Photographing Balearic Warbler (Sylvia balearica)

My first trip to Mallorca in the spring of 2013 was primarily aimed towards photographing Balearic Warbler (Sylvia balearica). Balearic Warbler is an endemic species to several Balearic Islands and was formerly regarded as a subspecies of Marmora’s Warbler (Sylvia sarda balearica). I have had a growing interest in Mediterranean Sylvia-warblers for some time and hope to photograph other species on future photo trips to the region. 
Having read various trip reports and natural history reports on Balearic Warbler prior to my trip, allowed me to narrow down the list of areas I would focus my search on. My main sites thus lay on the north coast: Boquer Valley, Son Real, Betlem and any promising looking site in between. Many reports had me believing that these small warblers are rather difficult to find, which luckily was not the case. Belearic Warbler’s song is rather distinctive and once I keyed in on it, having previously only listened to recordings, the birds were easy to find in most locations I visited.

Balearic Warbler male singing on low shrub

While hearing them didn’t prove much of a challenge, seeing the actual bird takes a bit more patience and luck. They are much smaller than the common Swiss Sylvia warblers - Blackcap and Garden Warbler, active and restless, and like to skulk among dense shrubby vegetation. However, spring time is also breeding season and thus the males frequently perch on top of low shrubs and sing to attract females and defend territories. Even though they flush from their song perches when approached, I surprisingly found Balearic Warbler to be very confiding and unafraid, much more so than the abundant but more difficult to approach Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala). Once flushed they will pop up onto a nearby perch after a while and continue their song, which they frequently interrupt to forage for small bugs among the shrubbery. I have had individuals picking bugs off shrubs not two meters in front of me without any sort of interference. A few seconds (<5sec) of audio playback will have the males immediately zoom in towards the source. Due to their tame nature, there is really not much need to continue playback once the bird is near. Used sparingly and with a healthy dose of common sense, playback can be very helpful without distressing the birds or having adverse effects.  

typical Balearic Warbler habitat

As for habitat preferences, it seems Balearic Warbler prefers very low vegetation less than 30cm in height with single interspersed higher bushes up to roughly 1.5m. Such habitat is typically found near the coast. However, I have also found singing males in higher, dense garrigue habitat with an average vegetation height of at least 1.5-2m (see photo). When searching for Balearic Warbler I would certainly not ignore such areas, even if most reports don’t credit them with good chances of finding Balearic Warbler. Naturally, I concentrated my photography efforts on the early mornings and late afternoons to take advantage of the best light. Fast shutter speeds are mandatory, however, and I ‘lost’ many shots due to motion blur. 

Balearic Warbler habitat with 1,5-2m high shrubs and grasses

All in all, the results of my trip to photograph Balearic Warbler on Mallorca certainly exceeded my hopes and expectations. They are perhaps not the most colorful or majestic species Mallorca has to offer, but are common, enchantingly confiding, and very rewarding to study, watch and photograph. Lastly, while chasing Balearic Warbler, you will most certainly stumble upon numerous Tawny Pipit, Thekla Lark, Sardinian Warbler, Woodchat Shrike and even Blue Rock Thrush, which all coexist in the same habitat. 

Balearic Warbler habitat

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