptic markings are laid. Both sexes incubate the eggs.
The pin-tailed sandgrouse is about 35 centimetres (14 in) long. Its head and upperparts are yellowish-green. The underparts are white with a chestnut breast band separating the belly from the green neck. Sexes are somewhat similar, but the female is better camouflaged and has a shorter tail than the male. There are two subspecies; P. a. alchata breeds in southern Europe and P. a. caudacutus breeds in northwestern Africa, the Middle East and southeastern Asia. It is a partial migrant, with some Asian birds moving to the Middle East and northern Pakistan in winter. Males of the eastern race have duller underparts than the European birds, and the females have white, rather than yellow, wing coverts.
There are two subspecies. The nominate race, P. a. alchata, breeds in Iberia and southern France, and the eastern form P. a. caudacutus (Gmelin, 1774) is found in northwest Africa, and from southeast Turkey east to Kazakhstan.
The pin-tailed sandgrouse is a robust, medium-sized bird about 31 to 39 centimetres (12 to 15 in) in length. The general colouring iscryptic, a blend of barred and flecked olive green, brown, buff, yellow, grey and black. The underparts and the feathered legs are dull white.
The two sexes look different. In the breeding season, the male has the crown, most of the neck, the back and under-wing coverts a yellowish-green colour with dull yellow spots in the shoulder region. The cheeks are also yellow with a narrow black line extending from the beak, through the eye to the nape of the neck. The irises are brown and the beak is slatey grey. There is a black patch on the throat immediately below the beak, and below this, there is a broad, reddish-brown band round the breast, bordered by a thin black stripe above and below the band. The outer wing coverts are chestnut edged with black and white and the primaries are black with pale edges which give both the leading and trailing edges of the wing the appearance of a black rim in flight. The rump and the tail are distinctly barred in black and brownish-yellow and the streamers on the central tail feathers are slate-grey.
The female is generally similar to the male but the colours are duller. The cheeks and neck are golden-buff and lack the greenish tinge of the male. There is a black stripe running through the eye. The chin is white and there is an additional yellow-buff band across the breast with a broad black stripe above, another thinner one about a third of the way down and a further narrow black stripe at the base. The back and wings are grey, barred with black. The rump and the tail (which has shorter central feathers than the male) are similar in colouration to the male but have finer black barrings.
Exceptionally among sandgrouse, a non-breeding plumage exists in male, showing white throat, black eyestripe reduced or absent, and dorsal parts barred, without yellow spots. Race caudacutus paler, with longer wings.
In flight, the pin-tailed sandgrouse can be identified by its bright, white underparts and underwing coverts, and the long feathers in the centre part of its tail. It is usually silent when on the ground but in the air communicates with other birds with a frequently uttered, loud “kattar-kattar”, a nasal “ga-ga-ga” and a low-pitched “gang gang”.
Distribution and habitat
The pin-tailed sandgrouse breeds in North Africa and the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Kazakhstan. In Europe it breeds in Spain, Portugal and the southern part of France. Eastern populations, particularly those from Kazakhstan, migrate to Pakistan and parts of northern India in winter.
The pin-tailed sandgrouse inhabits open areas of stony land, semi arid areas at the edge of deserts, treeless plains and occasionally dried-out mud flats. In winter it may visit ploughed or fallow land but prefers sandy soils and is much less reliant on vegetation cover than the black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) which has a similar range. It does not occur at elevations above about 1,000 metres (3,300 ft).
The pin-tailed sandgrouse often feeds in groups and gathers regularly in large numbers at waterholes, to which the birds fly soon after dawn. Species typically drinks during morning, and in hot weather some birds also an hour before sunset. During the day they disperse to forage for seeds, but to lesser extent also green shoots and leaves. Strongly selects Leguminosae , and also takes Polygonum, Salicornia, Artemisia and others. In agricultural areas, takes cereal grain and cultivated legumes as well. Beetles and other small invertebrates are sometimes eaten and grit is consumed to help grind up the contents of the crop.
The pin-tailed sandgrouse nests in a slight depression on the ground in the open. Two or three eggs are laid at intervals of two days, creamy-brown spotted with darker brown, reddish-brown and grey. Both parents share the task of incubation which lasts from nineteen to twenty five days. Male incubates 4 hours after sunrise and an hour before sunset and the female takes over after she has been to the waterhole in the morning.
The young are precocial and leave the nest soon after they have hatched. Both parents care for them but only the male is involved in bringing them water, absorbed by the feathers on his breast. Will drink brackish water in absence of fresh, and will not only wade but alight on river far from shore, floating high like gull and taking off without difficulty. The chicks are able to feed themselves by the age of a week and can fly by the time they are four weeks old. They are dependent on their parents for two months and attain their adult plumage at about four months. There is normally a single brood each year but if the eggs are destroyed or removed, more eggs may be laid.
Resident and nomadic in west Palearctic range; largely migratory in central Asia. Rather little movement occurs in southern Europe, dispersal being restricted; Iberian birds occur irregularly outside breeding range, e.g. in Guadalquivir delta, and French birds (from La Crau population) are erratic visitors to Gard and Provence. Nomadic movements more marked in North Africa, where numbers vary regionally (especially late summer to March) as flocks settle in areas of local rainfall and penetrate further into desert after heavy rains. In Middle East, extensive dispersals reported from Iraq especially; birds will push out further into desert areas during autumn rains, though, in winter, flocks are conspicuous in river valleys before spring return to breeding areas.
It has a large global population, including an estimated 20,000-41,000 individuals in Europe (BirdLife International in prep.). Global population trends have not been quantified, but populations appear to be stable so the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern.