Category Archives: International

29th Apr-5th May 2018 – Northern Greece: Lake Kerkini in Spring

A 7 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, we headed off to Northern Greece to visit Lake Kerkini and explore the surrounding area. It was lovely sunny weather, blue skies and light winds, although starting to get a little hot in the middle of the day towards the end of our visit.

SUNDAY 29TH APRIL

It was a very early start at London Gatwick this morning, for the 0555 departure to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. After a slightly delayed start due to the airline boarding some people onto the plane who were meant to be going to Corfu [!] we eventually set off and enjoyed a swift three hour run down, landing only about fifteen minutes behind schedule. The transit through the airport was typically painless, given its small size, and soon we had collected our hire vans and were making our way north towards the south end of Kerkini Lake where we would meet Stergios our hotel proprietor for an al fresco picnic lunch.

While we ate our way through the spread, we were able to scope our first Dalmatian Pelicans, and watch Common Terns, a flock of Mediterranean Gulls and a flyby Night Heron. A second calendar year Caspian Gull was also noted, a nice ‘snouty’ white-headed example, and we could hear our first Golden Orioles and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers signing thereabouts.

From here, we made our way slowly up the western shore of the lake to Korofoudi, and made our first proper birding spot on the flat coastal plain where normally there is a fair bit of exposed mud on the shallow shelving shoreline. However, the heavy late winter snow had clearly now made its way down from the Belles Mountains, and the water levels were actually very high. Nevertheless, a flock of 26 Wood Sandpipers came up from the shore as we parked, and proceeded to pick their way through the flooded grass at the lake edge – fantastic!

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper – one of at least 26 by the lake this afternoon

A tiny patch of reeds held no less than three Great Reed Warblers, croaking away from the very tops of the reed heads in full view. We also enjoyed the many Spanish Sparrows here, with the dapper males collecting the heads of the phragmites and carrying them to a nearby White Stork nest. The storks themselves were down in the roadside meadow foraging, and here we also found a fine male Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting and two flyby European Bee-eaters.

Great Reed Warbler

Great Reed Warbler – one of three singing in a tiny patch of reeds

This whole area was just hooching with great birds and it was difficult to know where to look first! Our first Pygmy Cormorant of the trip showed really well, and a cracking adult Eurasian Spoonbill flew in and began feeding right next to the road in a small pool.

Perhaps the best birds seen in this area though, despite them being rather distant, were a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks displaying above the wooded ridge behind us. The incredible mechanical, super-slow wingbeats of the male were quite unlike any other accipiter display, even if the more familiar switch-back routine followed it. We could just about make out the dark wingtips too, but the distinctive shape with a narrow, pointed ‘hand’ were clear to see. Heading north, we had a few more good roadside birds, in particular our first Black-headed Bunting of the trip perched on some roadside wires, but also Woodchat Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow and Black Kite, before reaching our hotel in the foothills just north of the lake.

After a quick check in, we were keen to head straight back into the field to make the most of the fantastic light and warm evening temperatures, and so we made straight for the small harbour at Mandraki. This site really comes into its own late in the day, and we enjoyed another veritable feast of wetland birds here. Squacco Herons stood among the lily pads, part of a list of seven heron species that included many Great White Egrets, single Cattle Egret, a few Night Herons and three smart Purple Herons. The light was so great, and the birds were mainly fairly close – the Squacco Herons especially looked stunning as they flew past us, perfectly reflected in the still water.

We could see the artificial pelican nesting islands in the distance and as well as the many Dalmatian Pelicans, we could easily pick out the salmon pink White Pelicans too! Over the water, among the many Common Terns, two Whiskered Terns were dip feeding and we were greeted with the quite remarkable sight of at least two hundred Great Crested Grebes nesting colonially in the shallows to the west of the harbour – unreal!

Other species noted here included a scoped Common Cuckoo, two Red-rumped Swallows, and a young Goshawk which drifted through mobbed by Hooded Crows. Two drake Garganey and a Black-winged Stilt were also seen distantly out towards the drowned forest, an area we would explore more thoroughly in the coming days from a specially arranged boat trip. Only day one, and already we were getting the feel for why Kerkini is such an awesome birding destination.

MONDAY 30TH APRIL

Our first full day was spent largely around the north-east side of the lake, birding around Vironia and Megalachori and enjoying the feast of waterbirds on offer. But before breakfast, we took a short drive up the hill behind the village to check out a Semi-collared Flycatcher which had been found by Paul and the previous group out here last week.

The bird was still singing in exactly the same spot, and presumably this was in fact a potential breeding location, as the mature plane trees along a stream looked ideal habitat for sure. We soon found the Semi-collared Flycatcher, a fine male [though perhaps a first summer due to its slightly brown flight feathers and restricted white in primary bases], and over the next half hour we played cat and mouse with it in the canopy above. The bird was singing and calling virtually non-stop, but was very mobile and didn’t remain on the same perch for long. Eventually though, everyone had a great view through the scope. Just as we were about to head back for breakfast, we realised there were in fact two males present! A great result and perhaps one for future trips too.

Semi-collared Flycatcher 1

Semi-collared Flycatcher – one of two males we saw here this morning

After breakfast, we set off down the hill towards the main road, stopping at one of our favourite spots for migrants by a water trough just outside the village. This proved to be a brilliant area this morning, with a great variety of migrants and summer breeders noted. Golden Orioles were calling from the Plane trees all around, and eventually we had great scope views of a male. There were Corn Buntings jangling, Turtle Doves purring, and Red-rumped Swallows perched on the wires above.

In the meadows around the drinking trough we found Woodchat Shrike, Common Nightingale, Common Whitethroat and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler [seen well!] and overhead we had a fairly distant Goshawk being seen off by a Hooded Crow. Our second Black-headed Bunting of the trip, another singing male, was perched up on a roadside bush and a couple of European Bee-eaters flew north – we had seen a flock of twenty or so going high north towards the mountains earlier on. Perhaps the best bird here was a cracking Eastern Orphean Warbler which was singing quietly and seemed to be nest building in the bushes in the meadow – it never quite sat fully out in the open, but we managed to piece together some decent views of it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – perched up on a roadside bush

Just as we were about to get back into the vehicles, a Tree Pipit dropped in and began walking around in a muddy puddle next to the trough, and a male Cirl Bunting popped up in a roadside bush – just brilliant. As we drove away, a stunning male Red-backed Shrike landed on the fence by the side of the vehicles with a large beetle, so close we could almost reach out and touch it. We hadn’t even got to our first proper birding spot for the morning yet!

Red-backed Shrike 1

Red-backed Shrike – just finishing off its beetle

Vironia tracks was next on the agenda, and we enjoyed walking slowly along beneath the cool shade of the trees. There were lots of insects on the wing, and we had great views of Green-eyed Hawker and Scarce Chaser dragonflies, and as things warmed up a little more, we had a great selection of butterflies including Eastern Festoon, Green Hairstreak and Grizzled Skipper.

Eastern Festoon

Eastern Festoon – one of many butterflies at Vironia

Not to be outdone, the birds performed too, with particularly excellent views of Levant Sparrowhawks, which seemed to be setting up territory close by. After several close but obscured glimpses of them among the trees, we had the male perched in the open feeding on prey, and later had him flying above the fields – very distinctive looking birds.

Other notable sightings here included Syrian Woodpecker, and a fleeting Grey-headed Woodpecker which refused to perch for us. More obliging was a fine Lesser Spotted Eagle sitting on a dead tree, and our first Black Stork drifting in low over the bushes. Common Nightingales were belting out their song all along this stretch, and we even saw one or two of them! Back at the vehicles, Common Cuckoo and Red-backed Shrike were seen – not a bad morning so far.

Coffee and lunch became combined into one stop today, at the gazebo by the River Strimon bridge. This was an excellent location for getting views of the many European Bee-eaters present, with the birds landing on the ground all around us, and sitting on the trees and wires. A Hoopoe tried its best to out-do them, calling in beautiful light from an exposed perch. Sand Martins were also buzzing all around us, and we had some nice fly-bys from Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant.

The afternoon would be spent winding our way slowly along the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, birding as we went, and so we started at the pool just beyond Megalachori where we soon found our first Little Bitterns of the trip – a male and female skulking deep in the edge of the reeds. We scanned hard for crakes, but found two families of Coypu instead! As the day began to really warm up, so the raptor activity increased as well – at least three Lesser Spotted Eagles displaying above the mountain ridge, and a group of three Levant Sparrowhawks migrating high and distant.

Back down at ground level, an absolutely superb male Golden Oriole perched in the open for us, signing from the open canopy of a poplar, before chasing the female off down the wooded gulley next to the embankment. We went on to get several more views of them during the afternoon, and of course we could hear them [and the Nightingales!] as an almost constant soundtrack.

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – this superb male perched up nicely in the poplars

Moving further south along the bank, we had perhaps our best birding of the day looking out across the north-east corner of the lake – the light was superb, the weather beautiful and the place was stuffed with great birds! We passed a flock of Spoonbills busy feeding in a shallow pool, accompanied by several Little Egrets which lurked around the edge of the group, presumably watching for any escaping prey.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – a feeding flock accompanied by several Little Egrets

Dalmatian Pelicans were resting on the small exposed islands, where groups of Ruff, Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt and Little Stints were feeding. We found a lovely pair of Gull-billed Terns, a party of Glossy Ibis, and the shallow water was littered with herons, grebes and cormorants. On one exposed patch of flotsam, were two Night Herons, a Squacco Heron and Purple Heron together! In fact there were scores of Squacco Herons here, and everytime we scanned across the marsh we would pick out something else of interest.

Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, a flock of thirty Whiskered Terns, a feeding frenzy of White Pelicans and two perched adult White-tailed Eagles! The very interesting eastern race of Greylag Goose [rubirostris] was not championed by everyone, however!

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – we had stunning views along the eastern embankment

Tearing ourselves away from this amazing spot, we drove very slowly south along the bank birding as we went. The views of Bee-eaters along here were just amazing, and some of the group saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Flycatcher briefly. More obliging, and a perfect way to end the day, was a nest building pair of Penduline Tits which entertained us for quite some time. We had heard dozens of them during the day, but they had all remained frustratingly elusive until now – fantastic views of the pair hard at work!

From here we wound our way back through the villages off the east embankment, picking up lovely roadside views of Black-headed Wagtail, and a White Storks nest busting with three species of sparrow. It was amazing how quickly the day had passed – time certainly flies when you’re having fun!

TUESDAY 1ST MAY

It was certainly a lot warmer out today, with the hazy cloud from previous days burning away to reveal clear blue skies and subsequent rising temperatures. We started our day again at our adopted local patch, by the water trough at the edge of Ano Poroia village. We were greeted again by Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, though there had been an obvious increase in the latter species overnight with at least four present. Golden Orioles could be heard calling around and we saw a stunning male flying around a couple of times, while we also had more views of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Cirl Bunting.

While watching one of the shrikes, a bulky bird popped up next to it in the same bush – a spring plumaged Barred Warbler! This was a new plumage for many of the group, and an exciting sighting for the leaders too! We could see its orange eye, as it began singing right out in the open next to the male Red-backed Shrike – stunning! Despite seeing many juveniles in autumn back in the UK, we never get to see them in this plumage in spring so this was a real treat.

Just when we though we had experienced the highlight of the morning, a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks flew low along the road and right past us, before both began to circle above the road. The male started to display literally over our heads, encouraging a second male to fly in and tussle with him! The two males chased each other into the trees, calling as they went, leaving the female circling above.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – displaying right over our heads

This cycle was repeated several times, and in the crisp morning light the cameras among the group were rattling away as the birds passed only a few metres above us at times. It was even possible to see the diagnostic dark gular stripe on the throat! One of the males retired victorious to the nearby plane trees, where we were able to watch it perched in the open through the scopes. What a fantastic experience!

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – then perched in the trees, preening

Next we headed for Sidirokastro, to the east of Lake Kerkini, to try for one or two specialities of rocky hillside habitats. It was already very hot here, and many butterflies were on the wing – Scarce Swallowtail, Small Blue and many fritillaries. Bird wise it was a little quiet, though we noted our first Short-toed Eagle soaring, and there were some lovely Eastern Black-eared Wheatears flitting around the Byzantine castle ruins. Our quest for Western Rock Nuthatch sadly proved fruitless, and we had to make do with a Blue Rock Thrush instead. Coffee and cake in the shade of the pines by the parking area, was most welcome afterwards.

Having failed with the nuthatch here, we opted to try another site just a couple of miles away – a large quarry set up in the hillside north of Sidirokastro. This proved to be an outstanding site. First up was a Long-legged Buzzard over the parking spot, and despite being rather against the light the bird could be identified by its long wings, plain underwing coverts with contrasting black carpal patches, uniform underparts and very pale head.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – circling high over the hills near Sidirokastro

The buzzard gained height, and soon we could see why – a large, all dark eagle was drifting low straight towards us! The bird passed directly over our heads, and we thought it was probably a Golden Eagle at first. We had niggling doubts though, mainly due to its fairly short tailed silhouette, and broad hand. We thought we could see a pale window in the primaries, too. The views themselves were inconclusive, but the photos were very instructive and also showed a pale cream shawl to the nape isolating a dark eye, broad based wings due to long secondaries, paler tail base and long sixth primary – it was an Eastern Imperial Eagle!! This was quite a discovery, being the first ever record of the species on our tours here.

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle – a real bonus, a hard bird to see in Greece now

The quarry itself was equally brilliant – a Western Rock Nuthatch was singing, its loud call resonating around the quarry. We also found its mud nest being constructed in a crevice in the rock face, and so we had some superb prolonged views. Also in the quarry were two singing Ortolan Buntings, a pair of Black Redstarts, Blue Rock Thrush and both male and female Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. Absolutely fantastic birding!

Next we had a long drive down to Serres, and after negotiating our way through the town, we took the winding mountain road up to Vrontou and the Laillas ski centre. Our lunch stop was about 4 miles before the summit, in beautiful open hillside with scattered juniper and rocky scree. We didn’t see too many birds here, though some of the group noted a Woodlark and two more Short-toed Eagles were seen.

Reaching the ski centre, we explored the beautiful beech woodland near the summit, adding Mistle Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. We couldn’t find any Black Woodpeckers today though, despite a good search.

Time was ticking away from us, so we headed a short way back down the mountain and tried another track through mature pines to a viewpoint. Two Tree Pipits flushed from the path into the trees, and we had Common Ravens displaying overhead. Crested Tit showed particularly well, even allowing everyone a view in the scope, while a Rock Bunting was more furtive and made us work hard to even get half the group a view. An Eastern Subalpine Warbler singing from the pines was our first of the trip, and another new sylvia was seen in the form of a pair of Lesser Whitethroats.

Back at the vans we had a coffee, to perk us up for the final push of the day! This would be a short stop on the way back to base, to check a site for European Roller. Thankfully the birds had read the script – at least one of them had anyway – and we enjoyed lovely views of a single bird perched on wires above the track in the evening light. It flew down to the field edge a couple of times, flashing its brilliant blue and purple wings and tail as it looped back up to its perch. A perfect way to end a long but rewarding day.

Roller

Roller – perched up on the wires on our way back

WEDNESDAY 2ND MAY

The warmest day of the tour so far saw us head up to the Bulgarian border this morning at Promachonas. On the way, we picked up another European Roller perched on roadside wires, looking dazzling in the morning light as it flew down to the ground. Once at the so called ‘woodpecker wood’ we made our way down to the river and slowly along listening for any calls or activity of woodpeckers generally. This was met with mixed success – we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling as soon as we arrived, but otherwise the only activity noted was from Great-spotted Woodpeckers which were pretty common.

Feeling a little frustrated and being nibbled by mosquitoes, we headed back and tried going east along the trail a little bit. Here in a small clearing, a black and white woodpecker flew low past us and perched on the side of a big poplar trunk – it was a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. This was our main target species here, and we managed to get about half the group a scope view before it quickly made off into the trees.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – perched briefly in the trees

We tried walking along the road a bit to relocate it, but without any joy. We did see a Green Woodpecker though, and then two shrikes flew over calling showing lot of white in the wings. One perched in the canopy above us briefly – a female Masked Shrike. The male seemed to fly across the road to a small quarry, so we wandered in for a look. Sure enough we found the male Masked Shrike, and had some decent perched views though he was rather skittish.

As we walked back down to the vans, two large raptors circled into view above the Bulgarian border – two European Honey Buzzards, one dark phase and one very pale bird. It was great to see their distinctive flat-winged silhouette and see them lazily flexing the hand of the wing as they circled around a few times before continuing their migration northwards. It had been a productive stop, even if the woodpecker activity had been a bit less than hoped for. After coffee and homemade pizza in the sunshine, it was time to return to the lake area.

Vironia Quarry would be our next stop, a really nice area of streamside plane trees and open scrubby hillside with lovely views south over the lake. It was really hot here, and we failed in our attempt to find any Sombre Tits. We did, however, get fantastic views of a singing Eastern Orphean Warbler, several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and Crag Martins nesting in the quarry.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes in the quarry

An old Rock Nuthatch nest seemed to have been taken over by sparrows, and there was no sign of the nuthatch, so it was a good job we had secured good views yesterday. Also around the quarry, a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler showed well, and as we began to make our way back out, a Golden Eagle appeared above the ridge and circled round a few times before disappearing over the top. A great comparison with yesterdays Eastern Imperial! Lunch was had in the shade of the trees by the chapel, and in the company of a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers – a very pleasant morning indeed.

The afternoon would be taken up by our boat trip onto Lake Kerkini, always one of the tour highlights. We met Nikos, our ‘captain’, at Kerkini harbour, and set off towards the northern shore of the lake where the best of the action would be. As we approached the mouth of the Strimon, two stunning adult White-winged Black Terns were seen perched quite close to the boat, before they took flight over the mirror flat water in which they were perfectly reflected.

Several Black-necked Grebes dotted the water in full breeding plumage, and now we began to approach the river mouth, we could see a LOT of pelicans ahead! The numbers of White Pelicans were most impressive, and my goodness what plumage they were in! To be so close to such large numbers of these spectacular birds was quite something.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – large flocks were loafing around the lake

White Pelican

White Pelican – good flight views too!

We saw plenty of Dalmatian Pelicans too of course, though they loom somewhat less striking now their breeding season is reaching its finale. Other birds noted here included Eurasian Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilts and a first-summer Caspian Gull.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw lots of these too

Nikos then took us through the shallow water towards the drowned forest, and here we caught up with the White-winged Black Terns again, but now there were four or five of them, mixed with a party of Black Terns. Nikos cut the engine and we floated among them, as they danced over the water incredibly close. One of the White-winged Black Terns actually swooped in and grabbed a morsel from the water surface, right beside the boat – amazing! As the flock became more distant, we noticed that they had now been joined by three Collared Pratincoles, as the whole group moved out towards the main body of the lake. A first-summer Little Gull also passed by at close range – we did not know where to look next!

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – dip feeding right by our boat!

As we entered the drowned forest, so the sound and smell of breeding cormorants and herons became ever more apparent. What unfolded was quite a spectacle, as we floated among the thousands of nesting pairs of Great Cormorant. There were a few pairs of Pygmy Cormorant too, although they seemed to be a lot more wary of the boat.

Cormorant

Great Cormorant – one of thousands of nests in the drowned forest

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – seem to be a little more wary

Little Egrets, Night Herons, Squacco Herons and Spoonbills were all nesting too and seen at point blank range. The views of these birds really were very special indeed.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – perched up in the drowned forest

Every now and then we would drift right underneath a stonking pair of Spoonbills, or see a Squacco Heron with bright blue bill base and red legs, standing motionless at touching distance.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – with bright blue bill base

The Night Herons were a favourite though, especially when we got to see their crown feathers raised into a crest and their long white nape plumes erect – totally stunning birds.

Night Heron

Night Heron – stunning close views from the boat

More pelicans next as we glided across to the artificial nesting islands occupied by both species. The White Pelicans are now nesting in good numbers, having colonised in 2016, and the Dalmatian Pelicans [nesting earlier and having large chicks now] were sticking to their favoured wooden platforms. After enjoying these birds close up, we motored back across the lake to Kerkini harbour. A thunderstorm was just breaking over the hills west of the village as we arrived back, and we drove back to the hotel in the rain – we had been very lucky.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on one of the nesting platforms

After an early dinner, we returned to an area near Kerkini village to try for Eagle Owl, a species always high on everyone’s wants lists. We had plenty of time on the way for a bit of birding, and after a rooftop Little Owl the next highlight was a party of European Bee-eaters, perched on roadside wires in beautiful soft evening light. We pulled up alongside them, and then noticed that several were dropping onto the road in front of us. They were picking delicately at the surface of the tarmac, and we couldn’t quite work out what they were doing – perhaps feeding on ants or other small insects? None of us had seen this behaviour before. Meanwhile up on the wires, there were now a dozen or more Bee-eaters gathered and we could hear them calling and see them displaying with fanned tails quivering and wings arched upwards. Just stunning birds!

With another ten minutes to spare before we needed to start looking for the owls, we decided to stop briefly at Korofoudi marshes. A Black Stork was feeding with a Spoonbill by the roadside, and flew to the edge of the lake, and there were some Dalmatian Pelicans fishing close inshore. One of the Great Reed Warblers was in the small reedbed again, and a superb male Golden Oriole flew down and landed in the roadside bushes where it eventually dropped down out of view.

Back at the owl spot, we had Common Nightingale, Woodchat Shrike, Cirl Bunting and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler before dusk fell, and two or three hoots from the Eagle Owl up on the cliff. We saw it in flight briefly, but unfortunately most people weren’t able to get onto it. Brief glimpses of European Nightjar and Tawny Owl on the way back, and a Eurasian Scop’s Owl calling, were the last action of a long day.

THURSDAY 3RD MAY

What. A. Day! Our trip down to the Axios Delta area west of Thessaloniki is always something of a trip highlight, offering saline lagoons and coastal marshes and of course, lots of migrant wading birds, gulls and terns. We opted to start at the Kalachori lagoon end, which was about one hour twenty minutes drive south from our base, and we arrived at our first stop at the edge of the saltmarsh, to be greeted by three Stone Curlews standing sentinel among the samphire. In the same area, looking east towards the main lagoon, we found our first Lesser Grey Shrike of the trip in the coastal tamarisks, a bird we were beginning to wonder whether or not we would see on the trip at all.

Moving around onto the coastal track, we reached the main lagoon complete with its flock of two hundred or so Greater Flamingoes, still lingering into the breeding season. Despite being mainly young birds, there were still a few gorgeous adults present too, normally having left for the Mediterranean breeding colonies by now.

Also on these pools were a great deal of small waders, and in the excellent morning light we enjoyed some superb and educational views of flocks of gorgeous Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints and a few Dunlin, Ruff and Turnstone admixed. There were Common and Wood Sandpipers too, and several Little Terns resting on the islands close to the cycle path which bisects the two main pools.

We were able to get really close to the waders here, and this enabled us to pick out two Temminck’s Stints, feeding furtively at the edge in typical fashion. One was a striking rusty toned individual, but both showed the typical yellow legs and randomly dark centred scapular feathers on the back. We were close enough to hear their delicate trilling call too, and see the wholly white outer tail in flight.

Further down, we could see a very impressive flock of about two hundred Spotted Redshanks, with a few Common Greenshanks mixed in, and we found both Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers on the open sandy areas. Once again a highlight, a group of seven stunning White-winged Black Terns were hawking over the water right alongside the path – it was very hard not to be totally distracted by these dazzling birds, but there were a lot of small waders to look through!

After a coffee break, we continued to the far end of the main lagoon, as we had been able to pick out a couple of very distant Marsh Sandpipers and wanted to get some better views if possible. We found a spot where the birds were a bit closer, and we also had them feeding alongside Common Greenshank for comparison. Six birds at least altogether, but perhaps not as stunning as the huge flock of Spotted Redshanks which we could now see at much closer range.

A first-summer Little Gull was floating on the water just below us, and we also saw some nice Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and a couple of drake Garganey from this vantage point before it was time to move on. Taking the track west, we crossed the causeway and over the sluice, heading south and following the coast towards the fishing huts. A Northern Wheatear was feeding on a sandy area next to the track, a late migrant on its way north.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – a late migrant on the coast

We paused by a small area of enclosed saline pools at the edge of the bay, to look at some close Pygmy Cormorants and our first Common Redshanks of the trip, when we noticed a medium sized plover feeding on the mud close by. First impressions were of perhaps a Grey Plover, but this was quickly dismissed by the birds small size and lightweight bill, and the presence of some yellow in the scapulars and tertials.

It was clearly a Golden Plover of some sort, but right away the alarm bells were ringing as this did not look like a European! Its grey appearance was of course the first anomalous feature, but it showed a small head, very long legs but a short primary projection. Its head pattern was also interesting, as it showed a fairly distinct supercilium, pale spot on the ear coverts and dark cap – though these features were not as contrasting as one would expect on an American. The penny was dropping, this looked every inch like a Pacific Golden Plover in first summer plumage!

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover – a great find, possibly only the 7th record for Greece

Having chatted though the ID, we knew that a flash of the underwing would confirm our suspicions, and with that the bird flew a short way with a group of Turnstones – now we had something to compare it directly to, we could see how small it was! But not only that, the underwing coverts were ash grey! At this point we opted to disembark and go for scope views, which we enjoyed for the next half hour or so. We saw it again in flight too, noting the projection of the toes beyond the tail tip and those underwings! It was a subtle and beautiful wader, and at the time of writing we think only the 7th record of Pacific Golden Plover for Greece.

It took a further twenty minutes to reach our lunch spot, overlook a series of islands occupied by a thriving colony of Mediterranean Gulls. The sound was quite impressive, with a hundred or more birds ‘kyowing!’ throughout our stop here – in fact it was hard to hear anything else! We manged to pull out a Red-throated Pipit going over though, and a singing Calandra Lark which posed distantly on the ground too.

Our main target bird here was Slender-billed Gull, and we had to accept fairly distant but acceptable views of two adults on the water. A Caspian Tern was a nice surprise though, flying past before joining a second bird and dropping into another group of Mediterranean Gulls and Sandwich Terns on one of the distant islets.

The remainder of the track from here to the Axios river was quiet, though we saw Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike, Little Owl and a dombrowskii Yellow Wagtail. The next leg of the track north up the Axios embankment was the most heavily pot-holed of the lot, so progress was slow. This gave us plenty of time to spot more birds though! Many Wood Sandpipers, lovely close Spoonbills, a Purple Heron, rufous phase female Cuckoo and Garganey were all overshadowed by three stunning Spur-winged Plovers in perfect light just west of the bank. This was our main target for this area, and we found them in literally the last bit of suitable habitat along this stretch – very fortunate! Bumping our way out eventually to the main road, we then had about forty-five minutes driving north to our final site of the day.

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Spur-winged Plover – kept us waiting until the last stretch

Its always nice to visit a new site on the tours, and our colleague Paul Roberts had recommended a small reservoir to us for the way back, near Polykastro. A singing Black-headed Bunting and male Red-backed Shrike as we approached the site were a good omen, and we loved the lush green habitat all around the reservoir which looked like a veritable haven to migrants.

It was a lovely temperature now, and the evening light was superb, and soon we were watching Collared Pratincoles hawking over the fields, and Great Reed Warblers croaking from the top of the reeds. In the distance, we could see a flock of about seven Lesser Kestrels hunting, and as we walked up the bank a flock of Whiskered Terns flew by.

Peering over carefully onto the water, the first bird that greeted us was a drake Ferruginous Duck! There were a dozen or more others on the reservoir, along with Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Little and Black-necked Grebes and Garganey. Over the water were Common, Little, Black and White-winged Black Terns, and a Long-legged Buzzard flew by in the distance mobbed by a Hooded Crow. Another Lesser Grey Shrike was signing from the wires alongside the reservoir embankment here too.

It certainly was a delightful spot, and we ended the day scoping up to twenty five Collared Pratincoles, first on the ground and then sweeping back and forth over the cornfields. A breathless day with so many highlights, and the trip list now approaching 180 species!

FRIDAY 4TH MAY

Our quietest day of the trip so far, mainly due to the heat, but it is all relative – we still saw an awful lot of very good birds! We knew it was going to be a warm one, so opted for an early pre-breakfast excursion at 0630 up the hillside behind the village. After negotiating the network of very narrow streets, we found our way out to the eastern edge of the village where we parked up and set off on foot up the mountain track.

Winding our way up round the first couple of bends, the air was full of the song of Common Nightingale, Cirl Bunting and Woodchat Shrike – the latter being particularly common in this scrubby hillside habitat. Eastern Subalpine Warbler was also easy to see here, and we had some really great scope views of singing males – though we had still not seen a female on the trip!

Our main target bird for this site was Sombre Tit, one which is very easy to miss particularly at this time of year. We had some pretty decent views of a single bird, being pretty furtive and never perching in the open for long. In the end we were pretty satisfied with what we had seen, knowing this was likely our only chance on the trip to connect. Hoopoe, Levant Sparrowhawk and a superb female Eastern Orphean Warbler were also noted, the latter alarm calling to a Woodchat and grubbing around in the shrubs by the side of the track.

After breakfast, we called in briefly at the water trough, though things were definitely quieter here than in recent days – the local Red-backed Shrikes, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and singing Black-headed Bunting supplemented by another good view of the male Levant Sparrowhawk, and a migrant Spotted Flycatcher.

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Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – seen or heard singing daily

Our plan for the rest of the morning was to travel down the western shore of the lake to Lithotopos, and on to Himarros where a track winds along the stream and up into the low forested hills. We saw two spectacular feeding frenzies on the lake as we drove along, of Dalmatian Pelicans and cormorants, but with a mission in mind we resisted the temptation to stop.

Reaching Himarros, a young Goshawk flew low over the track mobbed by Hooded Crows as we drove down, and we could also see two Short-toed Eagles and a Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring above the surrounding hillsides. It was already really hot here, and we knew we were going to struggle a bit – we certainly didn’t hear our main hoped for target, which was Olive Tree Warbler. It was right on the cusp for them arriving, and unfortunately we drew a blank on this occasion.

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Red-backed Shrike – singing & carrying nest material

Eastern Subalpine Warbler and Red-backed Shrike were really common in the scrub here, the latter seen nest building and the males singing and calling all around. We glimpsed a Masked Shrike too, but the bird was really furtive and keeping to the deep shade inside thickets of bushes, and not wanting to come out.

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Black Stork – circled over our heads at Himarros

Overhead we did really well, with a Black Stork and another Goshawk seen circling above, later joined by two Lesser Spotted Eagles and a cracking Honey Buzzard which appeared low above us. Back in the shade of the riverside trees, we saw two Spotted Flycatchers, and then plenty of Bee-eaters as we made our way back out of the valley. A kettle of pelicans in a thermal above the valley contained both White and Dalmatian Pelicans, making for a nice comparison.

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White & Dalmatian Pelicans – circling together on a thermal

There were lots of other things to look at here – not just birds. We had good views of both Hermann’s and Spur-thighed Tortoise. A Stripe-necked Terrapin was crossing the track as we drove in and a Common Green Lizard was very obliging on the path. There were tons of butterflies too, including a good variety of fritillaries and lots of Little Tiger Blues. A Spoonwing (or Thread-winged Antlion) which flew across the path was particularly impressive.

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Hermann’s Tortoise – one of the two species we saw around Lake Kerkini

Deciding how to manage the hot part of the day was a tricky one, but we opted to head for higher ground in the hope of a cool breeze, and so decided to wind our way up the track above Neo Petritsi village to the Bulgarian border. About 7km up, we stopped for lunch looking back over the forest – a Short-toed Eagle was hanging on the wind above us and gave superb views, while we also had more opportunities to study Honey Buzzard with one circling up right in front of us. As it folded its wings and made a stoop, we realised there was an interloper in its territory – a moulting female Goshawk which circled round once before dropping out of view.

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Short-toed Eagle – hung in the air above us at lunchtime

As we climbed higher, a further 6km to the border post, the road passed through delightful beech woodland resounding to the songs of Blackcap and Robin! What we were not expecting though, was a Wildcat running up the road in front of us. The animal dived off into the undergrowth down a steep bank, and by quickly bailing out of the van we saw it again running off through the undergrowth, but that was it – a sighting based purely on chance.

Nearing the border, we parked and took a walk along the ridge for about 1km, passing through more nice forest of the way – we kept an ear open for White-backed Woodpecker, but no such luck! There were very few birds around at this elevation, but two Short-toed Eagles showed really well, and a pair of Hawfinch flew low over calling.

Back down at ground level, and we popped into the Strimon marshes for a quick look. The pools were holding a fair bit of water, and we found several Wood Sandpipers, Black-headed Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover and two Temminck’s Stints here. More impressive though, was a feeding frenzy of over thirty Grey Herons, 26 Spoonbills and 9 Black Storks, catching small fish in the dwindling puddles. Red-backed Shrike and Black-headed Bunting were also around – every stop seemed capable of producing a haul of decent birds!

Our last hour or so of the day would be spent on the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, and despite the tricky light at this time of day we saw a load of birds. Bee-eaters and Hoopoe were looking stunning on the east side of the bank, illuminated by the evening light, and we had a lovely Lesser Grey Shrike perched up too. The water level had risen considerably since our first visit here, and many of the same species were present – Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, Great White and Cattle Egrets, flocks of Wood Sandpipers and distant Whiskered Terns. Temminck’s Stint, six Curlew Sandpipers and a fine Marsh Sandpiper were new in though, replacing the scores of Squacco Herons present previously which were now conspicuous by their absence.

Heading back towards Megalachori, a stunning adult Purple Heron was fishing in the open, with a second bird among the reeds where we searched in vain for Little Bittern and Little Crake, without success. Unbelievably, it was now almost 7pm – we had to tear ourselves away! As had been typical for the trip as a whole, there was time for one more good bird – a gorgeous female Red-footed Falcon circling over the road by the drinking trough on the way back to base. After initially only being seen drifting away, the bird thankfully turned and circled right back over us, putting the tin lid on our last day in the field.

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Red-footed Falcon – turned and circled back over us

SATURDAY 5TH MAY

A seamless transition was enjoyed back to Thessaloniki this morning, with a few birds seen from the motorway en route such as Roller, Masked Shrike, a couple of Black-headed Buntings and two Ring-necked Parakeets! We dropped the vans off at the hire car depot at 0930 as planned, and despite leaving a little late from Thessaloniki, were back in London pretty much on schedule at 1330.

It had been a great seven days in Greece – the weather was warm and sunny, there were lots of fantastic birds and a great selection of other wildlife too. We didn’t want to leave! The good news is that we will be going back again in 2019 – provisionally on 28th April to 4th May. If you like the sound of this year’s trip and might be tempted to join us, please let us know…

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22nd-26th Feb 2018 – Northern Greece in Winter

Not a tour, but with a few days off I took advantage and headed over to Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece for a few days, with a couple of things in mind – photographing pelicans and checking out some new sites ahead of our group tour there at the end of April. If this blog post inspires you to consider a visit, you would be very welcome to join us on one of our future tours there!

Unfortunately, the weather on this trip was not ideal. The first two days were dry, but it rained on day 3 and I woke on day 4 to deep snow and the village cut off, leading to not a little panic about how to get back home that evening! This snow was particularly unseasonal, due to the ‘Beast from the East’ which has affected much of Europe. Luckily, I had managed to get a lot achieved in the first two/three days and, after the snow plough came through, I abandoned plans for the fourth day and made a bid for the airport. After getting stuck twice in the snow and 120km in detours for closed roads, thankfully I made it safely.

Lake Kerkini was only created in 1932, through damming of the Strimonas river, both to provide irrigation for the Serres plain and to hold back water to prevent flooding downstream as snow in the mountains melts in spring. It quickly became one of the most important sites for wildlife in Greece.

Lake Kerkini is particularly well known for its pelicans. It had already established itself as the most important wintering site in Europe for Dalmatian Pelicans, before the provision of nesting platforms and islands allowed them to start breeding here from 2003. White Pelicans have now started to colonise too.

January and February are the best months to photograph the Dalmatian Pelicans. The birds are already in their breeding finery and they are more approachable at this time of year. Once they start breeding, they become much shyer and also are very vulnerable to disturbance.

My mission to photograph the pelicans was a great success. You can see some photos of Dalmatian Pelicans below, followed by a few of the other species I was able to catch up with on my brief visit.

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Dalmatian Pelican – a good reason for a visit here in winter

There were a few White Pelicans here too. Most of these head off to Africa for the winter, but a few juveniles linger and the first adults were already starting to return. The adults look stunning at this time of year – not white, but pink. Amazing birds!

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White Pelican – rather more pink than white!

Lake Kerkini is also an internationally important site for other waterbirds. Pygmy Cormorants can be seen quite commonly around the edges of the lake, along with their larger cousins.

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Pygmy Cormorant – common around the lake

Lesser White-fronted Geese are globally threatened and the Scandinavian population has suffered particularly large declines due to over hunting and habitat change. From over 10,000 birds in 1900, only around 30 breeding pairs now remain. These birds winter in Greece, historically passing through Lake Kerkini in late autumn or early winter on their way to the Evros Delta.

In recent years, a number of the Lesser White-fronted Geese have stayed on, remaining around the lake all winter. I was fortunate to catch up with 18 of the 28 currently at Lake Kerkini on one afternoon. They were noticeably smaller than the commoner Russian White-fronted Geese which also winter here, with a distinctive faster feeding action.

The area around the lake is also very good for birds. Birds of prey are frequently encountered and one of the most distinctive in winter are the (Greater) Spotted Eagles. I saw 5-6 of these majestic birds daily when I visited the western shore of the lake. A single adult White-tailed Eagle was too distant for photographs.

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Spotted Eagle – the commonest eagle in winter, easily found around the lake

The surrounding area is also good for woodpeckers. I saw six different species even on my very brief visit, including Black Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Grey-headed Woodpecker.

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Black Woodpecker – one of six species of woodpecker seen

The surprise of the trip was a stunning adult Pallas’s Gull which I found on the lake in the rain on my third day. Also known historically as Great Black-headed Gull, this is probably a better name for this distinctive species, being slightly larger than the accompany Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls with a bold black hood in summer. Although increasing in regularity, it is still a rare bird in Greece with only just over 30 records.

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Pallas’s Gull – a smart adult, showing why it was called Great Black-headed Gull

Great Grey Shrike is a rare winter visitor in northern Greece, but they can sometimes be found at Kerkini. One was frequenting the marshes along the eastern side of the lake while I was there. I was immediately struck by the amount of white in the wing and tail of this bird, noticeably more than in the birds we normally see in the UK in winter. The white in the base of the primaries was very extensive and, in flight, could be seen to extend across the bases of the secondaries.

The Great Grey Shrikes wintering here originate from further east than the birds which most commonly turn up in the UK. They are assumed to be of the race homeyeri or intergrades, rather than the nominate excubitor which we normally encounter. It was certainly an educational bird to spend time with.

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Great Grey Shrike – of the subspecies homeyeri

Particularly given the weather and the resulting loss of one day of my trip, I did not get as much of an opportunity to explore further afield as I had hoped on this occasion. I did visit some of the surrounding sites lower down, but was unable to get up into the mountains. Even so, I managed to see around 95 different species in 3 days, including some other eastern Mediterranean specialities like Western Rock Nuthatch and Sombre Tit.

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Western Rock Nuthatch – can be found in the surrounding area

Despite the weather on the last couple of days, it was a very enjoyable and successful short trip. I can heartily recommend it as a destination, either in winter or spring. If you would like to join us on one of our future trips, please do not hesitate to get in contact.

29th Jan-2nd Feb 2018 – Extremadura: Winter in the Spanish Steppes

A 5 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, with great birds and fantastic scenery. We were very lucky with the weather – lots of blue sky and sunshine, though it was cold in the early mornings with a frost on the ground or when the wind picked up on one of the days.

Monday 29th January

Our group met up this morning early doors at London Gatwick airport for our 0725 flight down to Madrid, which departed roughly on time. The run down over the Pyrenees was spectacular in the clear skies, and we touched down in the Spanish capital a little ahead of schedule, enjoying a super quick transit through the airport.

Even as we sorted out the hire van, we could enjoy White Storks migrating overhead and these were the first of several large flocks seen as we drove south. After negotiating our way around the outskirts of the city, we picked up the E90 motorway and headed on down towards Extremadura.

This first part of the drive was frequently punctuated by roadside Red Kites and Common Buzzards, one or two Iberian Grey Shrikes [not seen by everyone from the fast moving vehicle!] and two superb Black Vultures. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just beyond Talavera, noting our first Crested Larks in the car park, and then pushed on a further 30 minutes to our first proper birding stop at Saucedilla.

Just after we left the motorway, we encountered a raptor hovering by the roadside – it was a Black-winged Kite! Pulling up alongside the bird, we had the most amazing close up views of it from our vehicle. The bird was clearly very intent on watching its prey in the grass among some scattered tamarisks, and seemed totally unperturbed by us.

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Black-winged Kite – hunting by the roadside

We decided to disembark, knowing it would drift away a little but that we would be able to enjoy some scope views. In fact the bird soon returned, and we watched it on and off for half an hour, often passing quite close to us. Soon it was joined by a second bird, and after an aerial tussle, one of the pair landed on a wooden telegraph pole a short distance away and proceeded to give us remarkable scope views.

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Black-winged Kite – great views, perched on a telegraph post

We were very pleased to have enjoyed such a great performance from one of Extremadura’s most iconic birds at our very first stop! A really nice surprise here was a wintering Wryneck, which we flushed up from the roadside ditch as we got out of the van. It showed briefly in the depths of a tamarisk, before perching in the open on the fence and then retiring to the depths of a pine tree. We saw it twice more in flight, but never really out in the open – a scarce wintering bird here. Other species noted at this impromptu stop were Black Redstart, Corn Bunting and our first Common Chiffchaffs.

Just a couple of kilometres along the road we reached the ornithological centre at Saucedilla. This small wetland area is a great place to kick start the trip with many of the fairly common local birds, and we duly enjoyed flocks of Spanish Sparrows, Zitting Cisticola, Crested Larks, Black Redstart and a few common wetland birds here such as Gadwall and Common Snipe.

Another Black-winged Kite was also seen, hunting over the open fields to the north-west, and the small reedbed and surrounding trees were literally jumping with wintering Common Chiffchaffs. Almost every movement we saw was another of these spritely phylloscs flycatching in the warm afternoon sunshine. A young Western Purple Swamphen was observed among the dense reeds, and then its parent appeared, climbing up to the top of the vegetation and looking absolutely stunning in the perfect light conditions.

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Western Purple Swamphen – perched up nicely for us in the reeds

In the distance, we saw two more Black Vultures soaring low over the dehesa on flat wings, and in the reeds we heard both Penduline Tit and Cetti’s Warbler, though both remained hidden from view. A Bluethroat flicked across briefly, but despite our best efforts we were unable to relocate it – one for another day!

It was now gone 1700, and we needed to be mindful that we still had around a forty minute journey to reach the accommodation. Our walk back along the track though was punctuated by a high pitched squeaking call. Another Wryneck perhaps? We peered into the small clump of trees where the sound was coming from, and found a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

The bird was busy excavating for food low down on one of the trunks, and obliged with excellent scope views for several minutes before moving off through the bushes. A Spotless Starling was signing close by, imitating the calls of several other species in typical fashion!

The final part of the journey added our first Griffon Vultures, and a couple of fly-by Hoopoes before we reached our delightful accommodation. The sun was just beginning to dip down over the skyline and the temperature was really dropping as Song Thrushes were piling overhead going to their roost nearby. We were certainly all ready for a beer and a truly excellent meal of local dishes served by our welcoming hosts – we couldn’t wait for our first full day tomorrow!

Tuesday 30th January

We headed out at first light this morning, which being one hour ahead of GMT meant leaving the hotel after breakfast at around 0815. We made straight for the productive area of steppe between Trujillo and Caceres, on the well known Santa Marta road, which has now been resurfaced into a veritable motorway compared to its former self! It was magical driving out onto the plains as the sun rose, and from our first stop we found ourselves immersed in many of the great birds typical of the dehesa fringe and steppe.

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Santa Marta steppes – looking toward the Sierra de Gredos

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows were congregating in the fields alongside squabbling Iberian Magpies [formerly Azure-winged], and careful scanning through the fields picked out the odd Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Mistle Thrush among them, plus a lovely Hoopoe perched on the bottom of a fence.

Iberian Grey Shrike was common here, and we enjoyed views of two or three different birds including a singing male, ringing out his peculiar almost electronic three note ditty from the tops of the surrounding bushes. We were able to well compare the darker upperparts, vinous tinged underparts and neat, distinct white supercilium with the Great Grey Shrikes we were used to seeing back home.

Also around this first stop were several singing Thekla Larks, a tricky species which can look extremely similar to Crested but with careful study of the plumage, bill structure and taking into account the habitat, can be reliably separated.

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Thekla Lark – we had a good opportunity to study several up close this morning

Moving on from this vantage point, we drove slowly up the road, getting more superb views of the Iberian Magpies, before discovering a flock of 23 Little Bustards by the roadside at the top of the hill. The light was on our side, and we opted to stay in the vehicle as we felt they might flush if we tried to disembark. The views were really nice anyway, and we were really pleased to connect with a flock of this declining species so soon in the trip.

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Little Bustards – part of a flock of 23 on the steppe by the road

Next we took an old drovers track out across the open steppe. The views across this vast landscape were simply superb and there were both Thekla and now Calandra Larks criss crossing in front of us as we went. The Calandra Larks really stole the show here, with their trilling calls, elaborate songs and fantastic close range squabbling fly pasts. The species is an excellent mimic, and those birds in full song above the steppe could be heard doing some great impersonations of a variety of species, from Kestrel to Green Sandpiper!

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Calandra Lark – singing over the steppe

We then spotted a small group of Great Bustards on the ridge in the distance, so decided to drive further on in order to find a vantage point that might afford us closer views. We thought we had lost them behind a ridge, but thankfully relocated the five birds and enjoyed our first views of this magnificent bird through the scopes.

In the crisp, clear morning air, the calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse began to ring out but boy were they high up in the sky! We located seven, way up high above our heads, and watched a pair indulging in an impressive synchronised flying display flight. Several of their passes were a bit closer in beautiful light, showing their gleaming white bellies and bright chestnut breast band on the males.

Two Black-bellied Sandgrouse were also seen, crouched unobtrusively behind a group of cattle. Once the beasts moved out of the view, the sandgrouse showed nicely – a much stockier bird than the Pin-tailed, the male showing a greyer neck and brighter orange head patch than the drabber female.

A small flock of Skylarks and a couple of Golden Plover were in the same field, and several Red Kites were beginning to appear over the ridge as the temperature slowly increased. In order to try and find some more sandgrouse on the ground, we opted to take a walk along one of the side tracks. A couple of Black Redstarts and some superb views of Calandra Larks were had here, but we couldn’t find the sandgrouse which again appeared to have landed just out of view behind the ridge.

We began walking back, when a loud chatter could be heard and a long-tailed bird appeared, flying straight towards us – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo! The bird duly landed obligingly on a sunny rock, where it sat calling for a few minutes and allowed everyone a good view the scope. These very early migrants are known to begin their return passage in January, but this was the first time we had ever seen one here at this time of year. We went on to have several more excellent views of it, as it first flew past us and then began moving along the fenceline ahead of us before eventually heading out into the fields.

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Great Spotted Cuckoo – an early returning bird

Returning to the vehicle, we began to make our way back out towards the road, stopping though to check the last big stony field for more sandgrouse views. The two Black-bellied Sandgrouse from earlier had returned, and two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew in and gave some acceptable but distant views along the to of the ridge. A further eight Black-bellied flew in too, but as soon as they landed among the stones in the field, they completely disappeared! Such well camouflaged birds and very hard to spot when they are not moving!

The raptors were really starting to thermal up in numbers now, and we began to see numerous Griffon and Black Vultures joining the many Red Kites above the ridge looking north towards Santa Marta de Magasca. A distant large raptor joined them, showing flat wings but a longer tail. It banked in the sun to reveal pale tawny upperwing coverts, white tipped greater covert bar and a white horseshoe on the uppertail coverts – it was an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle. Everyone managed to scope the bird, though it was a long way off – perhaps we would get some better views later on!

Behind us, 13 Little Bustards were seen flying away from us distantly, and we saw them drop into a field about a mile back along the track. We really fancied seeing another flock on the deck, and so retreated back along the track to see if we could find them – we managed some nice scope views, albeit somewhat against the light, and had a cracking male Hen Harrier thrown in for good measure! A distant Merlin, and some more useful comparative views of Griffon and Black Vultures rounded off a very productive session here, before it was finally time to move on to another spot for lunch.

Winding our way through to the village of Santa Marta, we took the minor road west down across the river and up onto the cultivated steppe heading out towards Caceres. Two Griffon Vultures gave stunning views right beside the road, and we found a flock of 34 Great Bustards parading along the skyline and were able to pull up alongside the birds and enjoy some stunning views with the light behind us. We saw these birds again from our chosen vantage point for lunch, and added a further five birds further over in the distance.

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Great Bustards – part of a drove of 34 birds at our lunch stop

Lunch, however, was dominated by raptors! As we pulled up, we spotted two immature Spanish Imperial Eagles soaring around together above the track. In the still air, we could hear them calling to each other and the birds were in view for around half an hour solid, even coming down and perching on the adjacent pylons, and in the top of a big eucalyptus tree. We could see the nest hidden among the branches of the tree, and these were clearly last years offspring from the territory. There was no sign of mum and dad though, and instead the presumed siblings carried on displaying above the road!

Right over our heads, two Black Vultures appeared and we could see them looking down at us as they passed over! These were then joined by a Griffon Vulture for direct comparison, and then the two adult Spanish Imperial Eagles did loom into view and we were able to scope them soaring round together complete with white upperwing flashes. A male Hen Harrier then came into view, flying up the roadside verge towards us before spotting our group and veering off across the fields. What an incredible lunch stop!

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Black Vulture – two came right over our heads at our lunch stop!

The remainder of our day would involve something a bit different, as we made the one hour drive roughly south to the small town of Montanchez, with its Castillo sat high on the hilltop. After winding our way through the narrow streets to the top, we could drink in the quite spectacular views right back across the plains to the north, with the snow-capped Gredos looming large in the background.

Our quarry here was Alpine Accentor, an altitudinal migrant which often appears on the rocky slopes below the castle here in winter, having fled its icy home in the high tops to the north. From the viewpoint by the parking area, we enjoyed great views of two Hoopoes, and watched a Short-toed Treecreeper climbing around uncharacteristically on the mossy boulders below. A Crag Martin also wheeled into view, before we climbed up the road to the far side of the castle to start exploring the sunny slopes there.

Two Blue Rock Thrushes were seen, perching on the chimney pots of the houses below us, and a pair of Rock Buntings were also seen distantly through the scope, feeding way down in one of the small fields behind the village – fortunately the good light meant we could see quite a long way today!

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Alpine Accentor – up on the castle at Montanchez

Initially, despite careful searching, there was no sign of any accentors other than a pair of Dunnocks! We stuck to the task though, and eventually two of the group found a single Alpine Accentor on the shady side of the castle and we were all able to catch up with it and enjoy some excellent views through the scope. It had been an extremely successful day, connecting with all our target birds in amazing scenery and beautiful weather – Spain at its very best!

Wednesday 31st January

Another beautiful sunny day in Extremadura saw us head south beyond Zorita towards Sierra Brava reservoir. The sun was rising as we reached the dam, and we could hear Common Cranes bugling in the distance as we got out of the van. Away down below us on some stubble fields bordering the dehesa, we could see large flocks of Cranes feeding, with small parties flying across the skyline in the distance. A really evocative sight and sound!

Behind us, on the reservoir itself, were great rafts of dabbling ducks. Predominantly Mallard, there were also at least 150 Pintails, a few Common Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall, scores of Great Crested Grebes and the odd Eurasian Wigeon. We also saw a couple of Egyptian Geese, Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Grey Wagtail and enjoyed excellent views of three Thekla Larks foraging on the stony shore below us. These were classic individuals, with short deep based bills, short crest, grey washed mantle and contrasting blackish streaked breasts – a really nice opportunity to study them in detail.

Driving on, we followed the service road for a couple of miles, noting several Iberian Grey Shrikes along the way, until we dropped down into the network of ricefields in the direction of the new solar plant.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we saw some vast flocks, with a few Tree Sparrows in with them

Stopping overlooking an area of wet paddies, we had a fabulous session where at times we didn’t know where to look. The harvested rice stubble in the foreground was full of vast flocks of Spanish Sparrows numbering many hundreds – there were a few Tree Sparrows among them, hordes of Corn Buntings, and a few other finches thrown in for good measure.

High pitched thin calls alerted us to the presence of a flock of Red Avadavats, an introduced species thriving here in these wetland habitats. Normally they are quite skittish and difficult to view, but we had excellent views of flocks of them here today! Among them were also one or two Common Waxbills, another alien species with a naturalised population here.

Less exotic but just as exciting, we had cracking views of a Dartford Warbler which showed on and off the whole time we were here, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a family group of four Common Cranes drifted in and landed right in front of us. The light was excellent, and the views simply superb.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – this family of four flew in and landed in front of us

Further back in the distance, a flock of Cattle Egrets were following a tractor working in the field, and a single Great White Egret was also with them. A small party of Greylag Geese in the stubble beyond were interesting, since these birds are part of a small wintering population of Scandinavian birds, not the feral types we are used to seeing back home. We remarked at how dark headed they were, and how deep orange the bills appeared to be, but we never really saw them close up.

A real surprise on the open water at the back was a group of seven Wood Sandpipers – a species which does winter in Spain in small numbers in the right habitat, but which where nonetheless extremely nice to connect with.  Slightly more fortuitous was the scope view we had of a male Bluethroat which happened to pop up in the reeds while scanning for waders – amazingly everyone got a decent view of it despite the distance!

After a break for coffee and snacks, we opted to walk one of the reedy ditches at the edge of the rice paddies, to look specifically for Bluethroat. There were several Sardinian Warblers, a Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler, more groups of Red Avadavat and Common Waxbills along the channel, but no sign of any luscinia.

Just as we were about to give up and move on, a female Bluethroat flushed from the edge of the adjacent rice paddy and flew along a narrow channel. The bird popped up twice more onto the top of the rice stubble, allowing everyone to connect with it, before disappearing for good into the middle of the field.

It was now noon, and time to move on to a different area. We retraced our route back out to the Sierra Brava dam, enjoying some more excellent close up views of Common Cranes along the way, before returning to the main road and heading off through the steppe towards Campo Lugar. This high road passes through open cultivated land and stony steppe, and can sometimes be a good place to find bustards and sandgrouse.

Little Owl

Little Owl – trying to hide from us between two rocks

We didn’t find either today, but instead found a nice vantage point to stop for lunch, enjoying excellent views of three different Little Owls. One of them, seen from the vehicle, had slid down to hide in a crack in the rocks on which it had been perched. It looked for all the world as if it was being squashed between the two slabs of rocks, and that its bulging yellow eyes were about to pop out of its head! Two Black Vultures, several Crested and Calandra Larks and a Hoopoe were also seen during a very tranquil lunch break.

The relatively new reservoir at Alcollarin was our next stop, and this excellent birding location certainly did not disappoint us today. Finding a good vantage point along the track for viewing the eastern arm of the reservoir, we could see a good selection of common wildfowl species, such as Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Pochard, flocks of Lapwings and great rafts of Common Coots.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a bush right beside us

On the slopes just below, a nice flock of Serins were seen really well – the first ones we had managed a proper look at, rather than just birds bouncing by calling. A cracking Iberian Grey Shrike was on top of a bush right beside us and noisy groups of Iberian Magpies were moving through the bushes on the hillside.

Azure-winged Magpies

Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies – a typically noisy, squabbling group

One of the days highlights came from the blue sky above though, as a large raptor drifted into view over the trees. Head on, it sported flat and rather paddle shaped wings, but its silhouette certainly did not fit with the main ‘flat-winged’ options of Red Kite or Spanish Imperial Eagle. Soon it banked, revealing a gleaming white body and black underwing covert bar – it was an adult Bonelli’s Eagle!

The bird gave stunning views, circling up behind us, before it was joined by a second adult bird which appeared to be the female. High in the distance, a second calendar year bird appeared and drifted right across, and this provoked a reaction from the female which battled to gain height quickly in order to get above the young interloper and escort it off the premises. This whole episode gave us a great opportunity to study the flight silhouette and jizz of this scarce raptor, the most desirable and difficult to find of the five species of eagle recorded in Extremadura. A real treat indeed!

Down at the second dam, we added Common and Green Sandpipers, a Swallow, Black-winged Stilt and some nice views of Common Snipe, Hoopoe and hordes of White Wagtails. Over the distant hillside, an adult Golden Eagle appeared twice above the ridge, but was rather brief and always distant.

We had decided to end the day by driving just under an hour to the north-east, into the Sierra las Villuercas, where a spectacular viewpoint offered a vista across the surrounding mountains to the north and open plains to the south. It was initially very quiet at the top here, and in fact you could hear a pin drop as there was no wind despite the high elevation. We did see lots of Griffon Vultures soaring over their breeding cliffs in the distance, and two Black Vultures which circled in to join them.

On the small bird front though, there was nothing moving so we decided to drive back down the hill a bit into the oak forest below. Here we had a mad five minutes, picking up the local race of Long-tailed Tit, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper and a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly!

The best though was a superb view of a foraging female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which we watched for several minutes including a couple of bouts of drumming from the top of a dead branch – if only they were so easy to see back home! The 45 minute drive back to base gave us an hour of downtime before our evening wine tasting session, followed by another superb meal.

Thursday 1st February

Today was our coldest day of the trip, with fresh winds throughout the day and a cloudy start making things feel decidedly nippy! We left as usual just as dawn was breaking and made the short journey onto the nearby Belen plain, a large area of agricultural steppe north-east of Trujillo.

It was actually pretty quiet out here – we found flocks of Calandra Larks, a few Red Kites and Common Buzzards, Iberian Grey Shrike, Hoopoe and the usual droves of Spanish Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Our tactic was to drive slowly along, stopping when necessary to scan for bustards, but we could not find any despite searching a large area.

The highlight was provided by several Griffon Vultures – first a small group on the ground in a field next to the road, and secondly three sitting on an electricity pylon! We had some superb views of them, and were able to compare the different plumages of adult and first-year individuals.

Returning to Belen, we made our way back through Trujillo making a quick stop for toilets and fuel. Before heading north of the town and picking up the road towards Torrejon. Branching west towards Monroy, we stopped at a convenient vantage point where we found a Little Owl, and our presence encouraged about 500 of the local sheep herd to come noisily across the plain towards us, thinking they were going to be fed! This was our queue to exit, and we continued a short way along the road to another vantage point, where we would stop for coffee.

The views across the plains in all directions were superb, and we had some good birds too – a small group of Rock Sparrows were feeding along the edge of an adjacent field with some Corn Buntings. This species is very easy to miss at this time of the year, leaving its breeding sites in the hills and joining mixed flocks of buntings and sparrows in farmland areas. We had excellent views of their super-stripy head pattern, before they disappeared over a ridge. Behind us, a ringtail Hen Harrier was quartering the fields favoured by Montagu’s Harriers in spring and summer.

The Rio Almonte crossing, just before the village of Monroy, would be our final stop of the morning. Crag Martins were wheeling round above us as we arrived here and out of the wind in this sheltered valley, we felt the warmest temperatures of the day. White and Grey Wagtails were along the river, and the surrounding bushes on the rocky slopes held many Song Thrush and Blackcap among other common birds.

Careful scrutiny of movement among the bushes also revealed a couple of Hawfinches, though they never showed well and always preferred to remain hidden. A pair of Cirl Buntings were also found on the walk back, with the male singing briefly before both flew off upstream. A lovely spot, and all the time with Griffon Vultures passing overhead.

Heading up through Monroy, we stopped at a favourite spot north of the village on the road to Torrejon el Rubio. By a stand of Stone Pines, we had our lunch looking north across the dehesa towards Monfrague – but it was very cold and windy here! Nevertheless a Woodlark was up singing, and overhead among the steady stream of Griffon Vultures, three superb Black Vultures soared by.

This whole area was full of Song Thrushes and Blackcaps too – we wondered how far some of these migrants may have travelled to spend the winter here in Spain. Continuing on through Torrejon, we then headed up into Monfrague National Park and in particular to the Castillo on the top of the low mountain ridge which forms the spine of the area.

On the southern side of the ridge, it was beautifully sheltered and warm and we found a small number of Hawfinches feeding by the steps on the way up to the Castillo. They were coming to drink up by the picnic area, and we enjoyed excellent scope views of a male and female together for comparison. There were several Black Redstarts around, and Crag Martins buzzing overhead, as we made our way up the steep steps to the viewpoint.

Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vultures – amazing views at the Castillo in Monfrague

Here we filled our boots with the Griffon Vultures – such amazing views today, with the strong breeze encouraging large numbers onto the wing, gliding past us at eye level. The resident population of these birds were now well into their breeding cycle, and we watched them collecting sticks and grasses from a small derelict garden just below the viewpoint before carrying them across to the breeding ledges on the Pena Falcon cliff.

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture 5

Griffon Vultures – collecting nest material

Presumably these early nesters get to choose the best ledges, and gain a head start on the migrant population which will ne arriving from Africa to bolster the numbers in a few weeks time. High overhead we also saw Peregrine and a couple of Black Vultures, plus of course the spectacular views back south across the sweeping dehesa towards Trujillo.

Descending back down to the road, we called next at the Pena Falcon crag below where we had more fantastic views of the vultures, whooshing past so close that we could hear the rush of air through their wings! A young male Blue Rock Thrush also gave some nice views, and a Golden Eagle was displaying high above in the clouds.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – nice views of this male at the Pena Falcon viewpoint

It was now after 4pm, and we still wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Portillar del Tietar on the other side of the park. This excellent location of course came with more Griffon Vultures!

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – many were on the nest already

In addition, Little and Great White Egrets were seen along the river, and a House Martin whizzed through overhead. Eurasian Jay, Iberian Magpies, another Blue Rock Thrush and an unseen Common Kingfisher were also noted, though the absolute highlight here was an unseasonal Black Stork which drifted in and landed low down on the crag. The beautiful glossy green sheen to its plumage and bright red bare parts were quite stunning in the evening light – a real bonus to pick one of these up to end the day!

Black Stork

Black Stork – an unexpected bonus at Portilla del Tietar

Our journey back took just over an hour, making use of the new motorway to Navalmoral, and then down to Trujillo.

Friday 2nd February

Today we would return to Madrid, with a little birding en route as we did not have to reach the airport until about 1430.

Trujillo

Trujillo – looking towards the town at dawn as we were leaving

Having done so well with the main target birds, particularly in the steppe, we opted to stick fairly close to the E90 motorway route on our way north, stopping first at 700m elevation at the Casas de Miravete. From this escarpment, the views down across Arrocampo-Almaraz were quite spectacular, the Gredos Mountains showing fresh snow fall in the background.

A Woodlark flew over calling as we disembarked the vehicle, but other wise it was rather quiet here. We noted Sardinian Warbler, and heard a Rock Bunting a couple of times though we only saw it in flight. Our main target, Crested Tit, did not materialise at all, though a Dartford Warbler called from the low scrub and whizzed across the track. We felt our remaining time would be better spent a little further on at the wetlands around Saucedilla, where we had started our trip on day one.

At the causeway, a Glossy Ibis flew over and dropped out of sight behind the reeds. We could hear several Western Purple Swamp-hens calling from dense cover, and of course the usual barrage of Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows to which we had now come accustomed, were in the surrounding tamarisk scrub.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – flew in over the reeds

Moving along the the small reserve centre, we retraced our route from the first day. Getting excellent views of an adult Western Purple Swamp-hen, and picking up the Glossy Ibis again as it flew in from the causeway and circled us before dropping back into the reeds.

The bird we really wanted to see to finish the trip in style was Penduline Tit, since we had missed out on seeing one at the first attempt. Frustratingly we could hear one calling, but despite scanning the reedmace carefully we could not locate the bird. A Common Kingfisher popped into view as we searched, and a Water Rail squealed unseen from the reeds, but the tit would not co-operate.

Eventually, we heard it call again, and this time it sounded much closer to the path! Sure enough, a male Penduline Tit flew up from the trackside bushes and landed in full view in a big willow at the edge of the reedbed – scope views for everyone! The bird then flew down into some low reedmace closer to us and began feeding, and we finally had the really good views we were after.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – finally showed well for us, a great bird to end the trip

But now it was time to make the two hour run up to Madrid, the two Black-winged Kites being seen in exactly the same location as they had been on Monday as we drove past! What a great way to end the trip! One or two Black Vultures, and several groups of Common Cranes, bid us farewell as we motored up the E90, arriving at the airport bang on schedule for our flight back to London.

It had been a wonderful five days – great birds, great food, great scenery and great company. We didn’t want to leave! The only thing to do is to plan a return trip next year. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Extremadura in 2019, please get in touch.

July 2017 – Midsummer Majorca

No a tour but a family holiday. A ‘busman’s holiday’, because there are always opportunities to go looking for birds and other wildlife, even in the Mediterranean in midsummer! We had been to Majorca just a couple of years ago, but it is still a great place to revisit. This gave us an opportunity to visit a few different sites and try to get better photographs of some species.

Balearic Warbler is one of the key species to see on any visit to Majorca, as they are endemic to the Balearic Islands. They are most easily seen in early spring, when the males are singing, and at other times they can be very skulking. They live in the low scrub, garrigue, often close to the sea, and feed very low down or on the ground in the dense thorny bushes, generally below knee height.

We saw several Balearic Warblers on our last visit but, being July then too, they were very hard to photograph. This visit, it looked like it would be the same story until we stumbled across a male collecting food along a path through the coastal scrub one morning. We followed it as it flew across and disappeared into a clump of bushes, before flying out with a faecal sac – they were clearly nesting there. Quietly standing a short distance away from the bushes, concealed behind a large rock, we were treated to fantastic views of the two adults as they came in and out with food.

Balearic Warbler male 1Balearic Warbler – the male, crown feathers raised

Balearic Warbler male 2Balearic Warbler – the male again, with bright red eye ring

Balearic Warbler female 1Balearic Warbler – the female, with orange eye ring & paler on forehead / lores

Moustached Warbler breeds very locally around the Mediterranean and this is a great place to catch up with them. This was another species we wanted to get better photographs of, although they seemed to be harder to find at s’Albufera in 2017. There was a lot less vegetation in the main channel this year, where they had been very obvious on our last visit, collecting food.

Fortunately, we found a couple of families feeding young along a reedy channel further into the reserve. They were mostly very low down in the reeds, but we did get some nice views of them in the end.

Moustached WarblerMoustached Warbler – feeding along a reedy channel

Another species we wanted to spend some time photographing on this visit was Eleonora’s Falcon. This species breeds on islands in the Mediterranean, with a delayed breeding season to coincide with the southbound autumn migration of small birds which it catches to feed to its young. They can be found in several places around Majorca, but we spent a couple of very pleasant afternoons watching them zooming around the rocky cliffs on the Formentor peninsula. Fantastic birds!

Eleonora's Falcon 1

Eleonora's Falcon 2

Eleonora's Falcon 3Eleonora’s Falcon – a pale morph adult

Eleonora's Falcon 4Eleonora’s Falcon – a dark morph adult, with sooty underparts

A trip up into the Tramuntana Mountains on one morning produced a nice selection of other raptors. This is a good place to see both Black Vulture and Griffon Vulture and we saw several of both, rather distant initially but then better views overhead as we stopped at Mortitx on our way back down.

Black VultureBlack Vulture – with distinctive pale feet

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture – with paler underwing coverts compared to Black Vulture

Mortitx is the release site for the project to reintroduce Bonelli’s Eagle to Majorca and we managed to see a distant immature bird here. It is a long walk down into the valley to the best area for them and it was the middle of the day when we stopped there – too hot to walk all the way in!

Moltoni’s Warbler was the other target species for us in the mountains. We had seen several on our last visit, but they proved much more difficult this time. We did see a couple of them, but we were perhaps a week late this year, as we had managed to catch them feeding recently fledged young last time.

Moltoni's WarblerMoltoni’s Warbler – a dull female, lacking the male’s pink underparts

Since our last visit, the Spotted Flycatchers breeding on the Balearic Islands, Corsica and Sardinia have been split out as a separate species by the IOU, with the English name of Mediterranean Flycatcher. So, well worth looking at again. They are very similar but rather paler and more sparsely streaked below than our Spotted Flycatchers. Fortunately they are very common – and very charismatic birds to watch too.

Mediterranean Flycatcher 2

Mediterranean Flycatcher 1Mediterranean Flycatchers – recently split from Spotted Flycatcher by IOU

Balearic Woodchat Shrike is still just a race of the more widespread Woodchat Shrike, subspecies badius. It is rather locally distributed on Majorca, although we saw several at Son Real one afternoon, which appears to be a good site for this subspecies. The light was not great for photography, so here is a good reason to go back to Majorca, to get better images of these birds.

Balearic Woodchat ShrikeBalearic Woodchat Shrike – lacking the white patch at the base of the primaries

One of the other highlights of our visits to Majorca has been watching the herons and egrets at s’Albufera. There is a large mixed breeding colony in the trees by the main channel here and the stone bridge provides a great vantage point to watch them at close quarters, flying in and out of the colony. Great for photography!

Glossy Ibis was a real feature amongst the herons this year. We didn’t see any on our visit in 2015, but there were several around the colony and apparently they have bred here this year.

Glossy IbisGlossy Ibis – apparently bred at s’Albufera this year

In with the constant stream of Cattle and Little Egrets, this is a great place to see Squacco Herons and Night Herons too.

Squacco Heron 1

Squacco Heron 2Squacco Heron – flying back to the breeding colony

Night HeronNight Heron – over the stone bridge in the morning

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – the commonest species flying in and out of the colony

There are also smaller numbers of Purple Herons and the odd Grey Heron here too, but they don’t tend to fly along the channel. However, we were lucky to have a Purple Heron fly right over us as we explored along one of the paths beside the channel. We also saw a couple of Little Bitterns at s’Albufera, but they were not as obliging as on our last visit – a male which flew in and landed on the edge of a reedy ditch very close to us, but partly obscured by reeds, and a more distant female along the main channel.

Purple HeronPurple Heron – circled over us by the main channel one morning

The reserve here is a great place to get close to several other Mediterranean wetland species. Red-knobbed Coot, Purple Swamphen and Red-crested Pochard were all reintroduced here in the 1990s after having died out in previous years. The first two species in particular can be seen fairly easily here these days. As well as plenty of these, we also saw Red-crested Pochard and a pair of Marbled Duck too at s’Albufera,

Red-knobbed CootRed-knobbed Coot – reintroduced to Majorca

Purple SwamphenPurple Swamphen – also reintroduced to Majorca, common now in s’Albufera

S’Albufera is also good for waders. It is a great place to watch Kentish Plovers and Little Ringed Plovers in front of the hides. A couple of the pairs of Kentish Plover had very recently hatched young – little more than a ball of fluff on ungainly long legs!

Kentish PloverKentish Plover – a male, in front of one of the hides

Kentish Plover juvKentish Plover – a very small, recently hatched juvenile

We saw various other species of waders both here and at Salobrar de Campos, the saltpans in the south of the island. The first few migrants were coming through – the highlights being a single Spotted Redshank and a single Curlew Sandpiper, along with more Green and Wood Sandpipers, plus Curlew and Greenshank.

Black-winged Stilts are found on all the wetlands. Salobrar de Campos is a great place to photograph them, as they fly overhead noisily protesting at your presence!

Black-winged Stilt 1

Black-winged Stilt 2

Black-winged Stilt 3Black-winged Stilts – a common breeding bird on the wetlands in Majorca

We saw several Audouin’s Gulls bathing in the main channel by the path out to s’Albufera in the afternoons, but the best place to get close to them was on the beach at Port de Pollenca in the evenings among the empty sun loungers! The gulls come down to look for scraps after the crowds have thinned out and can be very obliging here.

Audouin's Gull 1

Audouin's Gull 2Audouin’s Gull – close views on the beach in the early evening

Aside from all the speciality species and wetland birds, there are also many other regular Mediterranean species to be seen here. Thekla Larks on the Spanish mainland can be hard to separate from the confusingly similar Crested Lark, but on Majorca there are none of the latter making the identification much more straightforward!

Thekla LarkThekla Lark – not common but encountered fairly regularly

It is always a pleasure to watch Bee-eaters and there were plenty around s’Albufera and the neighbouring areas.

Bee-eaterBee-eater – always great birds to watch

That is just a small selection of the birds which we managed to see in a week on Mallorca. The final list for the holiday tallied up to 98 species (plus a White-cheeked Pintail – presumably recently escaped from somewhere!). That is a very respectable total for midsummer – and we even managed to find plenty of time for relaxing by the pool in the heat of the day! It is a great place to visit and we will be back…

June 2017 – Exploring Extremadura

Extremadura is a great place for wildlife, one of the best birding sites in Spain and even in Europe. The middle of June is not the best time to visit, particularly in the middle of a heatwave, but with a few days off I decided to head down there for a few days.

We have just announced that The Bird ID Company will be offering international tours starting in 2018, in partnership with our friends at Oriole Birding (for more details, see the website here). The first destination will be Extremadura in January next year, which I will be co-leading. I haven’t been to Spain for a couple of years and wanted to explore a few sites ahead of the forthcoming tour, so this was an ideal opportunity, even if the summer months are not the best time to visit – Winter and Spring are far better.

Despite it being the wrong time of year and unseasonably hot (touching 43C at times!), I managed to catch up with most of the main species and much more besides. Here are just a few highlights…

Steppe birds are one of the main reasons to visit Extremadura – bustards and sandgrouse. Great Bustards were seen most days when I was out on the plains, in small groups, the biggest being thirteen together which I found on several days in the same fields. There are also Little Bustards here, but they are very hard to see at this time of year, when the grass is very tall – they are easier in winter or spring.

6O0A6605 editGreat Bustard – seen regularly out on the plains

Sandgrouse can be hard birds to find sometimes, but this is a great place to look for them. Early morning is best, and their distinctive calls give their presence away as they fly in to feed. I was fortunate to enjoy great views of both Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, both in flight and feeding in the stony fields.

6O0A5958Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – stunning birds when seen through the scope

6O0A4827-001Black-bellied Sandgrouse – I saw fewer of these than Pin-tailed, but still several pairs

The other big draw of Extremadura is the raptors. The Spanish Imperial Eagle is chief amongst them, a very rare and localised species. The total population was down to as few as 30 pairs in the 1960s, but has since recovered to an estimated 485 pairs in 2015. There is normally a reliable site for them in Monfrague National Park, but with the much watched pair’s breeding attempt there seemingly having failed this year, I realised it was going probably going to be necessary to see one elsewhere. I was fortunate to see one out on the plains, a cracking adult perched on a pylon.

IMG_5636Spanish Imperial Eagle – great views of this very localised species

Apart from eagles, vultures are also much in evidence. Black Vulture is quite a sparsely distributed bird elsewhere in Europe, but is quite easy to see here. It is possible to get some quite spectacular views of vultures, with a bit of luck. There is nothing quite like watching them sail past at eye level!

6O0A5511Black Vulture – soaring past in the sierras….

6O0A4635Black Vulture – … or circling over the plains

6O0A4654Vultures – three species together – seeking shade in the trees on a very hot day

Griffon Vultures are more common, but the views in Extremadura are still spectacular. Monfrague National Park is a great place to watch them up close.

6O0A5746Griffon Vulture – always great to see them up close

Egyptian Vulture is probably the scarcest of the three vulture species here. Still, they are not hard to see in Monfrague National Park and I ran into several elsewhere too, including this young bird which came in to investigate me out on the plains early one morning, circling low overhead!

6O0A5419Egyptian Vulture – flew low overhead one morning out on the plains

Other than the vultures and eagles, there are kites too. Black-winged Kite is more common in Africa and Asia, but is found in small numbers in Iberia. It only colonised Europe in the 1970s, and the population here is still perhaps only around 2,000 pairs. It is best looked for at dawn or dusk, when it can be found hovering out over the fields, hunting. There are several good sites for the species in Extremadura. I really enjoyed catching up with a pair of Black-winged Kites out hunting on my last evening there – it was a great way to end the trip.

In contrast, Black Kite is one of the commonest raptors. They are summer visitors here, wintering in Africa, but can be seen everywhere at this time of year.

6O0A5754Black Kite – a very common summer visitor

Lesser Kestrel is also one of the must see raptors at this time of year, again mainly a summer visitor, and is not uncommon, although there are plenty of Common Kestrels too. Trujillo is a good place to see them and the bullring there affords excellent views of – they breed in the roof and can be watched coming and going, bringing grasshoppers and crickets for their young, which were just fledging while I was there.

6O0A6067

6O0A6410Lesser Kestrel – fantastic views at Trujillo

Montagu’s Harrier is another summer visitor here, which breeds out on the plains. Some of the young seemed to have fledged by the time I arrived, and they were not as obvious as they can be earlier in the spring. Still, I saw several out on the plains, a mixture of adults and a few orange juveniles.

6O0A5296Montagu’s Harrier – hunting out over the plains

White-rumped Swift is another much sought after species here. It is much commoner in Africa and was only discovered in the late 1960s breeding just over the Straits of Gibraltar on the Spanish side, in Cadiz province. It has since spread north, but is still very localised on the Iberian peninsula. Monfrague National Park is a great place to see it, and I saw several there on my visit. Again, it is just a summer visitor here.

I have seen White-rumped Swifts in southern Spain before, but this is the first time I have been to Extremadura at the right time of the year. The views were superb! One of the highlights of my few days there.

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6O0A5600White-rumped Swift – stunning views in Monfrague

Black Stork is another sought after species it is possible to see here in the summer. Again, Monfrague is a good place to see them, although I also saw several birds elsewhere on my travels. I saw several pairs nesting in Monfrague, with some half grown juveniles still in the nest.

IMG_5737Black Stork – easy to see in summer in Monfrague

In contrast, White Storks are everywhere – it is hard to go far without seeing at least one! In the summer they can be found nesting on the roofs of buildings, electricity pylons and anywhere else they might consider remotely suitable – even if we might not! One pair even nests on top of one of the hides at Arrocampo.

6O0A5102White Stork – feeding time back at the nest

Azure-winged Magpie is another species which is limited to Iberia within Europe so is a species people want to see here. Remarkably, apart from Iberia it is also found in eastern Asia, and the two have traditionally been treated as conspecific but recent genetic analysis has suggested that the Iberian birds may be better treated as a separate species in their own right. Another good reason to see them.

Thankfully Azure-winged Magpie is common in Extremadura and easy to see. I spent a couple of very enjoyable mornings watching them in the garden of the hotel, coming down to crumbs put out for them or to drink. Nice to watch while relaxing by the pool!

6O0A4962Azure-winged Magpie – Iberian birds are probably a unique species

Where there are Magpies…. Great Spotted Cuckoo is a corvid brood parasite, particularly magpies, although Common Magpies are preferred hosts rather than Azure-winged Magpies. It is a summer visitor here, being found mainly in Iberian and south-eastern Europe. I saw a few out on the plains during my visit, getting some fantastic close views of one or two of them.

6O0A5290Great Spotted Cuckoo – an adult, out on the plains

Roller is another species I wanted to catch up with, another summer visitor here. In some areas, nest boxes are put up on the telegraph posts for them and I was pleased to see quite good numbers where this was the case. They are great birds – along with Bee-eater and Hoopoe, a species I used to dream of seeing as a boy, thumbing through my father’s field guide. Even now, I love to watch Rollers and I was pleased to see some ‘rolling’ display flight too.

6O0A4944Roller – great to see so many here, benefiting from the provision of nestboxes

I saw plenty of Bee-eaters and Hoopoes as well – to this day, I still love seeing these too!

6O0A6216Bee-eater – a common summer visitor here

Iberian Grey Shrike differs in appearance from the other Great Grey Shrikes found across Europe, being similar morphologically to some North African forms. Genetic studies have suggested it may not be particularly closely related to either, which is why it is often treated as a separate species. It is quite easy to see out on the plains, perched on the fences or wires.

6O0A4771Iberian Grey Shrike – often treated as a distinct species, separate from ‘Great Grey’

Iberian Grey Shrike is a resident, so can be seen throughout the year. I also saw lots of Woodchat Shrikes, which are summer visitors here. They were very common in the dehesa or on the edges of the plains, with many family parties and large numbers of juveniles already. Despite them being common, they were not particularly obliging and usually flew off before I could get close to them.

Rock Bunting is another resident species. During the summer, it is to be found in the sierras, although it is an altitudinal migrant, moving lower in the winter. I only saw one on my visit, on a trip up into the hills which also produced a singing Ortolan Bunting. I suspect I may have seen more, if it hadn’t been June and quite so hot! They are very pretty birds, well worth the effort of going into the sierras to see.

6O0A5875Rock Bunting – a resident but localised species, in the sierras in summer

The plains are full of larks and Corn Buntings – a real reminder of how impoverished our agricultural landscape is by comparison. Crested Lark is particularly abundant.

6O0A5979Crested Lark – abundant out on the plains and around the fields

It was nice to see Calandra Larks in good numbers too, even if they didn’t pose quite so nicely for photos. I also saw a few Short-toed Larks as well.

6O0A5234Calandra Lark – nice to see in good numbers still here

In rockier areas, the Crested Larks are replaced by Thekla Larks. I did see a few of the latter, but they were not so obliging as the former, particularly as I found myself in the right areas mostly in the middle of the day.

There were loads of sparrows out on the plains too, many big flocks, mostly young birds. Both House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow can be found here, and occasionally I came across a smart male Spanish Sparrow.

6O0A6516Spanish Sparrow – a male

There are not as many warblers here as elsewhere in southern Europe, with even the normally ubiquitous Sardinian Warbler more sparsely distributed than around the Mediterranean. I was most pleased to find a family party of Western Orphean Warblers up in Monfrague as this can be a very tricky species to see.

6O0A5445Western Orphean Warbler – a nice bonus to see a family party in Monfrague

Up in the sierras, there were more warblers to see. A particularly productive trip produced Spectacled Warbler and Common Whitethroat breeding within a few metres of each other, together with several singing Western Bonelli’s Warblers and a smart male Western Subalpine Warbler. Iberian Pied Flycatcher was a nice bonus here too, an interesting subspecies of the regular Pied Flycatcher which is only found in central Spain.

6O0A5899Western Subalpine Warbler – up in the sierras

There were some nice butterflies up the sierras too. The smartest was Two-tailed Pasha and I had at least two of these around the Castillo at Monfrague, resting on the rocks or chasing each other round. There were also several different butterflies around the hotel, including a nice selection of blues around the lawn.

6O0A5517Two-tailed Pasha – by the Castillo in Monfrague

When the temperature got too hot, in the middle of the day, I sometimes retired to the shade in the garden of the hotel, by the swimming pool. Red-rumped Swallows nest in the garden and they would come down to drink in the pool, swooping low across the water’s surface and drinking on the wing. Unfortunately, getting photos of them coming down to drink proved difficult, but they did give great views around the garden and overhead.

6O0A5077Red-rumped Swallow – nesting in the garden of the hotel

The Red-rumped Swallow nest was on one of the hotel buildings, much bigger than a House Martin or Barn Swallow nest, a very impressive feat of construction!

6O0A5381Red-rumped Swallow – a very impressive nest

A family of Hawfinches were up in the trees in the garden too, and the female regularly came down to feed on the lawn.

6O0A5362Hawfinch – collecting food on the lawn

While sitting by the pool, the Long-tailed Tits would also come down to drink at any puddles left by the watering of the plants. The Long-tailed Tits here are a distinct subspecies, irbii, with a more heavily streaked and darker face than the birds elsewhere in Europe. Interesting to see. There were Short-toed Treecreepers too, and a Nightingale around the garden. A great place to while away the hottest hours of the day.

6O0A6096Long-tailed Tit – of the Iberian race irbii

Given the time of year and the heat, I really hadn’t expected to see so much in Extremadura on this trip and it was mainly intended as an opportunity to visit some different sites. As you can see, I enjoyed some great views of some excellent species despite the conditions. Extremadura is well worth a visit!

The trip in January will be similar but different. For a start, it shouldn’t be so hot! Many of the species will be the same – hopefully, it should be easier to find some of the classic steppe species and many of the most sought after raptors – although the summer visitors which I saw will obviously not be around then. However, there are also other birds to look for in January which are just winter visitors, and which I didn’t see this time – Cranes by the thousand which come here from northern Europe, huge rafts of wildfowl on the reservoirs, and passerines like Bluethroat and Alpine Accentor to look for too.

It promises to be an exciting tour to Extremadura in January 2018, so if this blog has whetted your appetite for birding there, then please get in touch. I am looking forward to going back already!

29th Mar-5th Apr 2017 – Spring Birding in Cyprus

Cyprus is a great place to witness early spring migration across the Mediterranean. On almost the 30th anniversary of my last visit, I decided it was about time I returned. So, we spent a very enjoyable week on Cyprus, based in the south-west, north of Paphos. Needless to say, there were lots of good birds to see, both regional specialities and migrants heading north.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was on our first full morning on Cyprus. We decided to have an early look round the archaeological site on Paphos Headland, which is a magnet for migrants. One of the first birds we came across was a male Cinereous Bunting, a very scarce visitor to Cyprus, on its way between back to breed in W Turkey or Lesbos, from its wintering grounds around the Red Sea. Quite a way to start!

6O0A1454Cinereous Bunting – a very scarce visitor to Cyprus

There are three endemic species found on Cyprus, which are ‘must sees’ on any visit. Thankfully, two of them are not hard to see. We saw Cyprus Wheatear every day. A small number were on the coast, possibly fresh arrivals, but slightly inland birds were singing and holding territory. Formerly considered a race of Pied Wheatear, Cyprus Wheatear has for some time been treated as a full species in its own right.

6O0A1320Cyprus Wheatear – a singing male, near to where we were staying

Cyprus Warbler was a little harder to find, but still we came across birds at three different sites. Like many Mediterraean Sylvia warblers, they are rather skulking birds, but the song of the male at this time of year alerted us to their presence. With a bit of perseverance, we were able to enjoy great views of them.

6O0A1775Cyprus Warbler – we came across singing males at three different sites

The third endemic species is another which has been elevated from a mere subspecies, in this instance rather more recently, just last year (and still not recognised as such by all authorities). Cyprus Scops Owl was previously treated as a race of European Scops Owl, but has a noticeably different ‘song’ and also tends to be rather darker. We had heard one singing at night on a couple of occasions, but were then told about a site where there was a day roosting bird which might be visible. Thankfully, after we heard it singing briefly in the middle of the day, we managed to find it roosting in a tree. A stunning bird! We also heard another day singing Cyprus Scops Owl the same day at another site.

6O0A3518Cyprus Scops Owl – now generally treated as a full endemic species

Aside from these three, there are also several endemic or near-endemic subspecies on Cyprus, several of which are found up a higher elevation in the Troodos Mountains. We spent a very successful morning in the Troodos, where were able to locate the four main target birds – Dorothy’s Treecreeper, Cyprus Coal Tit, Cyprus Jay and guillemardi Crossbill (the latter is also found in Turkey & the Caucasus). The first two are particularly distinctive.

Dorothy’s Treecreeper is quite a striking bird, much greyer above than Short-toed Treecreeper (of which it is currently considered a subspecies) and with a very different vocal repertoire. Both of these suggest that it could be a candidate for revised treatment as a full species in the future.

6O0A3361Dorothy’s (Short-toed) Treecreeper – much greyer & with very different vocalisations

Cyprus Coal Tit also looks very different from other subspecies of Coal Tit, with a very extensive black bib and reduced white cheeks and white nape stripe.

6O0A3243Cyprus Coal Tit – differing in appearance to other Coal Tits

Cyprus is also a great place to see several eastern Mediterranean species, like Cretzschmar’s Bunting and Ruppell’s Warbler. Ruppell’s Warbler is just a migrant, passing through at this time of year – we saw them quite regularly during our stay. As well as Ruppell’s Warbler, there were smaller numbers of Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and Eastern Subalpine Warbler plus a single Eastern Orphean Warbler on our first full morning at Paphos. As elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Sardinian Warblers are common and large numbers of Lesser Whitethroat and Chiffchaffs were seen daily, stopping off on their journey north.

6O0A2358Ruppell’s Warbler – a male

Cretzschmar’s Bunting breeds on Cyprus, but is much commoner at this time of year, as birds are also passing through on migration. We ran into them regularly during our stay, both at sites around the coast such as Paphos, and also inland. We also found a small number of Ortolan Buntings, often associating with the commoner Cretzschmar’s Buntings.

6O0A3533Cretzschmar’s Bunting – a summer visitor and passage migrant through Cyprus

As well as the Cypriot specialities, the main reason for visiting Cyprus at this time of year is to see all the migrants which are passing through the island. Wagtails and Pipits were particularly in evidence. It was great to watch large flocks of yellow wagtails, with one numbering a conservative 150 birds, feeding in the fields. The largest proportion of the flocks were Black-headed Wagtails, their buzzy calls very different from the Yellow Wagtails we get here. It was a particularly great experience to watch them feeding at close quarters in a carpet of spring flowers at Paphos headland. Stunning!

6O0A1556-001Black-headed Wagtail – feeding in the spring flowers at Paphos headland

Black-headed Wagtail intergrades with several other subspecies of yellow wagtail and some of these forms are distinctive enough to have specific names. However, the range of variation is considerable. ‘superciliaris’ typically has a black head with a clear white supercilium, but some birds have much reduced white on the head.

6O0A3845Black-headed Wagtail ‘superciliaris’ intergrade – with a white supercilium

The ‘dombrowskii’ intergrade form has a greyer head, blacker ear coverts and a bright supercilium, but again we found several birds which had a reduced supercilium, or had differing proportions of grey and black around the head. It was fascinating to see the range of variation.

6O0A3950Black-headed Wagtail ‘dombrowskii’ intergrade type – grey nape, but reduced supercilium

The Pipits were slightly less confusing, but no less exciting that the Wagtails. Another of the highlights was watching groups of Red-throated Pipits feeding just a few metres away in the spring flowers at Paphos. On one morning, we had at least 30 Red-throated Pipits here. Many were in full summer plumage now, with throats in various shades of red. We encountered smaller groups of Tree Pipits and Meadow Pipits too. Tawny Pipits were passing through as well, and a flock of about 20 Tawny Pipits in the hills was particularly noteworthy.

6O0A4231Red-throated Pipit – feeding in the spring flowers at Paphos

As well as the endemic Cyprus Wheatears, several other wheatear species were passing through the island while we were there. There were good numbers of Northern Wheatears, which we encountered regularly around the coast. However, it was particularly nice to have the chance to watch plenty of Isabelline Wheatears, a rather rare visitor to the UK.

6O0A2601Isabelline Wheatear – we saw good numbers of this species, mostly around the coast

On one morning, we encountered a particularly good arrival of wheatears on Paphos headland and in with the Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, we found a cracking male Desert Wheatear too. Desert Wheatear is a regular migrant through Cyprus, but in small numbers, so this was certainly a good bird to see.

6O0A1634Desert Wheatear – a smart male

We also encountered good numbers of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears on our travels, with males of both the pale-throated and dark-throated forms and a few females.

6O0A1717Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – of the pale-throated form

From around the middle of our week on Cyprus, there was a noticeable arrival of flycatchers. They came in particularly with some rain overnight Friday into Saturday. After that, we found Collared Flycatchers to be fairly common, mostly ones or twos but we ran into them at many different sites, and often just in bushes along the roadside. Smigies picnic site was one of the most productive sites – we had at least four different male Collared Flycatchers here one morning.

6O0A2756Collared Flycatcher – a noticeable arrival and then seen daily

As well as the Collared Flycatchers we found a couple of Semi-collared Flycatchers and Pied Flycatchers. It provided a great opportunity to compare the three different species. Most of the flycatchers passing through at this time were smart males, which always makes the process of identification easier.

6O0A2451Semi-collared Flycatcher – we found a couple of males of this species

As well as all the wheatears and flycatchers, there were smaller numbers of Common Redstart, Stonechat and Whinchat on their way north. While Nightingales breed on Cyprus, there were many around the coast especially that appeared to be migrants. We also came across three different Wrynecks at widely spaced locations.

There were smaller numbers of migrant larks passing through Cyprus at this time of year. However, we did encounter several small flocks of Short-toed Larks around the coast, which are always nice to see.

6O0A2235Short-toed Lark – we encountered several small flocks around the coast

The resident Crested Larks were very obliging, with their punk haircuts. Very photogenic!

6O0A1451Crested Lark – very obliging

Some other noticeable migrants we saw regularly were herons. Small flocks of Grey Herons and Night Herons were seen coming in around the coast or making their way inland.

6O0A2500Night Heron – several small groups seen on the move around the coast

On one morning, we flushed a Purple Heron from the archaeological site at Paphos, which flew round and landed in the trees nearby, and then watched a second Purple Heron come in off the sea. As well as the more obvious migrants, we saw several herons and egrets around some of the wetland sites, including also a few Squacco Herons, Cattle Egrets and Little Egrets.

6O0A2212Purple Heron – a fresh arrival, at Paphos archaeological site

Harriers are also passing through Cyprus at this time of year. We saw several Pallid Harriers, including a number of stunning pale grey males. A smaller number of Marsh Harriers were obviously on the move, seen coming in off the sea or migrating through the hills, with one or two lingering around the wetland sites near Akrotiri. We also came across a single female Hen Harrier near Phassouri reedbeds.

6O0A2125Pallid Harrier – a stunning grey male

A Black Kite passing over the hills above Polis was a bit of a surprise. It is rather early for this species on Cyprus and this was possibly the first seen on the island this year.

6O0A3670Black Kite – an early migrant above Polis

Resident raptors include Bonelli’s Eagle, which we ran into at three sites, two pairs and a single bird. The only Long-legged Buzzard we found was at Theletra, but we had great views of it as it circled overhead. A single Common Buzzard early in the morning near the Baths of Aphrodite was possibly waiting for the day to warm up before flying off north.

6O0A3591Long-legged Buzzard – circled overhead at Theletra

The commonest raptor on Cyprus is Common Kestrel. However, there are also Lesser Kestrels to be found at certain sites. These are summer visitors, but fortunately several were already in. We found seven at Anarita Park on our visit. As well as the smart males, it was good to get a chance to study the more subtle females too.

6O0A2725Lesser Kestrel – a male at Anarita Park

Crakes are passing through Cyprus at the moment. There are no good wetland sites in the SW of the island these days (most of the pools have dried up), so to see them we had to venture further east. Unfortunately, we were unable to engineer our visits to be there for early morning or late afternoon, when the crakes are most active. But we did get lucky with a female Little Crake which came out to bathe in the middle of the afternoon after a rain shower. We watched it for over 15 minutes right below the hide at Zakaki, preening and then creeping around in the vegetation feeding. Stunning views!

6O0A3058Little Crake – this female spent over 15 mins preening & feeding in front of the hide

Waders were similarly thinly distributed in the west, the only exception being the striking Spur-winged Lapwing, which we found feeding in fields at a couple of sites and even on the rocks around the headland at Paphos. Stone Curlews were heard calling every night from our villa and we found at least four out in the open in an olive grove at Lower Esouzas one morning. We did also find three Green Sandpipers on the river around the ford at Nata. On two mornings we came across flocks of Black-winged Stilts flying west past Paphos early on.

6O0A2642Spur-winged Lapwing – found at several sites, often away from wetlands

However, particularly near Larnaca we found a much better selection of waders. The most productive site we found was Meneou pools. The highlight here was a Red-necked Phalarope which we found, a scarce migrant through Cyprus and the first this year. However, at the same site we counted 22 Marsh Sandpipers, plus 5 Kentish Plover, good numbers of Little Stint, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Black-winged Stilts and 7 Stone Curlew. There were also five Slender-billed Gulls here too, the only place we saw this species. Oroklini held several Wood Sandpipers and two more Little Stints, as well as lots of Black-winged Stilt and a few Spur-winged Lapwing. We added Common Sandpiper to the trip list with three at Larnaca Sewage Works.

The area around Akrotiri was a little disappointing in comparison. Phassouri Reedbeds produced several Wood Sandpiper, lots of Ruff and a few Common Snipe. A group of six Little Ringed Plover which dropped down by a puddle next to the road at Zakaki were probably migrants and moved on quickly. We managed to find 2 Marsh Sandpipers and a Little Stint at Lady’s Mile eventually, but otherwise  it was mainly Ruff and Black-winged Stilt here.

The Greater Flamingoes around Akrotiri were a nice addition to the trip list. There were still lots out on the salt lake – with 1,000+ counted in recent days – but we got closer views at Lady’s Mile and Meneou.

6O0A2916Greater Flamingo – still 1,000+ around Akrotiri during our stay

With relatively few hirundines in UK at this time of year, it was nice to see good numbers on migration through Cyprus. Swallows and House Martins were both common and we also saw a small number of Sand Martins. Red-rumped Swallows were both migrating through – we saw several obvious migrants around the coast – and inland they were getting ready to breed. On our way up into the Troodos Mountains, we stopped by a roadside puddle to watch a little group of House Martins and a pair of Red-rumped Swallows coming down to collect mud for their nests.

6O0A3162Red-rumped Swallow – coming down to collect mud for nest building

Lots of Common Swifts were seen, particularly around the coast, but there were comparatively few Pallid Swifts to be found. One over Oroklini with Common Swifts was presumably a migrant, but a pair of Pallid Swifts over Troodos were possibly breeding birds back on territory.

The shrikes we encountered were similarly made up of both migrants and breeding birds. Masked Shrike is the key species we wanted to see here, and we found both birds passing through on the coast and singing birds, holding territory inland. We also saw a smaller number of Woodchat Shrikes on our travels.

6O0A1696Masked Shrike – both migrants passing through and birds holding territory inland

While those were some of the notable birds we came across, we also saw many more species and there were several non-avian highlights too. As well as many lizards, we came across one snake when my son, Luke, nearly trod on a Blunt-nosed Viper which was playing dead on a patch of waste ground. This is the most venomous snake on Cyprus, so it was lucky he spotted it in time! Thankfully, bites are rare and it appeared to be just a small one.

6O0A1284Blunt-nosed Viper – Cyprus’ most venomous snake

We encountered a nice selection of butterflies – including amongst others Swallowtail, Eastern Festoon, Clouded Yellow, Cyprus Meadow Brown and Mallow Skipper. As well as a few Common Blue, we also found several of the endemic Paphos Blue.

Paphos Blue Cyprus Peyia 2017-03-29_1Paphos Blue – showing the distinctive underwing pattern

The spring flowers are amazing at this time of year, and we came across three different orchids on our travels. Several Bug Orchids were in flower down at Akrotiri, but on our way up into the Troodos we found a small group of Naked Man Orchid and Giant Orchids by the side of the road. Very smart flowers!

Naked Man Orchid Orchis italica Cyrpus Troodos 2017-04-03_1Naked Man Orchid – by the roadside on the way up to Troodos

It was certainly a very exciting week we spent in Cyprus – from the large flocks of commoner migrants, to the rarer visitors and the local specialities. It is a lovely place to go birding at this time of year and we will certainly go back in the future. Hopefully it will not be another 30 years! We can definitely recommend it.

10th-17th July 2016 – Corsica

Corsica is a popular holiday destination, but it is also a great place to go birding. As with so many other islands, it has developed some of its own unique species through long periods of geographic isolation. Several birds are found only on Corsica or on neighbouring islands in the Mediterranean, which makes it an essential place to visit in order to catch up with some of these species. We spent a week exploring the north of the island between 10th and 17th July. Some of the photographic highlights are shown below.

6O0A5033Corsican Nuthatch

Corsican Nuthatch is the main target when birding in Corsica, as it is only the only species which is endemic to just this island. It is found found in the mature Corsican Pine forests on the slopes of the mountains, typically between 1000-1500m above sea level. We found Corsican Nuthatches comparatively easily in the right habitat.

Interestingly, the first Corsican Nuthatch we found (photo above) was much lower down than we were expecting, at just 795m. In BWP Vol VII (Cramp et al, 1993) gives the “extremes for sighting being 800-1800m”, which suggests that this Corsican Nuthatch had not read the book!

6O0A5362Corsican Finch

6O0A5250Corsican Finch juvenile

Corsican Finch was historically considered a race of Citril Finch, but differs particularly in its brown back streaked with black and brighter yellow face and underparts. It has since been separated out as a species in its own right. It is only found on Corsica and neighbouring Sardinia. We saw fewer Corsican Finches that we might have expected, although we did manage to find family parties of them on a couple of days in the right habitat, in open sunny clearings in the pine forest. An interesting bird to see, particularly having seen Citril Finch not so long ago!

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6O0A5902Marmora’s Warbler

Marmora’s Warbler is another species which has recently been split, in this case from the very similar Balearic Warbler which, as its name suggests, is found on the Balearic Islands. What is now known as Marmora’s Warbler is found only on Corsica and Sardinia plus some smaller islands of western Italy.

Marmora’s Warblers favour hillsides covered in low scrub, maquis and garrigue, from the coast up into the mountains, but appear to be rather localised to areas with the correct habitat. The rather similar Dartford Warbler can be found in many of the same places which can invite confusion, but if seen well the adults are noticeably different, Marmora’s being plain grey above and below, amongst other things. The call is also very different. Many warblers can be hard to see well in the height of summer, when they are not singing, but we were lucky to get fantastic views of Marmora’s Warblers on Corsica.

6O0A5096Lammergeier

6O0A5128Lammergeier dwarfing a nearby Red Kite

Although it is not an endemic, Lammergeier (or perhaps more appropriately called ‘Bearded Vulture’) is a spectacular bird and much sought after on Corsica. In Europe, it is perhaps only really found now in the Pyrenees, in the Alps where it has been reintroduced, on Corsica and on Crete. It is a species which has been declining throughout much of its range, and the population in Corsica perhaps now numbers fewer than 20 individuals.

As a consequence, we considered ourselves very privileged to see a Lammergeier on Corsica (although we did benefit from a tip off about a good place to look!). Even better, we saw it dropping down from the ridge beyond and circling overhead for about 10 minutes, in the company of about 15 Red Kites. A stunning bird in a spectacular setting!

6O0A5516-001Woodchat Shrike – of the subspecies badius

It is not just about endemic species. Many islands are also home to unique subspecies, some of which are perhaps candidates for future upgrades to full species status. Woodchat Shrike is a widely distributed bird found around the Mediterranean, but the form which occurs on Corsica is (predominantly?) the subspecies badius. Sometimes known as ‘Balearic’ Woodchat Shrike, it should perhaps be renamed as it occurs on Corsica and Sardinia as well as the Balearic Islands. This form differs from the nominate race of Woodchat Shrike by, amongst other things, the absence of white patch at the base of the primaries.

6O0A6172Woodchat Shrike – this bird showed more white in the wing than a typical badius

We found several Woodchat Shrikes as we drove around the island, including a couple of family parties. Interestingly one bird which we came across (photo above) appeared to show rather more white in the wing than is generally associated with badius, though not as much as is typically shown in the nominate race. Is this perhaps just within a wider range of variation? We also found several Red-backed Shrikes on our travels around the island, which were great to see.

6O0A5744Spotted Flycatcher

The Spotted Flycatchers on Corsica are also considered to be a separate subspecies (tyrrhenica) from the ones we get here (striata). Thankfully they are still common on the island, in contrast to the situation here where they have declined quite dramatically in recent years and are now getting quite scarce. The subspecies tyrrhenica is supposed to be less streaked below, although we found quite a bit of variation in appearance of the birds which we saw.

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6O0A5556Italian Sparrows

One of the other highlights of a visit to Corsica is the Italian Sparrows, which are also found quite commonly around the island. Traditionally thought to be a stable hybrid ‘swarm’ between House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, they are now generally treated as a full species. There is quite a bit of variation in appearance around the Mediterranean, but the birds on Corsica are quite consistent and conform nicely to what might be considered a ‘typical’ Italian Sparrow. Interestingly, the birds on neighbouring Sardinia are considered to be Spanish Sparrows and those on Sicily appear to be a variety of intermediates!

6O0A5650Audouin’s Gull

When not looking for endemic species or subspecies, there are lots of regular Mediterranean birds to be enjoyed. A few other photographic highlights from out trip are shown below. Audouin’s Gulls can be found along the coast, particularly in the east – always a delight to see!

6O0A6085Tawny Pipit

Tawny Pipits appear to be rather localised but we had driven past what looked like a good site a couple of times, and a bit of exploration on our last day produced the goods.

6O0A5445Rock Sparrow

We were pleased to come across a group of Rock Sparrows feeding in some overgrown fields in the foothills, another rather localised species which can be hard to tie down.

6O0A5373Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting is another species which is still reasonably common in Corsica, in contrast to the situation here. It was really nice to see them, and particularly to hear them singing.

6O0A5741Hooded Crow

Hooded Crows are common on Corsica, particularly around built up areas. This one was relaxing on a sun lounger by the beach! They are replaced by Ravens at higher altitudes.

It is not just the birding that is worth visiting Corsica for, the scenery is pretty good too!

IMG_5100Haut Asco

IMG_5132Fortin de Pasciolo

IMG_5176Occi ruins

IMG_5155Etang de Biguglia

For a relaxed birding holiday in beautiful surroundings, with some great – and unique – birds to see, Corsica is a prefect place to visit. It comes heartily recommended!