Category Archives: International

26th Feb-2nd Mar 2020 – NE Spain, Pyrenees & Steppe

A six day International Tour to NE Spain, up into the Pyrenees and out onto the Steppe, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. This is a new destination for us, and we plan to run the tour again at the same time next year, so if you like what you see, you would be welcome to join us for our next visit, in 2021!

WEDNESDAY 26TH FEBRUARY

A long day awaited us today as we had a 5am meet in Gatwick Airport for the early flight to Barcelona, which arrived ahead of schedule around 0945 local time. We enjoyed an incredibly swift transit of the airport (Brexit? What Brexit!) and we soon united with our minibus for the week and onto the motorway network.

Our first planned stop was actually only five minutes away, in an area of cultivation and scattered poplars at the edge of the city. Here we had a good reliable spot for Iberian Green Woodpecker, a species which has been propelled up people’s wants list by its full specific status. It was quite windy at the location, but we were soon enjoying our first sightings of Black Redstart, Serin, Ring-necked Parakeet (which are breeding all around the city), Cattle Egret, and other common birds. Soon an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew across, and perched beautifully in the open for us – the first of 5-6 views of 3 different birds we enjoyed here. We had some superb scope views, and got to hear them calling too.

Iberian Green Woodpecker

Iberian Grey Woodpecker – one of three different birds to start the trip

Other birds in the trees and scrub included an obliging Short-toed Treecreeper, male Sardinian Warbler and a surprise Zitting Cisticola which we flushed up from the vegetation as we walked along. Overhead, a lovely mixed flock of Crag Martins with a few House Martins thrown in, migrated north over us. The light was excellent and we could easily see the white windows in the Crag Martin tail feathers. A Little Owl also obliged here, flying up and perching angrily in a dead Poplar tree and glaring back at us over its shoulder. We had made a good start, but now it was time to crack on – to the mountains!

We had a drive north of around two hours to reach the high Pyrenees, and this was punctuated by a break for coffee and lunch near Berga. Pressing on, we began to wind our way towards Coll de Pal where we would be trying for Snowfinch in particular, a notoriously difficult species at this time of year when the snow is receding. Before we left the treeline, a large raptor circled into view ahead of us – it was a stunning adult Lammergeier! Thankfully the road was quiet and we could easily stop, and thankfully the bird did us a favour and circled back right over us.

Lammergeier

Lammergeier – circled over the road on our way up

While watching the Lammergeier, we heard the ‘toy trumpet’ toot of a Citril Finch – wow! We didn’t see the bird, however, and suspect it was flying off when we heard it. There was one more call from it among the pines, where it was clearly associating with a roving flock of Chaffinch, but we werenit lucky with a sighting. A Crested Tit showed really well though, and was a nice addition. In the meantime, the Lammergeier had reappeared and actually landed on the hillside where we could see it mantling something on the ground – great views of this iconic Pyrenean speciality so early in the trip!

Reaching the high ground, the view was stunning – wall to wall blue sky and sunshine, though with a cold wind. Sadly though, this coupled with the general lack of snow this year meant that the chances of Snowfinch were slim. They would be up in the highest peaks already, especially on such a nice day. We explored the area as best we could, but noted only Mistle Thrush and Griffon Vulture for our troubles – it was a beautiful place though! We did do marginally better on mammals too, with a Fox hunting way up on the hillside, and fantastic views of several close groups of Chamois.

Chamois

Chamois – we had great views of several large groups

We wound our way back down to Baga, and then continued north up the main road to our overnight stop in the village of Olopte. Farran our host met us and showed us to our rooms, and we had a swift turnaround before heading back out. A Tengmalm’s Owl was holding territory about 20 minutes drive away, and we knew it had been heard on two of the previous three evenings. We simply had to give it a go, even though we knew the chance was small. The wind dropped and under a starlit sky we listened at several spots along the road but only heard a distant Tawny Owl. So it was back to the restaurant for a pleasant dinner, and then to bed – it had been a long one!

THURSDAY 27TH FEBRUARY

An early morning bonus for two of the group today was a Beech Marten on the feeding table in the semi-darkness – a speciality of the hotel but we had failed to see it last night under the floodlights. Our day kicked off proper after breakfast as we packed up and left Olopte under blue skies and the temperature gauge flashing 0C on the van.

We wound our way back up into the hillside where we had searched last night for the Tengmalm’s, but this morning we had a different target here – Citril Finch. This species is notoriously difficult at this time of year, as it is in transition between wintering and breeding locations and so highly mobile and weather dependent in their habits. Add to that their elusive nature and we knew we would have a task on our hands to get everyone a view of one! Nevertheless it was a stunning morning, and as we parked by a clearing just below a small ski station it was clear that there were lots of small birds out and about in the sunshine.

Chaffinches were moving through the pines in large numbers, and a few Greenfinch and Goldfinch were with them. Crested Tits were calling all around and showed really well, and Common Crossbills were also very numerous and perching up beautifully in the treetops for us. We remarked at how different their calls sounded to our own race, being higher pitched and less ‘chippy’! A real bonus here were a couple of Rock Buntings – we had a fine male perched up in a dead tree and a couple more calling around the clearing. Their high-pitched contact note is very hard to pinpoint, always seeming closer than it is in reality. There were no Citril Finches here though, so we decided to try a bit higher up.

Common Crossbill

Common Crossbill – numerous in the pines around the ski station

The ski stations were busy and there was lots of traffic about, but we managed to find a quiet corner of the next car park area, overlooking an open snowy area flanked by pines. A surprise here was an unfamiliar wheezy call overhead which turned out to be a Rock Sparrow, and we were fortunate that it pitched down and landed in a pine for scope views.

There were lots more finches moving in the trees here, and we remained on high alert for our main quarry. Sure enough, the distinctive ‘toot-toot’ flight call was heard and a Citril Finch flew in low from behind us. Luckily, it landed in the top of a conifer really close to us and gave two or three of the group a good view before it flew again and disappeared over the treetops – a typical view! We persevered, and saw another 2-3 birds flying distantly with the Chaffinches but couldn’t pin them down. We drove back down a little, enjoying more close perched views of Crossbills, Crested Tits and a lovely Short-toed Treecreeper.

Short-toed Treecreeper

Short-toed Treecreeper – a very showy bird in one of the car parks

Our final stop here was again higher up the hillside at another large clearing, and here we finally nailed our main target properly. Citril Finch was calling frequently and we had several frustratingly brief glimpses and flight views. We had almost given up as time was running out, when one began singing in the trees just by our parking spot – it flew into view and perched in the open in a dead tree, giving everyone the scope view they were after. Brilliant!

Citril Finch

Citril Finch – finally we managed to get better views of one perched in a tree

We now had a long drive of around two hours, to descend back down to Manresa and then along the main road towards Lleida. We paused for lunch and coffee at the same spot as yesterday, breaking up the journey to our first afternoon birding spot at Estany D’Ivars. This reed-fringed lagoon added a number of new species to our list, as large numbers of gulls were loafing, and wildfowl on the lake included small numbers of Teal, Shoveler and Red Crested Pochard.

Chiffchaffs were flitting among the reeds and our main target here was easy to find – a lovely pair of Penduline Tits feeding close to the track. Common Snipe, Little and Great Crested Grebe and Grey Heron were seen, while several Crag Martins hawking over the far side of the pool harboured Swallow and House Martin too. Other species we saw nearby included many White Storks, a brace of Hoopoe and a couple of small flocks of Common Cranes.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – nice views of a pair in the reeds by the lake

Ten minutes up the road, we wanted to check a spot where there is regularly a wintering flock of Little Bustards. We checked the alfalfa fields carefully, noting a small flock of Golden Plovers but no sign of our quarry. We made a u-turn and just as we were making our way back along the road, a party of birds exploded from cover and flew high up over the highway – a dozen Little Bustards!

They flew around for a couple of minutes, before dropping in another roadside field where we could see a row of alert heads and necks poking out of a cereal crop! We parked up and put a scope on them, before they flew again. This time though, they decided to come our way, landing in the bare field right next to our parking spot. Amazingly though, they blended straight in and disappeared despite the field not appearing to have anywhere much for them to hide! We did manage some decent scope views though, and we had been very lucky indeed to connect with them.

Little Bustards 1

Little Bustards – flew in and landed in the field next to us

Our final stop of the day was a small gorge and dam at the head of a reservoir, on our route west towards our base for the night near Huesca. We hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle here, but we didn’t have too much time to look. It was a lovely spot, and quite sheltered too from the strengthening winds. A Griffon Vulture was perched on a prospective nesting ledge, and Crag Martins were wheeling around calling. Near the dam, we looked up to see a large raptor gliding over – an adult Bonelli’s Eagle! A fairly brief view, but a good one and again a bit fortunate given our fairly whistle-stop visit.

We were about to get even luckier though, as a flicking motion on the rock face across the river heralded the presence of one of our main trip targets – the much sought-after Wallcreeper! It was a superb spot by Reg, to pick it out with bins so far away, and we were all able to enjoy it through the scopes for several minutes as it flitted around in the open.

Wallcreeper

Wallcreeper – we watched it for several minutes feeding in the open on a rock face

We even squeezed in a Dipper and Common Sandpiper on the river – a superb afternoon! Now we had a final one hour drive west to our accommodation in the village of Arbanies, nestled beneath the foothills of the Sierra de Guarra.

FRIDAY 28TH FEBRUARY

Another beautiful fine day awaited us as we had a more relaxed time after two long days, and explored the key areas fairly close to our base. Vadiello would be our first stop, and the plan here was to try and get some better views of Wallcreeper. This did not materialise, and for the first time ever we drew a blank for the species here.

We spent a couple of hours checking the quarries, tunnels, cliff faces and dam itself, to no avail. Of course, we saw a number of other nice birds in the process though, particularly Griffon Vultures which were abundant, and giving some excellent views throughout the morning. We had point blank views of a singing Firecrest, brief views of a couple of Rock Sparrows, several Black Redstarts, two more Rock Buntings, Peregrine and large numbers of Crag Martins too.

Late morning we headed back towards the main road and after stops for fuel and coffee, and adding our first migrating flock of Black Kites, we headed for Castillo de Montearagon just north-east of Huesca. This location is a great place to see Black Wheatear, and was our main reason for visiting. Griffon Vultures were again pouring overhead, probably on migration, and a scattering of Black Kites were with them. Best of all though was a fantastic migration of Common Cranes, and we saw several large flocks totalling up to one thousand birds – it was a really brilliant sight and sound and a highlight of the day.

Up at the castle, we then located a nice male Black Wheatear and had some lovely prolonged scope views of it sallying around on the ledges below us. A male Blue Rock Thrush was also present, and several Black Redstarts were around too. We decided this was a very pleasant spot to sit and have lunch, in the company of several singing Thekla Larks – all in all, not a bad morning.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – showed very well while we were eating our lunch

For the afternoon, we headed to a new site for us, about forty minutes to the east. The medieval town of Alquezar is a stunning place, with immaculate cobbled streets and an impressive Castillo, overlooking a rocky gorge and with spectacular views back to the south. We had been told of wintering Alpine Accentors here, though unfortunately we couldn’t find any today – most likely they had already left for the high tops given the incredibly mild weather.

It was really birdy around the village though, and in particular the ivy-clad rocks around the Castillo were absolutely thronged with Song Thrushes and Blackcaps. The latter were all sub-singing creating a constant backdrop of sound – there must have been hundreds of them around the village as a whole. Blue Rock Thrush was also easily seen, and Griffon Vultures were just spectacular – the eye level views of them passing by were quite something.

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture – eye level views around the castillo

Two Lammergeiers were seen, including an adult low overhead, and a male Hawfinch was hopping around in the open below the viewpoint. We also saw a Wallcreeper here – initially in flight coming across the gorge, we then had several glimpses of it through the scope over the next hour or so, but it kept disappearing frustratingly into a cleft which we couldn’t see into. Nevertheless, everyone saw it quite well despite the distance, and it was good to see another one! That rounded off our day, as we aimed to get back to the accommodation a bit earlier after the exertions of the last two days.

SATURDAY 29TH FEBRUARY

A challenging day today as a combination of dreary weather and some challenging birds meant we were not in for an easy ride! We journeyed north towards the High Pyrenees above Jaca, but first we turned south from the town towards the mountain of Oroel, and wound our way uphill towards the turning up to the parador. A short roadside stop produced good views of our first Cirl Buntings of the trip, keeping company with a single Rock Bunting.

Continuing up higher, we reached the forest on the northern slopes of Oroel where we hoped to find Black Woodpecker among the pines. It was quite busy here with walkers, with it being a Saturday, and also completely snow-free. We wandered through the pines to the east of the parking area, and were soon hearing Crested Tit, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper among the trees.

Our tactic was to walk quietly along and listen for the calls of Black Woodpecker, and we didn’t have to wait too long before we heard a fairly distant flight call of one further down the track ahead. We headed there and listened for more calls, hearing the full call then from a bit further up the slope. This game of cat and mouse continued for a while, until we gave up and started heading back towards the parking area.

However, we were stopped in our tracks by another Black Woodpecker calling really close to the path, and the bird then flew out and low over the treetops below us giving a really nice view. We then listened to the bird drumming and calling from an area of dense trees up a gulley, and managed a few more glimpses of it in flight.

With this target in the bag, we descended again to Jaca, and then took the road north to the ski stations on the French border at Astun and Candanchu. The snow levels were incredibly low, the least amount we have ever seen here, but because the upper slopes were open for skiing, the area was extremely busy. It was also now raining – not a great combination! We sheltered in the car for lunch and then as the rain eased, we had a wander round.

About eleven Alpine Choughs were seen in total, including some close views of a pair perched on a low roof. Wanting to escape the crowds, we jumped back in the van and drove down to Candanchu, which was much quieter. There were around 50 Alpine Choughs here too, so we were very happy with the views we had of this species. Unfortunately though, the lack of snow and mild weather meant there were no Alpine Accentors to be found at either site today.

Alpine Chough

Alpine Chough – good views around the ski station at Candanchu

From here we had another ninety minute drive, south to Los Mallos de Riglos to end the afternoon. Here we walked up through the narrow streets to scan the impressive sandstone cliffs and check the slopes below for another slim chance of Accentors. We didn’t find any, and had to make do with a fine male Blue Rock Thrush, male Sardinian Warbler and a flock of 35 Red-billed Choughs.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – this male showed well at Los Mallos de Riglos

There were lots of Griffon Vultures, a few Black Kites and a small flight of Cranes in the distance too. Not a total failure, and despite the drizzle, another really nice location to visit. From here we had about fifty minutes drive back to base, which was mainly through now fairly heavy rain.

SUNDAY 1ST MARCH

A superb days birding today as we left Casa Oliban and made the ninety minute drive south via Zaragoza to the SEO reserve at El Planeron. The weather is key to success here with the ‘ghost bird’ for which the site is famous, and we were really lucky with light winds at the start of the day and plenty of sunshine meaning the air was bursting with lark song as we arrived in the steppes.

Calandra and Lesser Short-toed Larks would be everywhere for the rest of the morning, and we had superb views of both species. But it was Dupont’s Lark that we were really after here, and we didn’t have to wait long before we heard our first one signing – such a wonderful, musical tune but ventriloquial and often delivered from the ground, in cover and seldom in the open.

Our first vigil was tense and despite hearing at least three different birds in one area, we hadn’t managed a sighting. Soon though, we picked up a Dupont’s Lark scurrying furtively among the low shrubs, and then it ran across the track in front of us. We noticed that it seemed to be carrying food, and we soon worked out what was going on – the bird had a nest nearby. We stood quietly and waited, and it repeated the same route two or three times more, and we were all able to get some superb scope views as it stopped frequently to grub around in the base of the small bushes.

Dupont's Lark 1

Dupont’s Lark – great views, collecting food at El Planeron

We also had another bird in full song flight high above the steppe, before plummeting down vertically back into cover. We had done really well! El Planeron is not just about Dupont’s though, it is also an excellent birding site in general – we saw Iberian Grey Shrikes, a gorgeous adult male Hen Harrier, a Golden Eagle adult right overhead and a couple of passage Cranes. Not a bad morning!

After a coffee stop in Quinto, we continued on into Los Monegros steppes to have a search for the Great Bustard flock that is in the area. Lunch was at Laguna la Playa, a big salt lagoon, where we added seventeen Little Stints, five Dunlin and eight Kentish Plovers. Forty Shelduck were also present here and we noted a sprinkling of Red-billed Choughs in the steppe around.

Back onto the bustard trail after lunch and we were really, really lucky today – a flock of ten Great Bustards found us as they flew in and landed in the field alongside our van! Finding a good spot a few hundred metres back, we parked and carefully got out to scope them – brilliant views of this batchelor group of young males.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – great views of a bachelor group at Los Monegros

Exploring a little further along some farm tracks, we also found a few Black-bellied Sandgrouse, though they were all extremely nervous and flighty and our best views were from inside the vehicle. Another Hen Harrier, a ringtail this time, was quartering low over the steppe and the whole area was full of larks of various species.

With the bustards in the bag, we decided to head back towards our accommodation and check the steppe near Belchite on the way to see if we could find more sandgrouse. En route, we had simply fabulous views of a young Golden Eagle, hunting some low hills right beside the road.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle – hunting the low hills beside the road

Onto the agricultural steppe, and despite the strengthening winds, we first found some more flighty Black-bellied Sandgrouse and then an obliging pair of Stone Curlews crouching at a field edge. Our day was rounded off spectacularly though by at least sixty Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, which were more settled and allowed us to enjoy both scope views from afar, and some lovely close views from the van. It was wonderful to watch them wheeling around like bejewled Golden Plovers, and to hear their fantastic calls. It was the perfect end to a really productive day.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – great views of a flock of around 60 to finish the day

MONDAY 2ND MARCH

It was a very stormy night in Lecera as gale force winds and heavy rain swept through in the early hours, meaning it was very grim when we met up at 0730 for breakfast. By the time we were ready to load up and head off though, it had cleared quite a bit and despite the continuing strong winds and showers, it had brightened up.

We made the ninety minute drive east to Candasnos, and then on towards Fraga, where we made a stop for coffee and toilets and to check a spot where Lesser Kestrels breed and could already be arriving. We didn’t see any, but instead we were treated to fantastic views of 7 Egyptian Vultures grounded by the weather and sitting in a field right beside the track. Careful positioning of the van meant we could all get some great views and photos of these newly arrived migrants.

Egyptian Vultures

Egyptian Vulture – great views of several grounded migrants this morning

Kicking on east, our next stop was in Lleida steppes at a site for Eagle Owl. The wind was absolutely howling but we managed to find a little shelter and soon we were scoping an adult Eagle Owl roosting inside a bush up on the cliffs opposite. At first we could only see the birds streaked chest, but by taking a track a bit closer, we were eventually able to see its ear tufts and deep orange eyes as it squinted down at us from its lofty hiding place. A bonus was also seen in the form of a young Goshawk, which flew over us mobbed by a Raven.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl – staring at us from its hiding place

For lunch, we continued on into an area of agricultural steppe dotted with peach and olive groves and checked some fields there for another wintering flock of Little Bustards. 110 birds had been seen in recent days, but initially we couldn’t see any at all as we sheltered in van for lunch.

A quick check a bit further down the track though and all of a sudden a row of 70 heads popped up in a thickly vegetated field – Little Bustards! We managed to negotiate another track and get fairly close to them by using the van as a mobile hide. Nice to see a larger flock and get slightly closer views than previously.

Little Bustards 2

Little Bustards – some of a flock of 70+ hiding from the wind in the fields

From here we had a further eighty minutes to run through to Barcelona, where after a quick stop to top up the fuel, we had about fifteen minutes left to check the beach near Llobregat. Due to the strong winds, the beach was deserted – this certainly did us a big favour as immediately on arrival we saw three gorgeous Audouin’s Gulls which flew in over us and landed on the shore. Several Mediterranean Gulls were also seen and our last trip bird was a Gannet battling through the waves into the strong winds.

Audouin's Gull

Audouin’s Gull – three flew in and landed on the beach

We arrived at the airport around 4pm, only to discover our flight back to London was almost three hours delayed. Not the end to the trip we wanted, as many of us had to arrange an extra night in London due to the late arrival. Still, it had been a successful trip and despite the weather on our last day, we had managed to finish off with some really good sightings.

31st Jan-4th Feb 2020 – Extremadura in Winter

A five day International Tour to Extremadura, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. An annual destination for us, this year we did the winter version of the tour again. If you like what you see, you are welcome to join us for our next visit, in Spring 2021!

FRIDAY 31ST JANUARY

Our 06.45 flight from London Stansted arrived into Madrid a few minutes early, and with typical Spanish efficiency, our bags were there waiting for us when we cleared passport control. It didn’t take too long before we picked up our rental minibus and got underway, on the long drive down to Extremadura.

The sun was out now in the capital and as we made our way out through the suburbs a small kettle of White Storks was circling over the motorway, possibly early migrants on their way north. We also encountered several groups of Common Magpies, up to ten at a time, flying over. A common bird here, but there were so many we wondered whether they might be on their way somewhere rather than just local birds. Out into the countryside, and we started to see numerous Red Kites and more White Storks, with several on their untidy nests on buildings and pylons by the road, as well as our first Iberian Grey Shrikes on the wires.

We could see the edge of the cloud ahead of us and we didn’t get far into our journey before we drove into it. From then on, it was rather grey, misty, with patches of drizzle. When we stopped for lunch at the services beyond Talavera, it had stopped raining and the weather looked to be brightening up a bit. A Crested Lark was running around on the tarmac in the car park and a Common Buzzard perched on a nearby pylon.

After lunch, we drove back into the cloud and rain for a while, but then as it started to clear again we spotted our first Common Cranes. A couple of the group saw three one side of the road first, in the open dehesa woodland, and then we drove past a larger flock of about twenty or so on the other side, in between the trees, which everyone was able to get onto.

We turned off the motorway to Saucedilla and parked by the Visitor Centre for the Embalse de Almaraz-Arrocampo nature reserve, which was closed. Three Barn Swallows flew over – we would see a lot this trip, with birds seeming returning early in numbers this year, this far south. A White Wagtail was walking round on the short grass.

As we walked down to the first hide, a large mixed flock of finches flew up from the rough ground. There were well over 100 birds, including a good number of Linnets but up to half were European Serins. We got some in the scope, feeding on the ground, then flying up onto the fence and perching in the trees over by the Visitor Centre, the males with their bright yellow breasts. A couple of Western Marsh Harriers came up, patrolling over the reeds, and beyond we spotted a smaller raptor hovering in the distance. It was a Black-winged Kite, so we got it in the scope for a closer look. The weather seemed to warm up a little, and three Griffon Vultures circled up and drifted over.

From down by Hide 1, we could hear Penduline Tits calling and looked across to see a pair perched in the tops and picking at the seedheads of the bulrushes. We got them in the scope, but unfortunately they dropped down again before everyone could see them. A couple of Kingfishers were calling, and zipping back and forth low over the water, but wouldn’t perch out in the open. A lone Glossy Ibis flew up from the back of the sedge beds and dropped down to the fields beyond, out of view. A flock of Cattle Egrets flew across further back, off around the other side of the reserve.

White Stork

White Stork – a pair on their untidy nest platform

As we walked on down the track beyond the hide, we could see several pairs of White Storks on nests, one of which was quite close. The birds flew off as we walked past, dropping down to the fields nearby, but a little later, the pair flew back in behind us, and we could hear their bill clapping display as they greeted each other.

There were several Chiffchaffs in the sedges, flitting around flycatching, and a couple of Sardinian Warblers which were typically more skulking. A Hoopoe landed briefly in a tree, before flying off over the fields, and a Starling perched in the brambles nearby was of the common, spotted variety which occurs here in winter. A Green Sandpiper flew overhead calling. We heard the grating calls of one or two Western Purple Swamphens, and a couple of times one flew up out of the reeds, but quickly dropped back down again. There was no further sign of the Penduline Tits, unfortunately. Walking back round past Hide 1, we checked out the sedges in front of the hide again. A smart male Spanish Sparrow was perched in the brambles in a group of females, so we had a look at it in the scope.

Driving through the village, two Spotless Starlings were on the wires, our first confirmed ones of the trip. We made our way round to the hides on the other side of the reservoir, and stopped by Hide 5. There was not much on the pool here today, just a few Mallard. Several more Barn Swallows were hawking for insects low over the water. A Common Sandpiper came up from the smaller pool on the other side of the road, and landed on the muddy edge at the back where it fed along the shore with a Grey Wagtail. A Black-winged Kite flew out of the trees and away over the road, but a little later, one of the group spotted the same or another Black-winged Kite perched in the trees at the back beyond the water. Another Hoopoe flew over our heads and several White Wagtails and a small flock of Skylarks was feeding out in the grassy field.

Carrying on down the road, we couldn’t find the flock of Cattle Egrets we had seen earlier from round on this side now. We still had a bit of travelling to get to the hotel, so we decided it was time to be heading back. Before we got back to the village, we stopped to scan another large area of sedges and noticed yet another Black-winged Kite hovering over the fields beyond. It landed on a tree down along a side track, so we set off after it, but we got distracted on the way by an Iberian Grey Shrike on the fence alongside us. We stopped to watch it, dropping down to the ground and back up to another fence post further along each time.

Black-winged Kite

Black-winged Kite – one of several we saw at Saucedilla

The Black-winged Kite was now off again, and we drove down to where it was hovering, but it flew off over the fields when we pulled up. We had a quick look at the southern arm of the reservoir on our way back to the motorway. There were lots of Cormorants out on the concrete wall in the middle of the water, but not much else.

All things considered, we had been very lucky with the weather – we quickly drove into patches of misty low cloud and drizzle again on the journey south on the motorway. Three more Common Cranes flew over the road ahead of us, heading off to roost. We got to our hotel and checked in. Then after a short break to get settled in, we enjoyed a welcome drink with a selection of local cheeses, salami and chorizo, followed by a delicious traditional meal.

SATURDAY 1ST FEBRUARY

It looked foggy and damp outside when we met for breakfast, but the fog had lifted by the time we met at the minibus and although it was still very cloudy the light was beginning to improve as the sun started to come up. One or two Corn Buntings were singing as we set off and a Hoopoe perched on the wires by the access road. We drove through Trujillo and out along the Santa Marta road. Parking by a small reservoir, as we got out of the minibus, an Iberian Grey Shrike was perched on the bushes in front of us. We were surrounded with bird song – larks and Corn Buntings. A pair of Thekla Larks was feeding around the rocks down in the grass below us.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – one of a pair first thing this morning

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows, several hundred strong kept flying round and landing in the trees on the slope behind us. A Rock Sparrow landed briefly on the fence in front of us but flew off before everyone could get onto it. A large group of Iberian Magpies came out of the trees on the other side of the road, and landed down on the short grass where we could get a look at them through the scope.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we found some huge flocks out on the plains

Moving on a little further along the road, we drove down a drovers track which heads out across the plains. When we stopped again and got out, Calandra Larks were singing all around us and we could see their black underwings with broad white trailing edges as they flew round past us. Several Golden Plover were feeding out on the short grass, with the numerous Lapwings. Two pairs of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew up separately, crossing the track further up, but both landed out of view behind a ridge.

A small group of Great Bustards flying across in the distance only broke the skyline briefly and disappeared behind a ridge too before anyone could get onto them. We drove a bit further up the track to see if we could find where they might have landed, but there was no further sign. We did find a Merlin perched very distantly on a rock across the plains. And as we turned to come back and stopped again, we found a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse on the ground up on a ridge which this time lingered so we could get them in the scope.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Black-bellied Sandgrouse – we had a good look at a pair, up on the ridge

We hoped the bustards might have gone over the hill to where we had stopped earlier, so we drove back round there for our morning coffee stop. There was no sign of them here either, but there were several Rock Sparrows now, feeding with the Spanish Sparrows down in the grass. A Black Redstart perched on the fence.

After coffee, we drove on through Santa Marta and stopped just beyond the bridge over the Rio Magasca. Several Crag Martins were flying round over the hillside and we managed to see a Woodlark which was singing over the trees on the ridge, before it dropped down out of view. One or two Serins were singing too. Walking down across the bridge, a Black Redstart flicked up on the rocks the other side. Several Long-tailed Tits were calling in the trees and a couple flew across right past us, very dusky birds of the distinctive local race irbii.

We followed the path down to the river, where loads of Chiffchaffs were flitting around, flycatching in the bushes along the bank, along with a single Blackcap. A Kingfisher called as it flew off up the river and a Grey Wagtail was feeding on the rocks out in the middle, where a Spanish Terrapin was resting too before it dropped into the water. A Small Heath which flew up from the grass was our first butterfly of the trip.

Back to the minibus, we drove on to the junction with the Monroy road and stopped again to scan the plains. It was starting to warm up now and lots of white butterflies were fluttering round the grass but wouldn’t land. A large kettle of vultures was circling up away to the west and out across the plains, a single Black Vulture was out on the ground in the distance, stretching its wings.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – flew up singing as it warmed up

Further along, we stopped again. The Calandra Larks were out in force now and singing all around us, with two males chasing each other round overhead. Scanning the fields the other side, we found a small group of six Pin-tailed Sandgrouse down in the short grass, then as we looked further across we saw loads more. In the end we counted at least sixty! We walked over to the other side of the road for a closer look through the scope.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – part of a flock of 60 we found in a field

Walking back to where we had parked the minibus, we had to pick our way round all the caterpillars in webs in the grass. One of the group had gone ahead, and shouted as he got to the bus. Four Great Bustards flew across out over the fields beyond and landed on the short grass. We had a good view of them in the scope – great for everyone finally to catch up with some bustards, iconic birds of the Extremaduran plains.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – three of the four we found at our lunch stop

After lunch, we carried on further down the road, and stopped for a quick look at a Little Owl on a wall out in the middle of a field. Another two Little Owls were on the top of a ruined barn in the distance the other side.

There had been a Sociable Lapwing not far away seen several times in recent weeks, but we were not sure whether it had been seen in the last week. We had managed to get hold of the co-ordinates for where it had been seen, so we drove over to see if we could find it. As we drove down a rather rough track, it suddenly seemed to get very busy (rush hour on the plains!). We were overtaken twice, and when we stopped at the right spot several more trucks came bouncing past. All the regular Northern Lapwings which had been out on the grass near to the track flushed and several groups flew off, although we couldn’t see the Sociable Lapwing with them.

Some fodder had been spread across the grass, and a few Corn Buntings and two Rock Sparrows were feeding in the straw. Some of the Lapwings started to drop back in and scanning carefully across the grass further back, we found the Sociable Lapwing, smaller and browner than the regular Lapwings and with a striking pale supercilium. Sociable Lapwings breed across the Central Asian steppes and winter mainly in East Africa, the Middle East and into Pakistan and NW India. It is principally a rare vagrant to Western Europe but one or two appear most winters in Iberia and it is thought that this may be a regular wintering location for very limited numbers. The species is listed as Critically Endangered as its population has undergone a very rapid decline in recent years, so it is a great bird to be able to see.

Sociable Lapwing

Sociable Lapwing – we managed to catch up with this wintering bird

Making our way back west, towards Monroy we stopped abruptly as a raptor drifted high over the road, a Spanish Imperial Eagle. We all piled out and got it in the scope as it circled up, eventually drifted away to south. A welcome bonus, as this is not a site where we often see them. Further on, three Griffon Vultures were loafing on the pylons by the road, so we stopped again for a closer look.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 1

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled over the road this afternoon

Beyond Monroy, there were lots of Common Cranes in the dehesa by the road. We got out very carefully and had a good look at a large group before something eventually spooked them. Several hundred took off from where we couldn’t see them and landed further back out of view in the trees, and more were still bugling further on. We stopped again a couple of hundred metres down the road, were two very obliging Cranes were standing in a field of yellow flowers.

Crane 1

Common Crane – we found hundreds in the dehesa this afternoon

Driving down towards Caceres, we were taken aback at the enormous scale of the new solar farms being built out in the middle of the countryside. What will the ecological impact of all this construction be?

Dropping down towards the Rio Almonte, we stopped just beyond the bridge. Lots of Crag Martins and House Martins were circling overhead and flying down to prospect their nest sites under the bridge. As we walked down the track towards the river, a female Blue Rock Thrush was on the rocks below us, but flew low across the water and disappeared on the bank the other side. We were just scanning to see if we could find it again, when one of the group found a Black Wheatear along the far bank, low down on the rocks. We had a good view of it in the scope, jet black with a striking white base to the tail. A second Black Wheatear on the near bank, further up, was a sooty brown female. A smart male Black Redstart appeared briefly on the rocks closer to the road bridge.

Time was getting on now, and we still wanted to make one last stop. As we drove out along the minor road onto the plains, there were lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the fields. A small pool beside the road held a surprising selection of ducks – two Shoveler and six Gadwall, along with several expected Mallards. A Raven was perched on the top of a pylon and as we stopped and got out, we realised there were Red Kites everywhere, flying round, and perched on pylons and fence posts all around us.

A Great Bustard came up from the crop field, away on one side of the road, quickly followed by two more. They flew across the road and dropped down onto the plain in the distance. More and more followed, in ones and twos, until we eventually counted 24 Great Bustards which all flew across the road. We drove further up to see if we could see where they had landed, flushing loads of Corn Buntings and Meadow Pipits from the fences as we passed. We could see two Great Bustards distantly out on the grass, but the light was fading fast now. Another delicious dinner awaited us back at the hotel.

SUNDAY 2ND FEBRUARY

The regular flock of Iberian Magpies was by the parking area first thing, as we packed up the minibus, before flying down to the paddocks across the road. A Blackcap was in the bushes nearby. As we drove down to the main road, an Iberian Grey Shrike was on the top of a telegraph post and a Hoopoe flew in and landed on the wires next to it.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a post by the road

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – flew in and landed on the wires by the shrike

Again, there were quite a few Barn Swallows on our drive south, on wires in the villages and flying round. A pair of House Martins were already prospecting nests in Zorita village. A little further on, we pulled up alongside a pool by the road, where a Great White Egret was fishing. Two Black-winged Stilts were on the far edge of the water too.

Our first destination for the day was the reservoir at Alcollarin, and we pulled up by the dam to scan from here first. There was huge numbers of  ducks out on the water, the thousands of Northern Shoveler being particularly impressive, along with hundreds of Wigeon and Teal. Looking more closely through the vast throngs, we found a few Gadwall, a couple of pairs of Pintail and a single lone Tufted Duck too. Two pairs of Egyptian Geese were on the far shore.

There were lots of grebes as well, particularly Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes, but also quite a few Black-necked Grebes out in the middle. Mostly the latter were in black and white winter plumage, but a couple were already coming into breeding dress, with black necks and golden ear-tufts. A very distant Spoonbill and Black Stork could be made out at the far end, and the size difference between a Great White Egret and a Little Egret could be appreciated even at that distance. A Kingfisher landed on a dead stump on the water’s edge at the back, where it shone in the morning sunshine. A Sardinian Warbler flew across into the olive trees by the parking area. When a large group of noisy cyclists came over the dam towards us, we decided to move on.

As we drove down the track on the hillside east side of the reservoir, we stopped again to scan. We could see there were more Spoonbills than we had been able to make out earlier, at least five together now, busy sifting in the shallow water. Lots of White Storks were standing out on the short grass and the Black Stork was nearby, to compare. A Woodlark was singing over the hillside behind. As the mob of cyclists came down the track, everything took off and flew back towards the main reservoir out of view.

The first Red Kite of the day circled up over the hills beyond, and we looked over to see two Ravens mobbing a pale raptor on a rock, just as it dropped off and disappeared behind, out of view. Our first impression was Booted Eagle, but they are mainly summer visitors here. We continued on to the picnic area by the smaller pool further down and walked out onto the platform by the small dam. Scanning the hillside, it wasn’t too long before the pale adult Booted Eagle reappeared, a very scarce bird here in the winter. It circled up with the Red Kite, which was bigger than it in size – Booted is a rather small eagle.

A small group of Common Pochard were swimming around at the back of the pool. Several White Storks were on nest platforms in the trees, and when one flew in, we could hear the pair bill clapping. A Kingfisher perched up in the reeds by the channel downstream of the dam, then came and landed much closer, where we could finally get a good view of it in the scope, a Zitting Cisticola was flitting around down in the rushes and a Crested Lark was singing from a small rock nearby. Two Common Waxbills flew in and landed briefly in the reeds close to where we were standing and a Great White Egret flew up and landed on the dam.

As we walked further up the track, up the valley beyond the picnic area, we found a couple of Dunnocks in the trees, plus a Robin, a few tits and several Chaffinches singing. With the air starting to warm in the sunshine, more raptors were starting to circle up. Three Marsh Harriers appeared over the pool and a young male started displaying, twisting and swooping like a roller coaster. The female lower down didn’t seem particularly impressed. Two very distant Black Vultures were over the higher hills beyond.

Then two Bonelli’s Eagles circled up over the trees beyond the pool. One of the Marsh Harriers circled up with them, and started to mob them, swooping down at them from above – we could see how much smaller it was than the eagles. As the Bonelli’s Eagles circled, we could see the white patch on their backs. Eventually they gained height and drifted back over the hillside. We headed back to the minibus for coffee.

Bonelli's Eagles

Bonelli’s Eagles – these two were mobbed by a Marsh Harrier

After coffee, we decided to move on. As we drove down the minor road towards Campo Lugar, we ran into a traffic jam – a flock of sheep being herded along the road towards us! We had to wait while they were chivvied all round and past us.

Traffic jam

Traffic Jam – Extremaduran style!

The other side of village, seven Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over as we turned onto the road over the plain. A Hoopoe flew along ahead of us, and kept landing on the wall by the road. We stopped at the top of the hill to scan the plains. There were lots of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings all around us, but no sign of any bustards.

Our next stop was at the Sierra Brava reservoir. Lots of fishermen were stationed around the shore, despite the ‘no fishing’ signs. There were quite a few ducks way out in the middle – more Shoveler, Wigeon, a pair of Pintail – but less here than at Alcollarin. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes too. We could hear Common Cranes bugling and could see dozens out in the rice fields in the distance below. There were more standing on the grassy hillside beyond the reservoir, with occasional pairs of small groups of birds commuting from one to the other.

It was a beautiful warm day now, with clear air and a great view, so we decided to stop here for lunch. A pair of Sardinian Warblers was flitting around in the bushes below the dam. Several more white butterflies were more obliging here – a couple landed long enough to identify them, Western Dappled Whites.

Sardinian Warbler

Sardinian Warbler – a pair were in the bushes below the dam

After lunch, we carried on towards the rice fields. As we drove through a rocky area, we flushed a Marsh Harrier from the ditch beside the road, presumably off a kill. Six Ravens were waiting patiently nearby for any leftovers. There were lots of Cranes on the grassy hillside next to the road here, so we stopped and got out carefully. They were remarkably obliging, and posed nicely for photographs. Then when we got down into the rice fields, there were hundreds and hundreds of more Cranes all around us, feeding in the wet paddies, with some even more accommodating.

Crane 3

Common Cranes – there were hundreds out in the ricefields

Crane 2

Common Crane – stunning views today

As we stopped and got out, a few small groups of wild Greylag Geese flew up out of the fields. A flock of small finches flew past, disappearing round behind a bank where they appeared to land. We walked down the road and looked back to see them bathing in the reeds on the edge of one of the paddies, a group of Red Avadavats. Originally from India, there is now a well-established feral population in Spain. A single Green Sandpiper was feeding further along the edge, in the water amongst the clods of earth.

We were just getting back into the minibus when a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared. Everyone got out again remarkably quickly (and without anyone getting trampled in the rush!) and we watched it working its way low over the weedy banks around the edge of the fields.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting the margins of the ricefields

At our second attempt, we drove on, stopping again briefly as a Cattle Egret flew past and landed down in the wet paddy close by.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – the first of many in the rice fields

A few hundred metres further we had another unscheduled stop as one of the group spotted something large and brown move in the tall dead cut rice right next to the road. We couldn’t see it and it was obviously hiding in the vegetation, so we started to get out and that was enough to put it up. A Great Bittern! It flew up and crashed down again a few metres further back, back down into the dead rice stems. After a minute or so, a bill appeared, pointing upwards and through the scope we could see its head and eye, presumably watching us. It turned, and we could see the black stripes down the front of its neck.

Bittern

Bittern – hiding in the dead cut rice

While we were watching the Bittern, we heard a churring call behind us, from the weeds along the ditch by the road. As we walked down the road towards it, a Dartford Warbler flicked out. We have seen them here before in the winter, presumably coming down out of the hills at this time of year. What a great place to stop!

Further along, we parked again by a track between the rice fields. As we got out, we caught a flash of a red tail as a bird flew from the muddy field margin into the inner edge of the roadside ditch further down, a Bluethroat. We got it in the scope briefly as it came out onto the edge again, a male with a flash of blue, but it immediately disappeared back into the ditch. Despite scanning for a couple of minutes, it didn’t appear again so we tried walking down beside the ditch, but drew a blank.

We thought we would try from the road side,  but as we walked round we flushed another Bluethroat from the ditch on the other side of the road, this time a female. Again, it was elusive, and we followed it down along the bank between two fields and eventually got it in the scope briefly, when it flew across to the far edge. But again, it dropped down into the cut rice before everyone could get a look. Several Common Snipe flew up out of the wet field.

Back at the minibus, what looked like the original Bluethroat was back out on the muddy edge, but when we got it in the scope, it was a female there now. It kept flitting back into the ditch vegetation, but with a bit of patience, everyone eventually got a look as came out onto the open grassy mud. We had already seen several Bluethroats, which was our main target here, but we had a quick walk down the track now anyway. Two more Bluethroats flicked along the ditch ahead of us, along with lots of Chiffchaffs, a couple of Zitting Cisticolas, a Cetti’s Warbler, and another little group of Red Avadavats. Another very productive spot!

With all the diversions, we stayed here later than planned. We wouldn’t have much time there, but we decided to have a quick run round to the south end of the Sierra de Villuercas. On the way, another Black Stork flew across the road and we passed a small group of Red Deer out on an area of open grass between the trees. It was a beautiful view from the pass at the top, but the light had gone from the trees the other side, and all was quiet here.

As we drove back down a bit, several Crag Martins were hawking over the hillside and an Iberian Green Woodpecker dropped down over the road ahead of us and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Previously considered a race of Green Woodpecker, this is now considered to be a full species in its own right. We parked in a small lay-by in the trees, where a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly was fluttering around the information board. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew over the road. We heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call in the trees, but it wouldn’t show itself, then we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker a little further along, and could still hear it tapping on a tree somewhere but hidden from view. A Nuthatch was more obliging, perched in the top of a tree. Unfortunately we ran out of time here, and had to head back now to be in time for dinner.

MONDAY 3RD FEBRUARY

It was a lovely bright start up in the foothills, but we could see mist lingering in the valleys in the distance this morning. We still had not managed to catch up with Little Bustard so we headed over to Santa Marta again, thinking we would be high enough there to be out of the mist. Just as we got out of the trees onto the edge of plains, we drove into thick fog. We waited a few minutes, but it was obviously not going to clear any time soon, so we decided to try something else and when we got over to Belen, the plains were surprisingly clear, with beautiful blue sky and sunshine!

We stopped at the start of the plains to scan, with a couple of Crested Larks, one Thekla Lark and four Woodlarks all visible from our viewpoint. Scanning across we first found a very distant Merlin on a low rock and then a drove of eleven Great Bustards some way off feeding in amongst the cows. As we set off again, we spotted the bustards flying, across the road, before they disappeared away behind us.

As we drove across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. There was not much of note at first, but when we came over a crest we noticed several vultures out in a field so we stopped for a closer look. As we got out of the minibus, we realised there were three Great Bustards out on the plain the other side. We watched them for a while, as they walked along feeding, before they disappeared over the ridge beyond.

Great Bustard

Great Bustard – we had great views of three out on the plains

Turning our attention back to the vultures, we could see three Black Vultures in with about ten Griffons, waiting to warm up before taking to the air, spreading their wings. Scanning back over the other side, we then found a single adult Egyptian Vulture distantly on the grass to complete the set. Being largely white, it stood out in the morning sun, and we could see its bare yellow face in the scope. There were Calandra Larks and Corn Buntings singing all around too.

From the far end of the plains, we drove across to the Torrejon road. On the way, we passed a couple of Great White Egrets on the small pools. Stopping at one pond, the bank at the back was covered in Spanish Terrapins and a Green Sandpiper was on another pool the other side. We were heading for the national park at Monfrague, but we could see cloud hugging the ridge as we drove up past Torrejon. It didn’t look promising and when we got to the turn for the Castillo, we couldn’t even see the castle itself up on the ridge. We decided to go on to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano for coffee.

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture – showed very well low down at Salto del Gitano

There were several Crag Martins swooping round the rocks as we got out. Loads of Griffon Vultures were circling up over the rock face opposite, up into the clouds. Lots were standing on the rocks too, with several hunkered down on nests already, which we got in the scope. Some were flying round much lower, and one or two came past at eye level or below, giving us a great view. One landed on the rocks just below us, coming in to collect nest material from the bushes. We watched it breaking off branches before launching itself off again with a bill filled with vegetation.

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vulture – several were on the rocks

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture – some were collecting nest material

When we could take our attention off the great show from the vultures, we noticed a smart male Black Redstart feeding below the trees just below the viewpoint boardwalk.

Black Redstart

Black Redstart – a smart male just below the viewpoint

A little further along, another male Black Redstart was singing from the top of a large rocky outcrop, and then a Blue Rock Thrush appeared nearby. A smart blue male, we had a great view in the scope.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – showed very well on the top of a rocky crag

There were several Blackcaps, Song Thrushes and tits in the trees and we could hear Hawfinches calling here too. They were very hard to see at first, feeding on the wild olives, but eventually they became a little more obliging – a female perched up for ages in the top of a tree close to us, and then we watched two males and another female feeding lower down.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – we had great views of several in the olive trees

The weather looked rather ominously grey the other side of the pass, very different from the sunshine to the south, but we decided to drive on through the national park to the far end. It was actually not too bad, and although it was cloudy and a bit misty, the visibility at ground level was OK. We parked in the lay-by at Portilla del Tietar and took our packed lunches down to the viewpoint.

At first it was rather quiet here. There were a few Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees as we walked down, and we could hear more birds in the trees further along from the viewpoint, including a Short-toed Treecreeper singing but we couldn’t see it. There were lots more Griffon Vultures circling here, up into the cloud, along with two or three Black Vultures, possibly trying unsuccessfully to find thermals. Occasionally a vulture would pass in front of the rocks lower down, and we had a better view of one Black Vulture as it did so.

With all the cloud, we thought we might struggle to see the Spanish Imperial Eagles here today, but we didn’t have to wait too long before one came in high over the rock face. It started to circle with a large group of Griffon Vultures which were gathered slightly further downstream, and we managed to get it in the scope, as it slowly drifted further away with them. It was better than nothing given the weather.

Then someone spotted an Otter in the water below the hide, so everyone gathered to watch that. It would dive for long periods but kept resurfacing, when the ripples gave away its new location.

Otter

Otter – in the river at Portilla del Tietar

We were still distracted when we heard an eagle calling over the hillside behind us. We couldn’t see it through the trees as it came in fast, but as it dropped over the water towards the rock face we could see it was a Spanish Imperial Eagle again. It folded its wings back and swooped down, skimming low over the top of the rocks opposite, before swooping up sharply, calling, a great view. It looked almost like it might land, but then a second eagle appeared over the trees beyond, and the two of them circled up together for several minutes, before first one then the other flew off over the hillside.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 2

Spanish Imperial Eagle – the pair put on a great display

We had one last look at the Otter, then had to tear ourselves away. The weather finally looked to be brightening up, and we were starting to see the tops of the ridges back into the park. A Hummingbird Hawkmoth was feeding round the flowers back by the lay-by. As we drove back through the park, we had a quick stop to look at a Red Deer feeding on the short grass by the road.

When we got back to the village, now bathed in sunshine, we had a quick stop to use facilities. We could see the Castillo now, up on the ridge, so we drove up the road and parked at the top. There were one or two Hawfinches calling in the trees and as we walked slowly up the path, a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers appeared in the trees.

Up at the Castillo, there was a fantastic view now that the cloud had cleared. A couple of large kettles of vultures were circling to the north of the ridge, mostly Griffons but with a small number of Black Vultures mixed in with them. Occasionally a Griffon Vulture would come along the ridge, straight past us, at eye level, just overhead, or even below us. Great views.

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – more great views up at the Castillo, when the sun came out

One of the group up in the top of the tower spotted a group of Cranes coming in, thirteen of them, and we watched as they circled up south of the ridge, calling. A Peregrine appeared in with the vultures over the pass, then folded its wings and swept down behind the rocks. Again, we had to tear ourselves away. It was great that the weather had cleared so we could make it up here, as it would have been a terrible shame to miss out on the experience.

As we still hadn’t seen a Little Bustard, we decided to make our way back and have one last go. As we drove out across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. We found a small group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse feeding out on the grass, but no sign of any bustards at first.

Then as we came over a rise, a large flock of Spotless Starlings came up from the short grass by the road ahead of us. Something white took off too – a Little Bustard! We watched from the minibus as it flew across the road and out over the grass the other side, eventually landing on a ridge in the distance. Typically, having not seen another vehicle for ages, a truck came along at that very moment, and we had to pull off the narrow road. By the time we had got out and managed to get the Little Bustard in the scope it was disappearing over the ridge. We walked back up the road, to the top of the rise, but couldn’t see it again.

Fortunately, as we turned to walk back to the bus a flock of thirty Little Bustards flew up and circled round out over the grass, flashing their white wings. They dropped down again, out of view, but from further on along the road, we could see them. We got them in the scope, feeding busily in the grass.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of thirty we found this afternoon

Once we had enjoyed the Little Bustards, we could take in the beauty of our surroundings. It was bright out on the plains in the late afternoon sun. In the clear air, we could see all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We were surrounded by birdsong, Calandra Larks overhead, and Corn Buntings on the wires. A huge flock of Spotless Starlings was feeding in the grass, constantly whirling up, chattering. Lots of Lapwings were scattered over the fields, and a couple of flocks of Golden Plover were flying round further back. We reflected on how this is what the farmed countryside should be like, full of life. It was a great way to end our last full day.

TUESDAY 4TH FEBRUARY

After our last breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, said our goodbyes and loaded up the minibus. A Hoopoe was in a tree at the back of the paddock opposite, and we got it in the scope. A couple of Serins were chasing each other round through the trees. We hadn’t had a real chance to look round here in daylight hours before, so we had a short walk down the access road before we left.

There were Blackcaps, Chaffinches, and a Robin or two in trees. There were Sardinian Warblers calling in the bushes, and one flew across the road ahead of us. Several Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows were on the roofs of the houses. A flock of Iberian Magpies was feeding down on the short grass a couple of fields over, so we got those in the scope too. Then when they flew up and over the road past us, we decided to walk back. We could hear Hawfinches calling from the trees.

Iberian Magpie

Iberian Magpie – a flock flew past us as we walked down the road

We could see mist again in the lower lying areas from where we were and as we made our way up the motorway, we went in and out of the fog, which was rather thick at times. We turned off and took the old road up over the hills at Casas de Miravete. We stopped at the top of the pass, above the clouds, where the sun was out. A Woodlark was singing overhead and we stopped to listen to its mournful song.

As we walked up the track on the sunny side of the ridge, a pair of Cirl Buntings flew up and landed on the fence ahead of us. There were quite a few Serins here too and we watched a male song flighting over the path, with fast fluttering wingbeats. A lot of the trees have been cleared up here and the peace was now shattered with the song of chainsaws up in the hillside. We figured we wouldn’t see anything else up here (or be able to hear it!) so we walked back down.

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting – we found a pair at the top of Casas de Miravete

The track on the other side looked quieter, so we decided to try our luck down there. This used to be a good place for Crested Tits, but most of the pines have been taken out (although ironically the non-native eucalyptus the other side of the track have been left in place!). A Black Redstart was flicking around at the start of the track and a Jay called and disappeared off ahead of us through the remaining trees. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew off up the slope to the rocks above. We thought we heard a snatch of Crested Tit, but when we stopped to listen, we couldn’t hear anything.

We reached a patch which had been completely clear-felled and decided to turn back. This time we definitely heard a Crested Tit call and got a couple of glimpses of it in the pines, along with a pair of Long-tailed Tits. We followed them and eventually the Crested Tit flew up and landed in the top of a pine tree. We could hear a second one calling further back. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming too, higher up.

Back in the minibus, we came out under the cloud on the other side of the ridge. It was rather grey and misty now, as we made our way up to Saucedilla. As we parked at the Visitor Centre again, a couple of Swallows were on the wires above us. As we walked up the track, two Kingfishers chased down over the channel and away through the trees. Two Little Grebes were in the water on the corner. We could hear Western Purple Swamphen calling, but it was hidden deep in the sedge bed. We scanned the channel in front of Hide 1, but couldn’t see anything along the edges of the vegetation either side, and then as we walked back the Purple Swamphen was now standing in the top of a sedge clump. Unfortunately it saw us coming and started to walk back into cover, but we still had a better look at it before it disappeared in completely.

Continuing down along the track, we stopped again to scan the tops of the bulrushes. A bird was perched in some dead branches which protruded from the reeds – a Wryneck. It was presumably trying to avoid the damp vegetation below, as it stayed where it was for several minutes while we had a good look at it in the scope. A nice bonus as they are not common here in winter!

Wryneck

Wryneck – perched up in the dry

A Water Rail called from deep in the vegetation and we could hear the pair of White Storks bill clapping again, on their nest platform behind us. A Green Sandpiper flew round calling and we stopped to look at an Iberian Grey Shrike perched on some wires. Continuing on past Hide 2, there were several Chiffchaffs flycatching in the bushes and a Zitting Cisticola feeding around the base of the low vegetation beside the path, again presumably trying to avoid the thicker, wetter stuff. A small flock of Common Waxbills shot past calling. First a Little Egret and then a Great White Egret appeared up briefly beyond the reeds.

Zitting Cisticola

Zitting Cisticola – showed well, feeding in the vegetation by the path

We didn’t have time to go much further, so we turned back. A flock of Spanish Sparrows flew in and landed on a fence by the path. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of damp grass, circled overhead, and then dropped down towards the fields. When we got back to the channel behind the visitor centre, we looked over to the sedges at the back and could see a Purple Swamphen standing on the water’s edge, out in full view now. It stayed there for several minutes, allowing us all to get a good look at its bright purple plumage, huge red bill and outsize pink feet. Then it walked back into the vegetation. It was a smart bird to end the trip with, and we walked back to the Visitor Centre and ate our packed lunches on the picnic tables.

Western Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – finally showed well as we walked back

The journey back to Madrid was uneventful, although we did see a couple of pairs of Cranes in the dehesa on the way. Our flight back to London Stansted was on time and, even better, our bags were already waiting for us on the carousel when we got through passport control (perhaps they had been taking lessons from the Spanish!), before we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

 

26th Nov-3rd Dec 2019 – The Gambia, Part 4

…part 4 of the photos from our recent trip to The Gambia (ahead of a tour there in 2020), the final part of the week.

Day 6 – 1st December, afternoon

After our morning boat trip, we packed up and left Tendaba Camp late morning. After crossing the new Senegambia Bridge over the Gambia River, we stopped for lunch in an area of peanut fields. When an Abyssinian Ground Hornbill flew up out of the vegetation in the middle of the fields, we nearly spat out our sandwiches! We hurried over and found a family of 3 of them, hard birds to find here these days.

We made several more stops as we made our way further inland along the North Bank Road. We watched birds coming down to drink at a couple of waterholes. The marshes at Kaur failed to find out main target species, but did produce three Black-crowned Cranes instead, another difficult bird to catch up with here. Thankfully, we found two Egyptian Plovers a little further along at another site – a bird I have dreamed of seeing since I saw them in a book as a boy. Mission accomplished!

Our last stop was at a quarry, where we stood in the middle of clouds of Red-throated Bee-eaters visiting their nest holes as the sun started to drop. Magical! Then we drove on to Janjanbureh (Georgetown) for the night.

Abyssinian Ground Hornbill

Abyssinian Ground Hornbill – wins the prize for the oddest looking bird of the trip!

White-rumped Seed-eater

White-rumped Seedeater – another surprise, in a tree by the road where we stopped for lunch

Red-billed Quelea

Red-billed Quelea – common, a serious agricultural pest, we saw one flock of several thousand

Sahel Paradise Whydah

Sahel Paradise Whydah – one of several we saw at the waterholes

Black-headed Lapwing

Black-headed Lapwing – we found a small flock at one waterhole

Black-crowned Crane

Black-crowned Crane – these three were at the marshes at Kaur, but very wary

Egyptian Plover

Egyptian Plover – the key target species upriver in The Gambia – Mission Accomplished!

Red-throated Bee-eater

Red-throated Bee-eater – we finished the day in a breeding colony with them all around us

Day 7 – 2nd December

In the morning, we took a boat from Georgetown along the Gambia River. The key target species here was African Finfoot – we were frustrated at the first creek by a tangle of fishing nets blocking the way, but eventually found one further downriver just as we got to the end of the second creek. There were several other good birds here to keep us interested though, while we were looking.

After the boat trip, we left Georgetown and headed over the bridge to the South Bank Road for the long drive back to the coast. We had several stops on the way, for raptors perched by the road and at a couple of small lilypad-covered wetlands. It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Senegambia.

Oriole Warbler

Oriole Warbler – we had great views of a pair of this secretive species at a nest by the river

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Grey-headed Kingfisher – the commonest kingfisher along the river here

Palm Nut Vulture

Palm Nut Vulture – we saw several along the river, including this one which flew over the boat

African Fish Eagle

African Fish Eagle – we saw a couple in the trees on the bank of the river

Guinea Baboon

Guinea Baboon – we saw three species of primate on the boat trip this morning

African Finfoot

African Finfoot – we eventually found this young bird at the mouth of one of the creeks

Dark Chanting Goshawk

Dark Chanting Goshawk – our best views of this species, on a roadside pylon on the way back

Brown Snake Eagle

Brown Snake Eagle – we stopped to photograph a pair in the trees by the road

African White-backed Vulture

African White-backed Vulture – circled low overhead while we were watching the eagles

Day 8 – 3rd December

Our last day, we had to check out at midday to make our way to the airport for our afternoon flight home. Rather than have a relaxing morning, we managed to squeeze in a couple of very quick visits to two coastal sites we had not managed to get to before our trip upriver.

We started at Tujareng, an area of peanut fields and overgrown cultivations. With the change in habitat-type, a quick walk round here produced several species that we had not seen elsewhere. After that we were pretty much out of time, but we still managed to have the briefest of stops at Brufut woods after cutting across country on dirt tracks to avoid the traffic. In about 45 minutes we added a few more species to the list, including the last new bird of the trip just as we were walking back out of the trees – Black Scimitarbill, a scarce species which we thought we were going to miss.

Four-banded Sandgrouse

Four-banded Sandgrouse – we found three hiding in a field by the track

Wattled Lapwing

African Wattled Lapwing – our best views of this species this morning

White-fronted Black Chat

White-fronted Black Chat – one of the highlights at Tujareng, not easy to catch up with

Long-tailed Nightjar

Long-tailed Nightjar – pointed out by the forest guide, roosting in the bushes at Brufut

Black Scimitarbill

Black Scimitarbill – a tricky species to find, and a very welcome last addition to the list

It had been a great week, a whistle-stop tour of The Gambia (you could really allow more time to try to do the whole country!). We managed to see 275 different species (with two more added since we started writing this blog, which we had missed off the list, plus a few more we only heard), including some scarce ones we hadn’t expected to catch up with. It was very easy birding, with some fantastic photo opportunities too.

We can’t wait to go back again next November!

26th Nov-3rd Dec 2019 – The Gambia, Part 3

…part 3 of the photos from our recent trip to The Gambia (ahead of a tour there in 2020).

Day 5 – 30th November

On our way upriver, we called in at a couple of sites still close to the coast. We started very early at Bonto Forest, in order to try to catch up with White-spotted Flufftail first plus a couple more species of owl, which were all expertly shown to us by one of the forest guides. Then continued on from there to the nearby Pirang shrimp farm. It was hot by this stage, and although we didn’t manage to find the American Golden Plover here we did see a good selection of waders, gulls and terns and picked up several open country passerines we had not seen before.

From there, we headed inland and upriver. After a stop for lunch at AbCas Creek, we were aiming for Tendaba, where we had an afternoon boat trip booked on the Gambia River. Unfortunately we hadn’t banked on the President of the Gambia being on tour this afternoon! We were ushered to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere by the police and had to wait well over an hour there, before eventually the President’s cavalcade appeared. There were hundreds of vehicles – starting with blacked-out 4x4s, followed by an odd assortment of random government vehicles and finishing off with hundreds of ramshackle minibuses full of supporters. Needless to say, by the time they had all passed by, and we were able to continue on to Tendaba we had missed our boat!

White-spotted Flufftail

White-spotted Flufftail – we had great views of a pair, whistled in by our forest guide

Verreaux's Eagle Owl

Verreaux’s Eagle Owl – perched high in a tree in the forest

White-faced Scops Owl

White-faced Scops Owl – a pair were in some scrubby trees by the forest entrance

Western Grey Plantain-eater

Western Grey Plantain-eater – a very common relative of the Turacos

Violet Turaco

Violet Turaco – glowing in the sunshine at Bonto

Namaqua Dove

Namaqua Dove – showed well on the paths at Pirang shrimp farm

West African Swallow

West African Swallow – now split from the more familiar European Red-rumped Swallow

Yellow-throated Leaflove

Yellow-throated Leaflove – a pair were in the trees at AbCas Creek Lodge while over lunch

Abyssinian Roller

Abyssinian Roller – the commonest roller in the open countryside

Patas Monkey

Patas Monkey – one of four species of primate seen, a large troop was just outside Tendaba

Day 6 – 1st December, morning

After missing our boat trip yesterday while we waited for the President’s procession, we had to reschedule it for this morning. Fortuitously, it meant we had more time on the boat, as there were lots of things to see and some great photo opportunities as we explored the mangrove-lined creeks along the bank of the Gambia River.

African Darter

African Darter – very common along the creeks, drying their wings in the mangroves

Blue-breasted Kingfisher

Blue-breasted Kingfisher – the commonest kingfisher here

Striated Heron

Striated Heron – we saw several in the mangroves along the creeks

Hamerkop

Hamerkop – seen at several sites, but the best views were from the boat

Goliath Heron

Goliath Heron – the biggest heron, we only saw one which flew up ahead of us

Intermediate Egret

Intermediate Egret – along with Great White Egret, common along the creeks

Montagu's Harrier

Montagu’s Harrier – a palearctic winter visitor, this male landed in a tree next to the creek

Pink-backed Pelican

Pink-backed Pelican – another species seen at several sites, but with great views from the boat

Spur-winged Goose

Spur-winged Goose – several flew over as we sailed up the creek

Malachite Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher – this one was fishing on the edge of the creek

White-breasted Cormorant

White-breasted Cormorant – we sailed past a large breeding colony in trees beside the creek

Nile Monitor

Nile Monitor – a couple of these large lizards were living under the cormorant colony

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater – there were lots of European and White-throated Bee-eaters here too

Wooly-necked Stork

Woolly-necked Stork – we saw several in the more open areas at the far end of the creek

Beaudouin's Snake Eagle

Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle – flew low over the boat as we sailed back down

Little Swift

Little Swift – nesting underneath the quay at Tendaba, affording great low-level views

It had been a very enjoyable and wildlife-filled morning out on the boat, but now we had to pack up and continue our journey upriver, to try to see some of the most prized species…

26th Nov-3rd Dec 2019 – The Gambia, Part 2

…part 2 of the photos from our recent trip to The Gambia (ahead of a tour there in 2020).

Day 3 – 28th November

We headed slightly further afield today, to the area around Farasuto. We walked in through an area of overgrown fields with scattered trees. A flowering tree held a good selection of sunbirds feeding on nectar. A small reserve has been set up here with drinking pools and pots and we stopped here for a while to watch the variety of birds coming in to drink.

Afterwards, we made our way on to the Farasuto Forest Community Nature Reserve, with the local forest guide taking us on a short diversion on the way there to show us Greyish Eagle Owl and Standard-winged Nightjar. The Forest itself added African Wood Owl and, on the edge of the mangroves beyond the trees, White-backed Night Heron. In the afternoon, we went back to the first place with drinking pools and also explored the neighbouring cultivations here.

Striped Kingfisher

Striped Kingfisher – a bird of dry savannah woodland

Scarlet-chested Sunbird

Scarlet-chested Sunbird – one of the visitors to the flowering tree

Spotted Honeyguide

Spotted Honeyguide – coming for water at the drinking pots

Greyish Eagle Owl

Greyish Eagle Owl – we were shown a pair roosting in the trees

Standard-winged Nightjar 1

Standard-winged Nightjar – a male with its large wing feather ‘standards’ not fully grown

Standard-winged Nightjar 2

Standard-winged Nightjar – the female, lacking the oversized wing feathers

African Wood Owl

African Wood Owl – our second owl species of the day, in Farasuto Forest

Senegal Thick-knee

Senegal Thick-knee – there were lots on the edge of the mangroves, beyond the Forest

Violet Turaco

Violet Turaco – the highlight at the drinking pots in the afternoon was a pair of these stunners

Blackcap Babbler

Blackcap Babbler – also came down to drink

African Thrush

African Thrush – another visitor to the drinking pools

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird – not uncommon but hard to get good views of in the open

Bearded Barbet

Bearded Barbet – a spectacular looking barbet

Senegal Parrot

Senegal Parrot – common, but often well hidden in the trees

Day 4 – 29th November

Today we made our way down to Kartong, an area of old sand mines on the coast in the far south of The Gambia, close to the border with Senegal. The pools here held a good variety of waterbirds, the surrounding open savannah woodland was packed with migrant warblers from Europe and we then made our way through the mangroves and out onto the beach.

In the afternoon, after it had cooled down a little from the heat of the day, we stopped on our way back at Tanji fishing village – a good spot for gulls, terns and waders. We finished with a walk through Tanji bird reserve, an area of open bushes and scrub behind the coast.

Saddle-billed Stork

Saddle-billed Stork – a rare visitor, this young bird had been at Kartong for several days

Greater Painted Snipe

Greater Painted Snipe – another highlight at Kartong, albeit a duller male

White-faced Whistling Duck

White-faced Whistling Duck – common anywhere there is water

African Harrier Hawk

African Harrier Hawk – one of the commoner raptors, in open countryside

Plain-backed Pipit

Plain-backed Pipit – we flushed several as we walked through the savannah woodland

White-fronted Plover

White-fronted Plover – our main target, out on the beach, roosting with Kentish Plovers

Grey-headed Gull

Grey-headed Gull – the commonest gull, very good views at Tanji fishing village

Royal Tern

African Royal Tern – common, fishing offshore at Kartong and Tanji with other terns

Lizard Buzzard

Lizard Buzzard – hunting from the wires at Tanji

Little Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater – one of the commonest of the several bee-eaters

Pied-winged Swallow

Pied-winged Swallow – encountered at several sites, this one our first at Tanji

Pied Hornbill

Pied Hornbill – the scarcest of the three common hornbills

Having enjoyed a very productive few days on the coast, it would be time to start heading inland and upriver tomorrow.

26th Nov-3rd Dec 2019 – The Gambia, Part 1

Not a tour, but a prelude to one. Next year, we are running a tour to The Gambia, so we took advantage of a quiet week to head down there for a look around. It was great – the variety of birds, with a mix of African species and Palearctic migrants, easy-going,  good logistics and with no time difference to worry about. The country is a nice introduction to Africa for anyone who hasn’t been before, as well as offering a variety of species for anyone who has been to other parts of the continent previously.

We only had a week but we packed in several days along the ‘Smiling Coast’ (which is where next year’s tour will be based), as well as two nights travelling ‘upriver’ to pick up a few specialities which are not usually seen on the coast. We managed to see 273 species in a week (with the help of several of the local guides), which was pretty impressive, including some sought after birds. The photographic opportunities were very good too – we returned with so many photos, we have had to break this blog post into four parts!

Day 1 – 26th November

By the time we got to the Senegambia resort, which is where we would be staying while we were on the coast, it was already late afternoon and we didn’t have much time to explore but we did have an hour or so in the grounds which allowed us to familiarise ourselves with some of the commoner species.

Speckled Pigeon

Speckled Pigeon – common, coming to drink from the sprinklers at the hotel

Piapiac

Piapiac – a long-tailed member of the crow family

Brown Babbler

Brown Babbler – one of two species of babbler, found in noisy groups

Day 2 – 27th November

The Kotu Creek bridge is a famous birdwatching location in The Gambia and not far from many of the main tourist hotels. We spent the day in the Kotu area, walking the ‘cycle track’ down to Kotu Creek and the bridge in the morning and then back to the bridge and round to the golf course in the afternoon.

Yellow-billed Kite

Yellow-billed Kite – one of the commonest raptors in The Gambia, seen everywhere

Hooded Vulture 2

Hooded Vulture – the other ubiquitous raptor in The Gambia

Hooded Vulture 1

Hooded Vulture – the birds come to daily vulture feeds in the tourist areas

Shikra

Shikra – the commonest of the hawks

Pied Kingfisher 1

Pied Kingfisher – the commonest of the kingfishers, very good views at the bridge

Pied Kingfisher 2

Pied Kingfisher – hovering over the creek right by the bridge

Giant Kingfisher

Giant Kingfisher – the ‘daddy’ of the kingfishers and easy to see at the bridge

Black Heron 1

Black Heron – the blackest of the egrets

Black Heron 2

Black Heron – in distinctive fishing mode, its wings spread overhead like an umbrella

Black Heron 3

Black Heron – the fishing method seemed to be very successful

Beautiful Sunbird

Beautiful Sunbird – the commonest of the sunbirds

Variable Sunbird

Variable Sunbird – holding territory, singing and displaying, at a flowering tree

Long-tailed Glossy Starling

Long-tailed Glossy Starling – common, and the most distinctive Glossy Starling with it’s long tail

Red-billed Firefinch

Red-billed Firefinch – the commonest of the small, colourful Estrildid finches

Western Olivaceous Warbler

Western Olivaceous Warbler – the commonest of the European migrant warblers

Senegal Coucal

Senegal Coucal – we saw several during our stay

Yellow-billed Shrike

Yellow-billed Shrike – regularly encountered in cultivations and open savannah woodland

Fine-spotted Woodpecker

Fine-spotted Woodpecker – we found several in the cultivated areas beyond the creek

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater – a distinctive species which showed very well around the golf course

Pearl-spotted Owlet

Pearl-spotted Owlet – one of two we saw today, this one up on the golf course late afternoon

It was really enjoyable first couple of days with a fantastic variety of species seen, with more to come…

1st-8th June 2019 – Romania

A week-long International Tour to Romania, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. The Danube Delta is one of the ‘must-see’ wildlife destinations and we spent four days exploring it, sleeping each night on our floating hotel in a different location, right out in the midst of it. We also spent a couple of days exploring the Dobrogea region, down to the Black Sea coast, which is host to some species right at the western edge of their range. A fantastic experience!

SATURDAY 1ST JUNE

Our 10.35 flight from Luton Airport to Bucharest arrived on time. After realising we had come out in a different arrivals hall, we quickly found our local guide, Florin, who took us outside to where our minibus and driver were waiting. There were a few House Sparrows, House Martins and Jackdaws around the terminal building, before we set off on the long drive to Tulcea.

Out in the suburbs, we saw mostly Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons but as we got out into the countryside beyond, we could see Rooks, Hooded Crows and one or two Pheasants in the fields. More exciting, a Long-legged Buzzard circled over the road ahead of us. We broke the journey with a stop at a service station for coffee and/or ice cream, where several Greenfinches were singing outside.

Afterwards, as we continued the journey, we started to see a greater variety of birds. It had clearly rained a lot in recent weeks, given the amount of water on the fields, and some of the wetter areas held a selection of herons – a Great White Egret, a few Little Egrets, two Squacco Herons, three Black-crowned Night Herons, and a couple of the group spotted a Glossy Ibis lurking in a ditch. As we approached the Danube crossing, there were more White Storks, including several nests with chicks on the telegraph posts in some of the villages.

The wires beside the road started to get some more interesting birds too. In one area, we spotted five Rollers in quick succession. There were Bee-eaters too, particularly as we approached a steep section of road which winds down through a small grove of acacia trees. There were plenty of Rooks in the trees, but no sign of any Red-footed Falcons, which also nest here. However, just beyond the trees we spotted a smart male Red-footed Falcon hovering over the grass beside the road.

Further into the Dobrugea region, and we started to see more Red-backed Shrikes and one or two Corn Buntings on the wires. It was starting to get dark now and a Little Owl was perched on the chimney of a house in one of the villages we passed. We finally made it into Tulcea at about 9pm, and we headed straight to the port where the floating hotel, which would be our home for the next five nights, was waiting. After a delicious dinner on board, we retired to our cabins.

SUNDAY 2ND JUNE

There were a few gulls around the harbour in Tulcea when we woke up this morning. As well as plenty of Black-headed Gulls, a couple of Caspian Gulls came close enough to get a good look at. After breakfast on board – cereals with local yoghurt, bread and honey, eggs, and a selection of ham and cheese – we boarded the smaller boat which would take us around the Delta (the floating hotel would be towed out to meet us later). The main Tulcea branch of the Danube is big and open and was fairly birdless at first, apart from a few more Caspian Gulls. After a quick stop to retrieve someone’s cap, which had blown off into the river, we headed over towards the junction with the smaller Mila 36 channel. A Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in and landed in the top of some tall poplars on the bank and our first White Pelicans, a group of fourteen, circled overhead.

White Pelicans 1

White Pelicans – our first of the trip, circled overhead

Having turned off the main channel onto Mila 36, we started to come across a lot more birds. There were Kingfishers calling all around here, zooming back and forth across the water and in and out of the trees. We could hear a variety of different birds in the trees, but they were hard to see in all the leaves and undergrowth. An Icterine Warbler and several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing, as well as both Common and one or two Thrush Nightingales, the more grating and clicking phrases of the latter giving them away. Three calling Collared Flycatchers gave only glimpses but a couple of Spotted Flycatchers sallied out of the trees. There were more woodpeckers too, several Great Spotted, another Grey-headed, and we heard out first Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

The Delta is all about its waterbirds, and is packed full of herons of various sizes. There were plenty of Grey Herons and Little Egrets at first and then, as we got further in, we found lots of Squacco Herons which flushed from the banks as we passed, changing instantly from buff-brown to white. Several Black-crowned Night Herons and a smaller number of Glossy Ibis flew over.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – a very common heron in the Delta

We encountered our first Pygmy Cormorants too, but they are very skittish and typically flew off ahead of us. More pelicans circled overhead, mostly flocks of White Pelicans, but we also saw our first Dalmatian Pelican, typically a lone bird which flew over.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – mostly very skittish and flew off before we got too close

A male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us and landed in the base of the reeds, disappearing in before we could get a good look at it. When we stopped to scan, a Penduline Tit started calling over on the other side, and we saw it perched briefly in the top of the reeds. One of the group, scanning for the tit, found a female Little Bittern instead, up on top of the reeds further back. We had already heard several Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds as we passed, and now one perched up nicely on a dead reed stem. A little further on, and a pair of Hobbys were zooming around through the tops of the trees beside the channel, before landing up in a poplar.

We stopped for coffee at the entrance to Lake Nebunu. As we motored up, a Raccoon Dog was on the bank nearby, but quickly scuttled into the vegetation. There were lots of Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes out on the lake. A pair of Common Terns and about 15 Whiskered Terns were flying round and dip feeding over the vegetation across the entrance. We could see lots of cormorants and herons coming and going from their nesting colony in the tall trees at the back. Two White-tailed Eagles appeared over the trees, and one was mobbed by a Hooded Crow, which was just a tiny speck by comparison at that range. A Pallas’s Gull flew over the back of the lake too, like an oversized Black-headed Gull, but it was rather distant and disappeared from view behind the trees.

After coffee, we carried on along the channel and hadn’t gone much further when we came across our first Red-necked Grebes. The first one dived ahead of the boat and disappeared into the reeds, but then we found four more together, and had a great view of them, resplendent in breeding plumage with bright rusty-red necks.

Red-necked Grebe 1

Red-necked Grebe – in smart breeding plumage

Next stop was by a White-tailed Eagle nest, which was high in the trees beside the channel. One of the two juveniles was still on the nest, but the other was hiding higher up in the branches above. They were almost fully grown, not long to fledging now. There was no sign of either of the adults at first, until two White-tailed Eagles appeared through the treetops. One of the adults was chasing off an immature, which had presumably flown too close to the nest. Once the intruder had fled, the adult flew back round and landed in a tree not far away.

We cut back across Lake Furtuna, a large open lake surrounded by reeds. Several White Pelicans and a single Dalmatian Pelican were swimming out on the water. There was more floating vegetation over the far side, where we found lots of Whiskered Terns, four Garganey and a pair of Gadwall. It was full of grebes too, nesting Great Crested Grebes, several pairs of Black-necked Grebes and four Red-necked Grebes too. Our first Purple Heron flew over.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw small numbers daily in the Delta

On the smaller channels especially, there were Cuckoos and Rollers everywhere. A brief Golden Oriole flew over, but was not seen by most of the group and would remain a target for a good view for many for a while yet. There were lots of dragonflies – mainly Emperor, Lesser Emperor and Scarlet Darter, and plenty of Banded Demoiselles beside the channels. As we got out into a more agricultural area, several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the feet of a herd cows, though it was hard to see for sure whether these ones were pure Black-headed Wagtails or one of the array of hybrids.

We met the floating hotel for lunch at Maliuc, and while we were settled on board enjoying our three course feast we were towed slowly along to the next location. After lunch, we had a couple of hours to relax over the heat of the day, take a siesta or watch the world go by from the boat. The banks were more open here and in the wetter spots there were lots of Great White Egrets and Glossy Ibis. Three Hoopoes flew alongside as we passed and there seemed to be Rollers on just about every bush.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – several were seen on the river bank today

With the floating hotel moored again, we set off about 5pm in the smaller boat to explore the area. A Penduline Tit was calling from the trees on the opposite bank and a Garden Warbler was singing from the trees on our side. It was still hot, and quiet to start as we checked out a couple of smaller lakes.

The first was overgrown with Water Soldier and not surprisingly there were several Norfolk Hawkers patrolling along the edge of the reeds. Marsh Frogs were everywhere on the lily pads, until a Dice Snake swam across, causing them to disappear into the water. Lots of herons were flying around again, and we saw many more Purple Herons out here. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling from the reeds, the first of many we heard this afternoon.

Purple Heron

Purple Heron – more common in the reedier parts of the Delta

The second lake was full of Whiskered Terns, looking to nest on the floating vegetation. When a Hooded Crow flew across, they all came up en masse to mob it, and we realised just how many had been hiding there. A pair of Greylag Geese lurking in the edge of the reeds at the back had distinctive pink bills, birds of the eastern race rubirostris. We could hear a Bittern booming too.

Back along the more open Crisan channel, an obliging Black-crowned Night Heron was standing on the floating vegetation below one of the trees on the bank. We saw several more Ferruginous Ducks, mostly typically flighty, but we had a nice view of a male down on the water’s edge which lingered longer than most. On an area of open sandy shore, an adult Little Ringed Plover was keeping an eye on its already well-grown juvenile. A White-tailed Eagle flew in over the back and appeared to be coming our way before it suddenly dropped down onto the ground. We could see it was feeding on something, and was quickly surrounded by 10 Hooded Crows.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – another very common species in the Delta

We continued on back past the floating hotel, and turned in down the small channel leading to Lake Iacob. There were more pelicans on the lake – with two White and two Dalmatian Pelicans on a log, giving us a nice comparison. A Garden Warbler was singing nearby and we could hear more Penduline Tits calling. As we motored back slowly along the wooded channel, a Grey-headed Woodpecker perched nicely in the tree above us. Another Pallas’s Gull flew over, much closer this time but we would still hold out for better views.

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Grey-headed Woodpecker – perched nicely in a tree above the boat

Back at the floating hotel, we sat out on the deck to compile the list for the day. We could still hear the Grey-headed Woodpecker calling away in the trees. Eastern Olivaceous and Great Reed Warblers were singing and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling. A Bittern was booming off in the distance and a Golden Oriole was taunting us, hidden deep in the bushes. What an amazing place to be! After a delicious three course dinner of salad followed by local zander, it was time to turn in, to the sound of Fire-bellied Toads calling.

MONDAY 3RD JUNE

Before breakfast, the earlier risers gathered out on the deck. A Little Crake was calling, but hidden deep in the reeds beyond the trees on the bank. A pair of Eastern Olivaceous Warblers appeared briefly low in the branches, before making their way through to the sunny side of the trees as the early mist burned off. The Bittern was still booming and the Savi’s Warbler still reeling off in the distance. Three Pallas’s Gulls flew high over, one at a time, and the first White Pelicans flapped lazily up along the channel. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew past through trees opposite and while we ate breakfast, a pair of Garganey circled round over the water outside.

As we got ready to set off on the smaller boat again, we picked up a distant male Red-footed Falcon on some wires, and through the scope we could just about see its red feet and legs in the morning sunshine. As we motored slowly up the channel, there were the usual herons and egrets everywhere. A Great Bittern flew across and up the edge of the channel ahead of us, a difficult bird to see here.

When we heard Bearded Tits calling we looked over to see a family party right up in the top of the willows on the bank. Another bigger group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds on the junction of the Caraorman channel, lots of juveniles. As we stopped to look at them, one of the group noticed a male Penduline Tit feeding in the sedges right down at the front – nice to get our first good views of this species. We could hear a Reed Bunting singing, and then a pair appeared in one of the willows. The birds here are a different race to back home, tshusii, being noticeably heavier-billed.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – feeding in the sedges

Continuing on to Caraorman village, a pair of Caspian Gulls were loafing on the bank and a Hoopoe was wrestling with a mole cricket as we made our way down to the small harbour. The vista here was dominated by the ruins of the old communist-era industrial sand mining site, long since abandoned. As we got out at the harbour, a juvenile Northern Wheatear was feeding in between the boats pulled up nearby. Walking down the track towards the village, we were surrounded by Bee-eaters calling and perching on the wires, nesting in the low sandy banks.

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – around the abandoned factory at Caraorman

A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a grassy pool out where the cows were grazing. Three Red-footed Falcons were perched on the wires further down, two of the males chasing each other a little closer before landing again. It was already starting to get hot. Lots of Marsh Frogs were basking around the edge of a small pool in the sand, before hopping in as we passed, and the head of a Dice Snake appeared out of the water.

Several White Storks were on nests in the village, and one stood bill clapping and throwing its head back as two others circled over. It was eerie walking round past the huge abandoned accommodation blocks, long-since stripped of windows, doors and any other removable fittings, their roofs falling in but providing nest sites for the local Kestrels.

We continued on down the track out into the old sand pits. On the larger shallow pools here we found several Avocets and Black-winged Stilts along with more Black-tailed Godwits and a few Shelduck too. A Hobby flew over hunting dragonflies. Up on the bank of the next basin, there was pleasant breeze to stop us overheating. A single Caspian Tern was out in the middle, dwarfing the Common Terns and Whiskered Terns it was with. Through the scope, we could see its huge black-tipped red bill. A few Black-winged Stilts and Common Terns were nesting on the sandy islands.

Continuing round to the far corner, we could see a group of larger gulls loafing on the edge of the another pool. A single adult Pallas’s Gull was in with the Caspian Gulls – with its black hood, it really stood out. There were more Bee-eaters in the bushes and a male Red-backed Shrike appeared with them briefly. Then it was time to get out of the sun, so we took a short cut back to the boat. A male Northern Wheatear was singing around the abandoned factory buildings.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – singing around the abandoned factory

After a break for water and/or coffee back at the boat, we motored round to a former fish farm nearby. There were lots of Whiskered Terns flying round over the pools, but a group of people had set up for a picnic at the viewing platform, so we carried on down the channel. We went looking for a Penduline Tit nest. The reeds were too tall at the first site we tried, but we did see the pair of adult Penduline Tits in the trees calling. Further on, we found another nest hanging in the lowest branches of a willow, just above the reeds, an amazing construction. The remains of last year’s nest was still hanging in the branches further in. It was all quiet here though, so perhaps the female was incubating.

Continuing on, we stopped to look at a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes on the bank. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing here too, and perched up in the top of a bush for ages, being unusually obliging. Back round to Caraorman channel, a Common Cuckoo perched on the wires.

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo – abundant in the Delta

As we headed back towards the floating hotel, we heard another Savi’s Warbler reeling. This one seemed to be closer, and a careful scan revealed it perched up in the reeds in full view. We stopped the boat and had a good look at this typically very elusive species. We certainly would not go hungry this week – lunch was another three courses of soup with meatballs, followed by stuffed vine leaves and a delicious traditional pudding.

Savi's Warbler

Savi’s Warbler – we had a good view of this typically elusive species

After lunch, the floating hotel was towed slowly back up to the main channel at Crisan before turning onto the course of the old Danube. Here we got back onto the smaller boat again, to head out for the afternoon. As we motored slowly along a side channel, we could hear several Golden Orioles fluting from some very tall poplars. We saw a couple flying in and out through the treetops, but you had to be quick to get on them. Both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were calling here too, but there was no sign of any Black Woodpeckers today.

The usual selection of herons flew out of the trees beside the channel as we passed, and a Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and alongside the boat, before crashing back in. We were still waiting for a really good view of one perched in the reeds. Turning on to Bogdaproste channel, Common Cuckoos were everywhere again. Several Hobbys zoomed in and out of the trees on the banks, and one perched up nicely.

Hobby

Hobby – perched up nicely in the trees by the boat

There were lots of Rollers here too – one pair was coming in and out of a nest hole in a tree, and another male was bringing food for the female. An Otter was floating in the channel ahead of the boat, crunching on something it had just caught. As we cut the engine, it saw us and dived.

Roller 1

Roller – we saw several pairs in the trees along the channels

The water opened out into Lake Bogdaproste, where we found a scattering of White Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants, plus rafts of Common Pochard and Eurasian Coot. Two Black Terns flew over calling behind the boat, but disappeared away from us before we could get a good view. We could see several distant Pallas’s Gulls circling and as we motored across the lake we noticed one on the water, so we diverted over for a closer look. We got much closer before it took off – a very smart gull with its black hood and black-and-white wing tips, and multi-coloured yellow bill.

Through the channel on the far side, we found ourselves coming out into another large lake. As we were crossing, we could see some very distant Whiskered Terns hovering over an island of vegetation on the far side, and we picked up a White-winged Black Tern in with them, so we headed over for closer look. As we got nearer, we could see there were actually two White-winged Black Terns and lots of Black Terns too, at least a dozen, loafing on the floating vegetation. We had great views of one of the White-winged Black Terns dip feeding beside the boat – a real bonus, as they are not common here, with just a few pairs breeding in inaccessible areas. All the terns then took off, and flew round over the boat.

Black Tern 1

Black Tern – breeds fairly commonly in the Delta

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – the rarest of the three ‘marsh terns’ in the Delta

Continuing on to the next lake, a pair of rubirostris Greylag Geese swam across in front of the boat with four goslings. An amazing number of Whiskered Terns, probably at least 150 pairs, were starting to nest on carpet of floating vegetation here. We sailed along a channel through the middle, and had amazing views of them flying all round the boat, calling noisily. What an experience! A Hooded Crow flew over, and was immediately chased by a horde of Whiskered Terns. It made repeated visits, looking for eggs. Two Black-necked Grebes swam along the channel ahead of us.

Whiskered Tern 2

Whiskered Tern – nest-building on the floating vegetation on the lakes

Whiskered Tern 1

Whiskered Tern – amazing close views as we sailed across the lake

As we sailed back through the lakes, there were lots of Great Cormorants nesting in the surrounding trees. One tree on the edge of the reeds was full of cormorants of two species, Great and Pygmy Cormorants side by side, so we could really appreciate the size difference. Another Pallas’s Gull was swimming ahead of us on the water, and allowed us to approach closer still before it finally took off and flew round past us. Then we headed back to meet the floating hotel which was moored on a different channel nearby.

Pallas's Gull

Pallas’s Gull – we came across several adults out on the larger lakes

After a break to freshen up, we met up on deck to do the day’s list. A group of eight White Pelicans was loafing and preening on a log by the boat, Whiskered Terns and Marsh Harriers were flying round, another Savi’s Warbler was reeling in the distance, and several Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds nearby. After dinner of salad, breaded chicken and local cake, we retired to a deafening chorus of Marsh Frogs outside. Another amazing location and a privilege to be able to spend the night out here again.

TUESDAY 4TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast, we spotted a White-tailed Eagle which had obviously roosted in a tree a short way back along the channel. Three Black Terns patrolled up and down the channel past us and we could hear Bearded Tits and Penduline Tit calling from the reeds, and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling.

After breakfast, on the smaller boat we headed down to look at the White-tailed Eagle. It eventually took off, and flew back upstream, where it caught a fish and landed on the floating vegetation nearby to eat it. We turned round and motored back and had a great view of it feeding, before it eventually flew again.

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – caught a fish just after breakfast

Continuing on along the channel, we saw the usual selection of herons, cormorants, Red-necked Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks – amazing that these species had become so commonplace after just a couple of days here!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – a common sight out in the Delta

On the next channel, there were more trees either side, with several Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps singing. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker called and a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched in a dead willow, the first of several we would see today. Once again, there were plenty of Cuckoos, Rollers and Kingfishers, with one of the latter perching up nicely as we passed.

We came out into a more open agricultural area. Several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up calling and one perched on the top of a dead stem. With its dark grey head and white supercilium it was a ‘dombrowskii’, a hybrid form of Black-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, a speciality of Romania. A little further on, a Cattle Egret was standing on the grassy bank, the first we had got a good look at – they are not very common here.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – uncommon in the Delta

A female Red-footed Falcon was perched in a willow right above the channel, so we stopped the boat for a look. It was perched just above our heads, staring down at us, and then a male came up off a nest in the tree nearby. The male flew round calling, so we backed off, and watched as the female returned to the nest. We saw several more Red-footed Falcons as we motored along this stretch of channel.

Red-footed Falcon 1

Red-footed Falcon – the female perched in the trees above us

Red-footed Falcon 2

Red-footed Falcon – the male came up off the nest and flew round

Everyone also finally got a look at a Golden Oriole, albeit just in flight, as one came out of the trees and headed away down the channel. Further on, a shrike in the willows was hidden from view at first, but when it finally flew up into the top, we could see it was a Lesser Grey Shrike, its black mask extending over the top of its bill and with a pink flush to the breast. It flew round the back of the trees and we noticed there were now two perched up together in a bush, a pair. Several Grass Snakes and Dice Snakes swam across the channel as we motored on.

There was a large area of reeds on the right of the channel and lots of Glossy Ibises and Purple Herons were flying round as we passed. When we came to a more open area of short wet grass, we counted at least 80 Great White Egrets in one big group, feeding. There were lots of White Storks here too, plus the usual Grey Herons and Little Egrets. We turned onto another channel at the far side of this field and headed out across the meadows where lots of horses and cattle were grazing. A pair of Hoopoes on the bank, flew off ahead of us. A pair of European Stonechat perched on some wires. A couple more Western Yellow Wagtails flew up, one another ‘dombrowskii’ and one a normal Black-headed Wagtail.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – another common heron in the Delta

The channel disappeared into some dense trees. Another Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched up nicely, but a couple of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were typically more elusive, just heard calling. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers were singing. A succession of Black-crowned Night Herons and Grey Herons flew out of the bushes ahead of us.

We had our coffee break as we sailed down here before, at the end, we came out into a huge open lake. We were closer to the main White Pelican breeding site here, a restricted area, but we could see several hundred circling in the distance. There were just a few on the lake here though, along with two Dalmatian Pelicans. Apart from that, all we could find here were a rather distant Pallas’s Gull, a distant White-tailed Eagle, and a distant Little Bittern which flew across. The next lake had a similar variety of birds.

Taking the sinuous Eracle channel back, one of the group spotted a Black Stork circling high over the reeds to one side, a new bird for the trip. As if that wasn’t good enough, we had just started moving again when someone else spotted an owl in the trees. We turned back and found a Long-eared Owl staring back out at us – a very good spot as we motored past! As we pulled up towards the bank, a second Long-eared Owl flew out of the trees.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl – well spotted by a member of the group in the trees

As we continued on along the channel, it clouded over, and we could hear a thunderstorm away to our left. We turned into a small lake, covered in lily pads, where at least twelve Black Terns were dipping down to the vegetation with all the Whiskered Terns. There were several Black-necked Grebes here too. It started spitting with rain now, and continued on and off as we made our way back to the floating hotel for lunch. It felt much cooler too. At least the local weather forecast promised us that the rain would end in precisely 23 minutes!

After lunch and a short break, it had indeed stopped raining as forecast, so we headed out again on the small boat, through various small channels. A smart male Marsh Harrier circled low over. A Purple Heron flew across with a Grass Snake in its bill. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling and when we got out of the small channel we were in and it opened out, we found it perched high on a dead reed stem. Along the next channel, with lots of trees either side, a Thrush Nightingale was singing from deep in cover.

We came out on the Stipoc channel, by an old fish farm which has now been converted into agricultural land (but would make a fantastic nature reserve!). A couple of Stock Doves were on the wires by the farm buildings and a liberal scattering of Rollers were then on the wires all the way down. Several Red-footed Falcons hovered out over the open grassland. A Corn Bunting sang from the top of a bush on the bank on one side and a Sedge Warbler sand from the reeds on the other. We stopped to look at a European Pond Terrapin which was basking on a log in an area of pondweed and realised there were several more lurking in the weed nearby.

European Pond Terrapin

European Pond Terrapin – several were in a weedy along the channel

There was an area of open water and wet grass on the other side of the channel. A couple of small flocks of White Pelicans were swimming in the water and lots of Great White Egrets, Little Egrets, Glossy Ibises and a single Cattle Egret were feeding in the wet grass. Two Green Sandpipers flew round calling, and landed in the vegetation. Four Black-tailed Godwits were feeding here too.

Two Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the grass, one an obvious ‘dombrowskii’, but the other looked like it might be a Black-headed Wagtail until we got better look. Then we could see it had some grey on the nape, and a small amount of white in the supercilium. The Western Yellow Wagtails here are a real minefield of different hybrid forms!

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – perched in the willows above the channel

Further on, another Lesser Grey Shrike was perched up in the top of a willow overhanging the channel. Two Golden Orioles flew across over the reeds, across the channel ahead of us and up into the trees the other side. A Musk Rat swam across in front of us, but dived and must have resurfaced in the reeds. Two Hobbys and another female Red-footed Falcon were perched in the trees as we made our way over to Lake Furtuna.

As we came out into the huge open lake, a White-tailed Eagle was down in the reeds on the edge of the water on one side. We started to head over towards it, but it was chased off by a Hooded Crow before we got there. We could see lots of White Pelicans gathered over the far side so we decided to head over that way instead. They were loafing on islands of reed and logs, several immatures, but including several breeding adults with orange facial skin and bump on the forehead.

White Pelicans 2

White Pelicans – there were lots loafing around on Lake Furtuna this evening

There were several Black-necked Grebes with the Great Crested Grebes over by the reeds and Pygmy Cormorants flying back and forth. The channel the other side was absolutely covered with Mayflies low over the water, but others were also flying round, providing food for the Black-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns which were hawking up and catching them.

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – with a distinctive flight silhouette

The floating hotel was moored over the other side of the lake and when we got back there we could hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the trees nearby and a Little Bittern was hiding in the reeds. We watched the sun set with White Pelicans swimming past outside over dinner.

WEDNESDAY 5TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast this morning, it was a stunning view with the early light out on the lake. Several White Pelicans swam past and Pygmy Cormorants and Caspian Gulls were flying around.

White Pelican

White Pelican – swimming past the floating hotel early morning

After breakfast, we could see a feeding frenzy out on the other side of the lake, so we motored over on the small boat for a closer look. There were at least 2,500 Great Cormorants and 175-200 White Pelicans. They were obviously chasing a shoal of fish across the lake, and the stragglers at the back of the flock kept flying up in smaller groups, leapfrogging the massed horde and landing again at the front. Amazing to watch!

By the time we got over, they had chased the shoal of fish across the lake and into the reeds over the far side. Some of the White Pelicans were swimming in and out of the reeds trying to find them again. About a dozen Little Egrets were waiting on the floating vegetation beside the reeds to see what might be pushed their way. Then the shoal of fish reappeared out in the middle, and everything raced back over and started feeding again, the White Pelicans in groups upending in unison.

Feeding frenzy

Feeding Frenzy – thousands of Great Cormorants and hundreds of White Pelicans

We headed back out of the lake along the channel next to where we had moored for the night. As we were motoring slowly along, we noticed a Little Bittern climb up into the top of the reeds on one side. It was promptly chased off by a second Little Bittern and we watched the two of them fly round after each other. One landed again in the top of the reeds right on the edge of the channel, where we had a great look at it, a smart male with a bright red bill, indicating it was in breeding condition. The two of them then chased round over the reeds again and disappeared back.

We were on a wide channel now, with very big mature trees on the bank on one side. We were hoping to find a Black Woodpecker along here, but the best we could manage was a Black Woodpecker nest hole in a dead tree beside the channel. The hole looked reasonably fresh, so we waited for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any woodpeckers. Two Common Starlings were in the tree but we didn’t see them using the hole.

Further on, a family of Great Crested Grebes were in the weeds beside the channel, and we watched as the three juveniles climbed onto the back of one of the adults as we passed. Just beyond, we could see a Red-necked Grebe and a Ferruginous Duck. Two White-tailed Eagles were perched in the trees above.

Little Bittern 1

Little Bittern – with some bright red on the bill base

Another male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us, and once again perched up nicely in the reeds on the far side, allowing us to get quite close. We had a good view before it flew back across the tops of the reeds, its bill bright but not quite as red as the one earlier. It already seemed like this might be the day of the Little Bittern!

There was lots of lush vegetation along the bank here and as we carried on we heard two Thrush Nightingales singing deep in cover. We stopped and listened for Black Woodpecker, but once again there was no sign. However, we did find a female Golden Oriole mobbing a Hooded Crow in a willow bush right on the edge of the water. It possibly had a nest nearby, as the male was flying in and out of the trees behind too. We drifted over and had a good view of it, finally a perched Golden Oriole!

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – we finally got good views of one perched

We tried another channel for woodpeckers. A Grey-headed flew over, and we heard both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted calling, but once again there was no sign of any Black. We joined the main channel for a bit at Mila 23 before we turned onto another side channel. A Red-backed Shrike flew up into a willow on the bank, but landed out of view.

Yet another Little Bittern flew across. Out into a lake, a single Red-necked Grebe was outnumbered by all the Great Crested Grebes. An adult Black-crowned Night Heron was feeding on the lilypads on one edge, chasing frogs, but kept sinking into the vegetation when it landed. A White-tailed Eagle was perched in the distance, in the top of a dead tree beyond the lake. As we sailed through a narrow channel and out into the next lake beyond, two more Little Bitterns chased round through the tops of the reeds.

Little Bittern 2

Little Bittern – it was definitely the best morning for them today!

The next channel had more lily pads and floating vegetation either side. We had just remarked how the Squacco Herons has been outnumbered by Little Bitterns this morning, when normal service was  resumed and five Squacco Herons flew out! There were several Red-necked Grebes in the lilypads too – the first pair had the juveniles on the back of one of the adults, but swam into the reeds as we approached. The second pair were much more obliging, and stayed lurking in amongst the lilypads as we passed.

Red-necked Grebe 2

Red-necked Grebe – in the lilypads as we sailed past

A smart male Red-footed Falcon was perched in a tree in some dead branches just above the channel, and stared down as we passed right underneath. We had a great view, slaty grey with red ‘trousers’, bright red legs and feet and red cere and eye ring. Stunning! As we made our way back round to the floating hotel, a female Red-footed Falcon was perched in another tree, rather pale buff below and with brown wings, presumably a young bird in its 2nd calendar year.

Red-footed Falcon 3

Red-footed Falcon – perched in a dead tree above the channel

Back at the floating hotel, our stay in the Delta was unfortunately coming to an end. Up on deck before we set off on the journey back, two more Little Bitterns chased each other round an island of reeds in the middle of the junction between two channels. It really had been a day for them! As we set off on board the hotel, past the reeds where they had landed, one flew out and across the channel on the other side. We scanned the reeds for the other one but all we could find was a Great Reed Warbler feeding down at the base of the reeds.

As we motored back, we would be passing the White-tailed Eagle nest we had visited on Sunday. We were just coming up towards the eerie when suddenly one of the adults flew out of the trees right beside the boat, before circling round over the trees where the nest was. We slowed down to have a look at the nest, but the two youngsters had climbed up into the tree above and were half hidden in the leaves.

We didn’t have a chance to look at them though because, just at that moment, a Black Woodpecker called in the trees right by the nest. We glimpsed it dropping down through the branches, but we were going away all the time and not everyone got onto it. Then it flew out, right past us up on the top deck, and landed in the top of a dead tree just ahead. We had a good view of it now, its red crown catching the light as it turned, before it flew on. A great way to finish our visit to the Delta!

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – just as we were sailing back out of the Delta

We retired inside for lunch – soup with meatballs, vegetable stew, followed by apple strudel. It was a slow journey back on the floating hotel, so we relaxed on deck listening to all the birds singing in the lush trees along Mila 36 –  a Thrush Nightingale and lots of Common Nightingales, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Common Redstarts, a couple of Collared Flycatchers. Several Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen, but Middle Spotted and more Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were only heard. Kingfishers zipped back and forth calling.

Back out onto the main Tulcea branch of the Danube, there were more Caspian Gulls. Several Western Yellow Wagtails on the grassy bank as we approached Tulcea looked like ‘dombrowskii’ again. We spent our last night on the boat in the harbour, with a delicious dinner of the local speciality, tochitura.

THURSDAY 6TH JUNE

We were up early, and after breakfast said our goodbyes to the floating hotel. As we drove west out of Tulcea, a Glossy Ibis was feeding in the plastic rubbish along the shore of a lake. In the villages, we saw White Storks on their nests as we passed. Out into more open country, there were Bee-eaters flying around the old terraces in the grassy fields. Our first stop was near Somova.

As we got out of the bus, a male Red-backed Shrike was perched in the top of an oak tree. A large flock of Common Swifts circled high overhead, a few Sand Martins with them. We started to walk up along the track towards the trees but hadn’t got very far when a male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over. We watched as it circled up high with the Swifts.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – this male flew over first thing this morning

In the open woodland, a Hoopoe was calling and several Golden Orioles were fluting. We had brief views of both as they flew round. A woodpecker called, and flew across, landed on the trunk of an oak tree. We walked over to try to get a look at it and confirmed it was a Syrian Woodpecker. We watched it repeatedly dropping down to the ground, then flying back up to the trunk.

A little further on, another Levant Sparrowhawk, this time a female, flew up from the ground and landed in another tree. We had a great view of it in the scope – we could see its gular stripe and more heavily barred underparts than the male.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – this female flew up into the trees

It was getting hot now, a good time for raptors. First, three Common Buzzards circled up over a distant ridge, and were joined by a Marsh Harrier. Then a Booted Eagle came up, followed by couple of Honey Buzzards. All were rather distant, but thankfully shortly afterwards, a Booted Eagle and a Honey Buzzard appeared much closer, over the trees, along with a Hobby.

Several Sousliks (aka European Ground Squirrels) appeared in the short grass before disappearing down into their burrows. Lots of grasshoppers and moths came up from the vegetation as we walked through, along with Silver-studded Blues and a couple of Lesser Spotted Fritillaries. A small group of Hawfinches flew over calling. We met the bus again down by the road further on, and stopped for a cold drink. A flock of White Pelicans were circling up in the distance beyond the ridge. Another male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over with a lizard in its talons.

Souslik

Souslik – there were several in the short grass

Our next stop was at the monastery at Celtic Dere. A couple of male Red-backed Shrikes were around the gardens and farmyard by the parking area. We took the track up to the old orchard, where a Turtle Dove was purring and an Icterine Warbler was singing in the trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – a male, one of several at Celic Dere

Several Golden Orioles flew back and forth over the opening clearing, including a stunning golden male. Lots of Hawfinches zipped over in ones and twos, calling. On the edge of the wood over on the far side, a Black Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher were feeding, dropping down from the trees to the grass below.

A Steppe Buzzard flew over – different to the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier, with a rather pale rufous tail, dark rusty body and underwing coverts, prominent clean white bases to the flight feathers with a well-marked black trailing edge.

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard – different to the Common Buzzards we saw

Walking through the trees on one side, we came out into another clearing by the stream, where a Nuthatch was calling. We followed the track here up and into the wood. A striking longhorn beetle was in the middle of the track and when we stopped to look at it, we could hear a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing a little further on. It was very active, constantly changing perch, and hard to follow at times in all the trees. Eventually it came out closer to the track, and everyone got a better look at it. There were lots of Icterine Warblers calling and singing in the trees too, but they were very hard to see high in the branches.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – this male was singing in the trees

As we walked back down the track, we finally got good views of a pair in the trees over the path. A Hawfinch flew in and perched briefly on a branch and a Wood Warbler was singing deep in the wood. A family of Marsh Tits worked their way through the trees beside the path. We made our way back out of the trees. A Wryneck had been seen earlier by another group up along the edge of the stream so we walked up to look for it. There was no sign of it, but we decided to stop here for lunch and the minibus drove over to join us.

Just as lunch was set out, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker called in the tree right over the picnic table. We had to take a few steps back to see it, feeding high on the trunk. While we were watching the woodpecker, the Wryneck called once from the same tree. We didn’t see it fly out, but despite looking from all round the tree there was no further sign of it.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – feeding in the tree above us while we were having lunch

Over lunch, there were Greenfinches and Goldfinches coming down to drink in the streak. Another flock of White Pelicans and another Booted Eagle, this time a pale phase, circled up over the ridge beyond. A young Long-legged Buzzard was chased by two Steppe Buzzards over the clearing.

After lunch, we had a longer drive over to the Macin Mountains. There were lots of White Stork nests in the villages on the way, and several Rollers and Bee-eaters on the wires by the road. We eventually turned off the road and up along a rough track. There were a few Corn Buntings on the wires but pride of place went to a smart male Black-headed Bunting here too. They are scarce here, so always a good bird to catch up with, and this one posed nicely as we pulled up in the minibus alongside it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – this smart male was on the wires by the track

There were a few Rollers in the trees and on the wires too, and a Short-toed Lark flew up from a field of sunflowers as we passed.

Roller 2

Roller – there were one or two on the wires too

We parked opposite a quarry. As we got out of the bus, a pair of Crested Larks flew in and one of them perched up nicely nearby. We walked over through the grass towards the quarry, flushing lots of grasshoppers, moths and butterflies as we walked. A female Pied Wheatear appeared on the rocks in the grass and stayed just long enough for us to get a quick look at it, before it flew back up into the quarry. Scanning the rock faces, we found several smart black and white male Pied Wheatears and we had a look at them in the scope. An Ortolan Bunting was singing, and we picked up a couple of males distantly on the rocks. A Northern Wheatear flew in too.

We could hear a Common Rock Thrush singing, but couldn’t see it at first. As we scanned the rock faces looking for it, we did find a Long-legged Buzzard on a nest. Then the Rock Thrush flew in over the top of the quarry and landed on the rocks on the top ridge. It flew up singing a few times, gliding round with its wings and rusty tail fanned. It was very active, constantly flying around the quarry, the white patch on its back really standing out when it turned and caught the sun.

It was a hot afternoon, so we walked back to the minibus for a drink of cold water and then stopped in the next village for an ice cream. Afterwards, we headed out onto an area of steppe. It didn’t take long to find an Isabelline Wheatear perched on bush. We stopped and got out, and realised there were several more here too. We got one in the scope, perched on the top of a ridge. Others were feeding in the short grass or occasionally hovering up singing.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – common out in the steppe grassland

We had a brief glimpse of a Tawny Pipit, but couldn’t refind it, despite walking round through grass where it had been. A Short-toed Lark fluttered singing high in the sky, and one or two Turtle Doves flew over. A Spur-thighed Tortoise appeared on top of the bank where the Isabelline Wheatear had been earlier, but disappeared surprisingly quickly into a hole. Finally the Tawny Pipits showed themselves. Two chased each other round just behind us, and one landed on the same grassy bank, where we got it in the scope. Another two then appeared on the other side of the track and then, as we got back into the bus, one was quite close by in the grass.

We had heard a thunderstorm building away in the distance, and could see the rain now lashing down over the hills. It was a long drive back to Tulcea, and we caught the edge of the rain on our way. But it was dry back in Tulcea as we checked into our guesthouse for the night.

FRIDAY 7TH JUNE

It was another early start, to try to beat the heat of the day, but it was already getting quite warm as we arrived on the edge of Babadag Forest. The minibus dropped us off and we walked down a track through the scrubby woodland.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine – Cardinal and Silver-washed Fritillaries, Ilex Hairstreak, Silver-studded and Green-underside Blues – and loads of dragonflies – mostly Lesser Emperor and Norfolk Hawker.

Ilex Hairstreak

Ilex Hairstreak – one of several butterflies seen this morning

We found several Spur-thighed Tortoises in the grass, and lizards including Snake-eyed (European Copper) Skink and Balkan Wall Lizard.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – a young one, in the Babadag Forest

There were not many birds active now – a Chiffchaff, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and one or two Common Nightingales singing, and a few commoner tits. We had really come to try to see Sombre Tit and we thought our luck was in when we heard one call close by. We stood and listened but it didn’t call again and disappeared deeper into the scrub. Despite looking, we couldn’t find it again. We carried on along the track, where several Turtle Doves were purring and Golden Orioles were fluting, with one or two of each seen flying back and forth.

The raptors were starting to circle up now that it was getting hot, Booted Eagles and a Common Buzzard. As we got out of the trees and into a more open area, we heard a Levant Sparrowhawk call and looked back to see two displaying over the trees. We met the minibus here, down by the road. As we stopped for a drink of water, we spotted a couple of Isabelline Wheatears perched up on small dead stems sticking up out of the short grass. We could hear Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting singing too. There were more butterflies out here too, in particular several striking black and white Great Banded Grayling.

Great Banded Grayling

Great Banded Grayling – common in the open grass on the edge of the forest

Back in the minibus, we drove over to a track across a rough area of open ground, where we found three more Turtle Doves, plus several more Isabelline and Northern Wheatears. We stopped to look at a Corn Bunting in the top of a bush and it was joined by a male Spanish Sparrow. The track continued over to the edge of some open woodland, where we stopped and got out for a walk.

A Red-backed Shrike was in the bushes right next to where we parked, and there were several Ortolan Buntings singing as we walked up the hill. A Woodlark flew over singing, and several more came up out of the short grass, but there was no sign of any Sombre Tits here.

Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Bunting – this one perched in the top of an oak tree singing

We walked back to the minibus, stopping on the way to look at an Ortolan Bunting which perched in the top of an oak tree. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees too. We were back at the minibus and jst about to get back on when we heard a Sombre Tit calling from somewhere in the trees nearby. We walked into through trees, and played cat and mouse for several minutes, before we eventually tracked them down. A pair of Sombre Tits, feeding quietly in the trees, right within sight of the bus!

There had been thunderstorms audible off in the distance for a while, but now unfortunately it started to rain here, so we dashed back and into the minibus. It was a long drive south to Vadu, and it was raining on and off for much of the journey – not what we had been forecast. When we arrived in the village, we decided to stop for lunch first and it was a good call as it stopped raining and started to brighten up.

After lunch, it was hot and sunny again as we headed back to an area of pools we had passed on the edge of the village. As we got out of the bus again, there were  several Bee-eaters on the wires. We could hear Red-footed Falcons calling in the trees across the road, and we could just see a nest up in one of the trees.

Turning our attention to the pools, we scanned round the edge where there were lots of Little Gulls. We counted 44, mostly young, 1st summer birds. A pair of Pied Avocets, several Green Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers were on the shore too, along with a single smart summer plumage Little Stint. There were Shelducks on the brackish pool at the front, and several Great Crested Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks on the larger fishing pond behind.

Little Gull

Little Gulls – we counted 44 around the first pool we looked at

A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds on one edge and, as we walked down the hill and round the pools, three Red-footed Falcons and a Hobby flew overhead. At the back of the pools, we found two different waders in the far corner, two Marsh Sandpipers in breeding plumage, late migrants through here. We had a good view of them through the scope.

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – one of two still at Vadu

We cut back round to the road on the far side of the village, where we met the minibus again. After a quick drink, we continued on along the road past the old abandoned communist-era factory buildings. We found several pairs of Northern Wheatears in the sandy grassland, with at least two feeding streaky juveniles. Then once we got to the damper areas with reeds, there were lots of Western Yellow Wagtails in a bewildering array of different forms, a couple that looked good for pure Black-headed Wagtail, but mainly ‘dombrowskii’ types of varying hues, and even one ‘xanthophrys’ with a black head and yellow supercilium.

Two Collared Pratincoles appeared, hawking high over the reeds, with one at one point coming quite close overhead, rather like a cross between a tern and a swallow. A little further on, three were loafing down on the short grass where the cattle were grazing. Several Spoonbills and pelicans circled over too.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – hawking for insects above the reeds

Our main target here was Paddyfield Warbler, but we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find one in the heat of the afternoon. At first, we found nothing but Eurasian Reed Warblers, singing or collecting food. There were Great Reed Warblers singing too, with one or two seen flying across over the tops of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits pinging and saw several zooming back and forth. And there were Reed Buntings here as well.

Then, as we walked slowly along the road, we heard a Paddyfield Warbler singing further up. We hurried along, and found it perched briefly on a stem in the top of the reeds. For those who were there quickly, it was a good view, but all too quickly it disappeared down into the reeds. Several of the group had gone back in the bus to use the facilities in the village, so had missed it. It was still singing but with a bit of a breeze, it was keeping well down in the reeds most of the time. We stuck at it though, and eventually it made another appearance for those who didn’t see it first time. The Black Sea coast of Romania is the westernmost point of the breeding range of Paddyfield Warbler, so you need to see it here, unless you want to go further east!

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – we found one singing in the reeds

There were some large sandy banks surrounding some wet basins a little further on, so we walked up for a look. On the first, hundreds of pairs of Common Terns were nesting. Two Little Gulls were in with them, along with several Common Redshanks round the edge of the islands. The basin on the other side of the road was deeper and less productive. Four Spoonbills and a Grey Heron flushed from the brackish marsh on the edge of the reeds on the way, and a Purple Heron flew over.

It is a long drive own to the coast even from here, and we had one more area we wanted to visit this afternoon, so we decided to head back, with a quick stop on the way for ice cream. We made our way over to an agricultural area, passing through another band of rain on the way, and turned onto a newly tarmacked road through the fields. A Calandra Lark circled over a rough field of grass and oats, just the bird we had come to see, but dropped down out of view.

We continued on slowly up the road and stopped by a track. Several Western Yellow Wagtails were bathing down in a puddle and two Black-headed Buntings perched in the tops of some young sunflowers in the edge of a field singing. A Red Fox walked down the track towards us.

We could see another Calandra Lark standing in the middle of the road further up. It seemed to like the new tarmac, as a couple of times it flew round but came back to the road. We drove slowly up towards it, but we were looking through the windscreen and into the sun so it was not going to be the best of views. The Calandra Lark eventually flew up, but circled round and landed again on the road behind. Now we got out and had a look at it through the scope. There was a lot of heat haze from the tarmac, but it helpfully decided to fly up and land much closer to us, where we could see its big bill and black neck patches.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – kept coming back to the new tarmac

Eventually it flew again, right past us, flashing the broad white trailing edge to its wings and black underwings, before dropping down in the middle of a field of wheat. There were several other Calandra Larks flying round over the fields and several Skylarks here too.

Two Long-legged Buzzards circled over while we were standing here. Then we looked up across the fields to see a Montagu’s Harrier quartering along a ridge. It had been sunny, but now it started to spit with rain again. We had been very lucky dodging the showers this afternoon – we hadn’t been caught by the rain at all while we were out – and it was time to head back anyway now, with a long drive to Tulcea ahead.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – one of two which circled over

Back at the guesthouse, after a break to freshen up and start packing, we gathered for our final dinner, which was finished off with a celebratory cake prepared by the guesthouse to mark the end of our visit.

SATURDAY 8TH JUNE

After a more leisurely breakfast, we checked out of the guesthouse and set off on the long drive back to Bucharest. We had a quick stop on the way at an area of marshes for Ruddy Shelduck.

As soon as got out of minibus, we saw one flying across over the water down below the hillside. There was a big colony of Sand Martins by the road, and several Bee-eaters with them. Two Rollers flew past and a Cuckoo came over calling. It was great we had seen so many Common Cuckoos on this trip – mostly in the Delta, but we had seen at least one every day so it was good to keep up the record. Further down the grassy hillside, a Hoopoe was feeding out on the grass with a single Isabelline Wheatear nearby.

We walked down the path to where we could get a better view out over the marshes and found at least 9 adult Ruddy Shelducks here, including a pair with several shelducklings. There were a few waders out on the marshes too. Several Black-winged Stilts and Lapwings were out in the middle, and two Green Sandpipers were down on a muddy patch on the near edge. Four Collared Pratincoles flew high overhead calling. In the distance, we could see lots of White Storks circling over the hillside beyond, and a Spoonbill flew in.

All too quickly it was sadly time to move on again. We had another break for an early lunch at the filling station back in Slobozia, where a Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the bushes beyond the back fence today.

Then it was on to Bucharest. We got to the airport in good time, only to find our flight was delayed by 20 minutes, but we were soon on our way back to Luton. We sailed through passport control, but then had to wait almost an hour for bags. Welcome back to the UK! Then we bid our farewells and headed off home.

It had been an unforgettable experience – with lots of good birds, good food and good company. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Romania, please get in touch.

28th Apr-4th May 2019 – Northern Greece & Lake Kerkini

A week-long International Tour to Northern Greece and Lake Kerkini, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. It is a great destination for eastern migrants and south-eastern Mediterranean specialities. We had generally good weather with temperatures of 20-25C, nice birding conditions.

SUNDAY 28TH APRIL

Our plane departed on time and it was a smooth journey from Gatwick to Thessaloniki. Our first birds in Greece were the Jackdaws and House Sparrows around the airport terminal building, with several Tree Sparrows by the car hire office while we waited to do the paperwork for the minibus. It was just over an hour’s drive north to Lake Kerkini, but once we got out of the city we started to see a few more birds, with hirundines including our first Red-rumped Swallows, and raptors including Common Buzzard and Kestrel. The villages closer to the lake produced White Storks, with some on nests atop the telegraph posts.

When we got to the lake, we stopped on the southern embankment by the dam. Several Common Nightingales were singing in the bushes nearby, which was to be a constant soundtrack to the next few days, a Golden Oriole was fluting nearby and a Common Cuckoo was calling. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was chattering too, sounding a little like a Reed Warbler, and we eventually got a view of it skulking in the bushes.

There were several Grey Herons around the shore, and our first Squacco Heron of the trip flew in and landed by the rocks. A Great Cormorant was stretching its wings on a post and a Dalmatian Pelican flew in high over the dam. There were lots of gulls around the lake, mainly Yellow-legged Gulls of various ages, but we also found a single 2cy Caspian Gull out on the water, its distinctive snouty look, with a long, thin parallel-sided bill, giving its identity away. A group of Common Terns was gathered on the line of fishing net posts just offshore.

Scanning the surrounding hills, we picked up four birds circling high over the fields on the far side of the lake, Collared Pratincoles hawking for insects. They were distant at first but then turned and headed our way, flying high overhead and off to the south. Then our host, Stelios, turned up with our picnic lunch.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – four flew over the dam while we had lunch

After lunch, we drove slowly up the western shore of the lake. Common Nightingales were singing everywhere in the scrub, and out into the more open cultivated areas, they were replaced by Corn Buntings. We stopped at Korifoudi, where a Crested Lark was feeding on a dusty track. A large flock of Western Yellow Wagtails was feeding around the feet of a herd of buffalo out on the short grass. They were mostly Black-headed Wagtails, we could hear their distinctive raspy calls, plus several Blue-headed Wagtails. As the buffalo came up to the road, the wagtails defected to a herd of cattle further back on the lake shore.

Two Woodchat Shrikes were perched out on the scattered bushes in the meadows and another two appeared by the road. We watched them chasing each other round in the bush, stopping to bob their heads in display. There were lots of Little Egrets along the lake shore and distantly out on the water beyond, we could see a huge feeding frenzy of cormorants and pelicans.

Scanning the surrounding hills, we picked up first a Booted Eagle circling high, and then a Black Stork drifting along the ridge. We heard Bee-eaters calling high overhead. There were several butterflies here too, including lots of Painted Ladys, several Clouded Yellows, and a smart Scarce Swallowtail feeding on some thistles by the road.

Scarce Swallowtail

Scarce Swallowtail – feeding on thistles by the road

We tried to drive on, but there were lots of distractions – first we heard a Great Reed Warbler singing in a small clump of reeds, but it was keeping well down. Then a little further on, we spotted two Lesser Spotted Eagles down in the meadow next to the road, which flew up into the trees as we approached. We stopped to get them in the scopes. Another Great Reed Warbler was singing in some reeds nearby, but flew out as we walked over and headed over to another clump further back. Three Whinchats were out in the grass too.

We only managed to go another short distance before we stopped again to look at our first Pygmy Cormorant perched on a dead branch in the edge of the lake. A Wood Sandpiper was feeding in the shallows here, just below the road.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – our first of the trip, on the west shore of the lake

Eventually, we made it up to the hotel to check in. After a short break to settle in, we met again in the parking area where a Common Nightingale was singing (we would hear it here every day, usually in the same tree). There were also several Tree Sparrows here, and a Lesser Whitethroat rattling in a nearby garden which flew up into the top of a tree. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Pallid Swifts circled round overhead with the other hirundines.

We drove down to the harbour at Mandraki. The water here is quite shallow, particularly this year with the lake level lower than normal, and there were so many birds we didn’t know where to look first. There were herons everywhere, lots of Grey Herons and a huge number of Great White Egrets. A Purple Heron was tucked down in the grass on the edge of the lake, then six circled up together. A big group of Glossy Ibis was feeding actively further back in the shallow water, and when they flew up and came in past us we counted at least sixty. Squacco Herons were liberally scattered all around and six Black Storks circled up from the edge of the flooded forest

There were amazing numbers of Great Crested Grebes out on the water, with most paired up, and several pairs displaying. In amongst the weedy vegetation in the water, we found several Garganey and a single drake Ferruginous Duck: we could see its distinctive white iris. A few Greylag Geese required a closer look here, pink-billed birds of the eastern race rubirostris.

We could see lots of pelicans out on the nesting islands and around the edge of the lake further back. Beyond them, there was a good number of Greater Flamingoes. The flooded forest was chock full of cormorants, great and small (Pygmy!). Some small groups of pelicans were fishing closer to us, and we could see a few White Pelicans in with the Dalmatians. We finished watching some nice close Dalmatian Pelicans swimming just off the jetty in lovely evening light. Then we had to tear ourselves away to get back for dinner.

Dalmatian Pelican 1

Dalmatian Pelican – in the evening light, off the harbour

On the drive back, a Hoopoe was wrestling with a large worm by the road. Back at the hotel, the resident Scops Owl was singing briefly. It went quiet when we tried to look for it, but started up again later, once it got dark. It had been a great first day, but we were tired after an early start this morning, so after a delicious dinner, we turned in.

MONDAY 29TH APRIL

A quick early walk at dawn confirmed that a male Semi-collared Flycatcher was back on territory close to where we saw one last year, so after breakfast we all went up to see it. It was very active, flitting between the plane trees, singing all the time. It seemed to be prospecting nest holes in a couple of trees – we saw it go into one and it seemed to be returning to that branch repeatedly.

Semi-collared Flycatcher

Semi-collared Flycatcher – holding territory in the trees

It was a young male with a rather restricted half collar and small double white patch over the bill, but with a large white patch at the base of the primaries and some barely visible white spots on the median coverts. It was good to see that at least one is back here again. Blackbird and Robin were also additions to the list there.

Afterwards, we headed out to one of our favourite spots, a bushy area by an overflowing water trough. It is a good area to see migrants when they are coming through but the bushes were quite quiet this morning. Perhaps birds were moving straight through and not stopping in the clear sunny weather, and some of the local breeding birds were clearly not arrived yet too. A pair of Golden Orioles perched briefly in the top of a distant dead tree and two Turtle Doves landed on the wires. A Woodchat Shrike and a Common Whitethroat were singing in the bushes and a Black Kite drifted over.

We continued on round to an area of woodland along the River Strimon floodplain. As we walked down the track, we were serenaded by Common Nightingales and lots of Marsh Frogs calling from the pools. It was starting to warm up quickly now and a Levant Sparrowhawk circled up, its rather pointed wings showing distinct blackish tips underneath, and a Lesser Spotted Eagle drifted over just above as we were watching it.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – showing its pointed wings with blackish tips

The woodpeckers were rather quiet today, probably a combination of the heat of the day and the time of year. We did find a black-and-white woodpecker skulking in the bottom of a thick tree close to what appeared to be a fresh hole, but when it eventually showed itself it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Then a little further on, we flushed a Green Woodpecker from the bushes by the track. Two Hoopoes were calling and kept flying off ahead of us. Several Spotted Flycatchers were flitting about in the trees and having heard it calling, a grey male Cuckoo flew across over the open fields followed by a rusty-coloured ‘hepatic’ female, the first of several we would see today.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine along the track or out in the grass. A rather tatty looking Southern Festoon was the highlight, but we also found a couple of Grizzled Skippers, plenty of Queen of Spain Fritillaries and Clouded Yellows, and a few Common Blues. There were dragonflies here too – lots of Scarce Chasers and one or two Hairy Dragonflies down by the water. A Grass Snake curled up on the edge of the path quickly slithered in to the undergrowth as we approached.

Dalmatian Pelican 2

Dalmatian Pelicans – circling up as it warmed up

Small groups of pelicans starting to circle up over towards the lake, looking for thermals to give them lift, and four Dalmatian Pelicans drifted right overhead. Then a much bigger group of White Pelicans appeared further over, towards the river, with three Dalmatians in with them, allowing us to see their very different wing patterns. A few White Storks circled up too, and a Black Stork flew across just over the tops of the trees. A Long-legged Buzzard appeared briefly over the base of the hills to the north.

Our coffee stop this morning was taken by the River Strimon. A small group of Bee-eaters was perched on the wires and bushes beside the track opposite. Two Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper were feeding on a sandy island in the middle of the river, along with a White Wagtail. Lots of House Martins were looking to nest under the bridge and several Sand Martins were coming and going from a sandy bank in the island the other side of the bridge. After coffee, we had a quick drive a short distance up the track opposite to try to photograph the Bee-eaters.

Bee-eater 1

Bee-eater – down by the river while we stopped for morning coffee

The rest of the day would be spent on the embankment which surrounds the eastern shore of the lake. There were lots of Moorhens on the first pool, along with several European Pond Terrapins and a Purple Heron walking along the opposite bank. There are several small clumps of reeds here and we stopped to scan them, almost immediately finding a female Little Bittern on the edge of one. As we scanned further across a female Little Crake was creeping in and out of the reeds nearby. The more we looked, the more we found – in the end, we counted at least six Little Crakes, five brown females and one slaty blue-grey male, and three female Little Bitterns.

A Dice Snake was curled up just in the reeds, a Coypu was half submerged in the water, and a pair of Little Grebes was busy diving. We could hear Penduline Tits calling from the willows and bushes on the other side of the bank, and we managed a brief view of a pair in the trees, chased off by a second male.

We were rather distracted by all the activity here and eventually retreated back to the nearby picnic area for a late lunch in the shade. There were Bee-eaters everywhere, calling all around us. After lunch, we continued on slowly down the embankment. On the next few pools, we found more Purple Herons and our first Spoonbill, plus a few Pygmy Cormorants. Several Turtle Doves were flying around between the bushes out on the grass beyond.

We stopped overlooking the northern edge of the lake. There were lots of Wood Sandpipers around the margins of the grassy islands, migrants stopping off on their way north, and a single Ruff was in with them. Several Black-winged Stilts were further back. A few Common Terns and three or four darker-bellied Whiskered Terns were hawking distantly over the water. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls loafing around the water’s edge, and a single Gull-billed Tern was in with them, preening. Through the scopes, we could see its distinctive short, thick black bill.

There are not so many ducks here in the spring, but as well as a smattering of Mallards, we did find three Common Pochard on the lake. A lone Ruddy Shelduck was over on the grass in front of the flooded forest, with three Greylag Geese nearby.  What initially appeared to be a Black-headed Wagtail was feeding on the short grass just below the bank. On closer inspection, we could see it had a small trace of a white supercilium behind the eye, so it was actually a hybrid form of Yellow Wagtail, ‘superciliaris’.

Black-headed Wagtail superciliaris

Yellow Wagtail – a hybrid ‘superciliaris’ Black-headed Wagtail

Continuing on, Penduline Tits were calling all the way down the embankment but were mostly hidden in the vegetation. We pulled up at one likely looking area, where some poplar trees were overhanging a small area of reeds, and spotted a nest hanging down in amongst the leaves, suspended on one of the lower branches. Then a Penduline Tit appeared out of the reeds with a bill full of cobwebs and poplar seed, and flew up to the nest. We got out and through the scopes, we could see that the nest was an amazing structure, and quite well-built already. We watched the Penduline Tit weaving the gathered material into the structure, before it flew off back along the line of the ditch.

While we waited for it to return, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew past and dropped down into the  bushes below the bank where we could hear it calling. Eventually it flew back in and landed in a bush close to where we were standing, where we got a great look at it, a male with a bright red crown.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – a male, in the trees by the lake

There were lots more Cuckoos along here and another hepatic phase female flew in and landed in the poplars above the Penduline Tit nest, where we could get a great view of it in the scope. A Kingfisher appeared down on the edge of the ditch too. Eventually the pair of Penduline Tits returned, and we watched them gathering material down in the reeds again, before flying up to add it to the nest.

On along the bank, there were several Golden Orioles fluting in the trees but they were difficult to see with all the leaves. Out in the middle of the lake, we could see a feeding frenzy of cormorants and pelicans. There were lots of Squacco Herons down on the rocky shore below the bank as we drove past and scanning the water’s edge we found a Spur-winged Lapwing too. We stopped to look at it, but it walked on behind some bushes, so we drove on a few yards and waited at the next gap in the vegetation. After a minute or two, it duly walked back into view. They are not so common here at the lake – we normally see them down on the coast – so this was a real bonus today.

Spur-winged Lapwing

Spur-winged Lapwing – a nice surprise, down on the shore of the lake

There were one or two Eastern Olivaceous Warblers singing in the bushes beside the bank as we passed, but not as many as we might normally expect to hear. They were obviously still arriving back for the breeding season. There were several Great Reed Warblers singing too – and we eventually got a better look at one perched up in the reeds. Then a Wildcat ran along the track on the bank ahead of us, before disappearing back into the vegetation.

The embankment was closed south of Limnochori, but we were planning to come off here anyway. It was time to be heading back. We had a quick stop in the village to admire a huge White Stork nest, and timed it perfectly as the adults changed over nest duties. One flew in and the other got up and flew off, landing on a nearby telegraph post which happened to be right above us. It stood there staring down. There were lots of sparrows going in and out of the base of the stork’s nest, mostly Spanish Sparrows, with one or two House and Tree Sparrows too. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows was flying in under the eaves of a nearby house.

White Stork

White Stork – landed on a telegraph post right above us

It had been another great day, but it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner. While we were still waiting for pudding, we heard a Scops Owl singing right outside. We went out, and realised we could actually hear two. One was in a tree above the road right in front of the hotel, so we tried to see if we could find it with a torch. It was too high up and there were too many leaves on the tree now, but we eventually saw it as it flew out.

TUESDAY 30TH APRIL

With a prompt getaway after breakfast, we headed up to the village of Promachonas in the hills on the Bulgarian border. We were looking for woodpeckers, and as soon as we walked in to the wood, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew over the track and landed in the trees next to us . We could see its red crown and pale red undertail. As we continued deeper into the wood – two more Middle Spotted Woodpeckers appeared in the top of a tree over the path, with one singing.

We stopped when we couldn’t go any further in. We could hear a Grey-headed Woodpecker, further off, over the other side of the river, but frustratingly it kept its distance. A Semi-collared Flycatcher was singing, and we found it flitting around in a tree a little further on down the path. There were also several Blackcaps singing in the trees, and a Nuthatch appeared to be feeding young, coming in repeatedly with food. A Red Squirrel scuttled up a trunk and a Kingfisher shot past through the trees.

As we walked back, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in over the path calling. It landed in a tree and chased off a Starling which seemed to be prospecting a hole. We tried another path through the wood, closer to the road, where a Golden Oriole was fluting. It was a bit more open here and there were several butterflies in the dappled shade, including a Southern Festoon and a couple of Dingy Skippers. Lots of Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies were down by the river.

Southern Festoon

Southern Festoon – in the dapped shade on the edge of the wood

We had a very brief look for Masked Shrike in the quarry across the road, but there was no sign of any – perhaps they were late coming back this year? But we had run out of time, and had to get back down to the lake. Our boat trip had been organised for the afternoon, but with the forecast suggesting the wind might pick up it had been brought forward to 11am. We arrived back at the lake just in time.

As we motored out across the lake, there were lots of Great Crested Grebes on the water, and then out in the middle we found several much smaller Black-necked Grebes too. Close up, we could see their black necks and golden yellow face tufts. A flock of around twenty Collared Pratincoles flew over high.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – in full breeding plumage out on the lake

More birds were gathered around the mouth of the Strimon river, where it flows into the lake. A large flock of Greater Flamingoes put their heads up and started calling as we passed. We got some much better views of both Dalmatian and White Pelicans, with several of the latter still really pink (rather than white!).

White Pelican

White Pelican – still looking rather more pink than white!

There was a nice selection of lingering winter wildfowl out here, with a few Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler all additions to the trip list. A tight flock of about 20 Garganey flew round and four Ferruginous Ducks were swimming in the vegetation with a few Common Pochard. Several Common Shelduck were in amongst the legs of the Flamingoes, and the Ruddy Shelduck was out here too today.

Round at the flooded forest, the low water level this year was very noticeable, with lots of the trees on dry land. Thankfully we could still get through the edge of it in the boat and it was an amazing experience! The sight, the sound and the smell. Every tree was packed full of Great Cormorants on their nests, many with well grown young.

Cormorant

Cormorant – amazing intricate plumage detail up close

In amongst them were lots of herons. We had great close up views of Black-crowned Night Herons and Squacco Herons. A few Spoonbills were on their nests close to where we were, some with young already, and we could see many more further back in the trees or flying round overhead. There were just a few Pygmy Cormorants on the outer edge of the colony.

Nigth Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – we saw several in the trees

Spoonbill

Eurasian Spoonbill – on the nest

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – one of the few we got close to from the boat

We went over to look at the pelican nesting islands. The older wooden platforms were packed with Dalmatian Pelicans, including several well-grown juveniles. The stone islands were more sparsely populated, with a mixture of Dalmatian and White Pelicans on the tops.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on the old nesting platform

As we turned to head back, a lone Tufted Duck came up from the water. We hadn’t seen any marsh terns yet today, but as we motored back across the lake, we picked up a flock of around 20 way off in the distance. We headed over and could see them more clearly, before they helpfully came round for a really close pass, a mixture of 11 stunning breeding adult White-winged Black Terns and a smaller number of darker Black Terns, about 8. A great way to finish off the boat trip, which is always one of the highlights of any visit to Kerkini.

White-winged Black Tern 1

White-winged Black Terns – we came across a mixed flock on our way back

Back at the shore, it was time for lunch. We stopped just off the bank by a small poplar wood, where Golden Oriole and Green Woodpecker were calling in the trees. Several Spotted Flycatchers were flitting around in the bushes by the road and we could hear another Penduline Tit in the willows further back.

After lunch, we drove over to try the marshes by the River Strimon. A Little Ringed Plover flew up from the edge of the track as we passed and a Common Sandpiper was feeding down along the river shore. There were loads of Yellow-legged Gulls loafing on the gravel islands in the middle of the river, with one or two Caspian Gulls in with them. But as we got out to look at our first tortoise, a Spur-thighed Tortoise grazing on the grassy bank by the track, all the gulls flew up and whirled round. We had planned to walk out to marshes, but had a feeling they might be dry this year given the water levels. We met another group leaving who said they were indeed dry, so we decided to try something else instead.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – our first tortoise of the trip

We would normally visit Vironia Quarry in the morning, before the boat trip, so we were not sure whether there would be much activity this afternoon, in the heat of the day. We walked down the hill to look at the scrub around the water troughs first, where it was pretty quiet apart from all the Nightingales and Peacocks calling at a nearby farmhouse. A Cirl Bunting was singing in the distance.

Thankfully, the quarry was more productive. As walked through the scrub up towards it, a male Cirl Bunting was feeding in the short grass beside the path. Coming out into the open, several Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Crag Martins were hawking around the cliff face. We could hear Blue Rock Thrush singing, and found a male and female up on the rocks. When the male flew down into the top of a bush on one side, we noticed a small bird nearby – an Ortolan Bunting. We managed a good look at it through the scope before it flew out of view. Another pair of Cirl Buntings were up here too.

A Subalpine Warbler (of one of the eastern races, albistrata) started singing in the bushes behind us, so we followed it a short way as it moved back along the path. We could see it flitting around in the vegetation but it was keeping well hidden, before it flew across the path and disappeared deeper in. A big family party of Long-tailed Tits made their way through the bushes too.

Back in the quarry, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was displaying up on the rock face, flying round and round in small circles, flashing it wings and white tail. It landed on a bush and we could see it was the black-eared form, with a white throat and black bandit masks. Then it flew back across the face to the other side and we could see why it was busy displaying – a female was in the bushes here too.

A Levant Sparrowhawk flashed in across the rock face, sending all the hirundines up and the causing the other birds to all start alarm calling. It disappeared into the bushes up on the rocks, before emerging again a few seconds later, flying up and over the top of the quarry. We walked on to the far side where another Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was singing, this time a black-throated male. Another pair of Cirl Buntings was feeding quietly on the edge.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – flashed across the face of the quarry

Then it was time to go back to the hotel. We had arranged an early dinner tonight, and afterwards we headed out again. The Scops Owls were already singing intermittently by the car park but shut up before we could pin down where they were roosting. The rain clouds had been gathering over the hills and it started to spit with rain here, but thankfully it looked to still be clear down by the lake, so we headed straight over there.

We drove through a couple of villages on the way, scanning the roofs as we passed, and eventually found our first target – a Little Owl perched on the corner of low building. We stopped to watch it staring down into the grass below, occasionally looking at us with its piercing yellow eyes.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a roof in one of the village

The sun was just setting, so we continued on round the lake shore. A couple of Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds but keeping well down again today, as loads of Spanish Sparrows flew in, presumably to roost. A Common Buzzard landed down on the shore, the other side of the road. With the clouds hanging over the hills, it seemed to be getting dark quickly tonight, so we drove back to an old quarry.

We were just in time – we hadn’t been out of the minibus for more than a minute or two when the Eagle Owl flew up from its roost site and landed on the base of a tree up on the cliff. It was still good enough light, so we could get fantastic views of it through the scopes.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl – came out early tonight, before it got too dark

We stayed and watched the Eagle Owl until the light faded. It was a fantastic way to end another action-packed day.

WEDNESDAY 1ST MAY

It was a noticeably cooler start to the morning and with the change in the weather last night, we thought there might be migrants in. We decided to have a look at the water trough first and spotted a male Red-backed Shrike in the bushes before we got out of the minibus. Setting up the scopes and scanning round, we found two others nearby, presumably all freshly arrived. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing, which was not here a couple of days ago. A Whinchat was out in the field beyond.

Two male Black-headed Buntings were chasing each other round and round through the bushes, presumably trying to decide who was getting the territory. They eventually settled in a bush next to the road, so we could get a good look at them – smart birds, canary yellow underneath, with a black head.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – fresh in this morning

An Eastern Orphean Warbler started singing behind us, and flew over in to the same bush. We had a good view of it perched with one of the male Black-headed Buntings. One of the Red-backed Shrikes flew in too, and started flying down to catch insects on the road, and another Eastern Olivaceous Warbler started up, all in the same bush. There were obviously lots of birds freshly arrived here.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes this morning

We were heading up to the hills today, so we drove over to Sidirokastro and made our way up to the byzantine castle ruins first. As we stopped to admire the view over town and the lake in the distance beyond, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was songflighting in front of us. Two Cirl Buntings flew past calling. We walked round to the other side and started scanning the crags. A pair of Blue Rock Thrush appeared distantly, and we counted at least four more Eastern Black-eared Wheatears within a few metres of each other.

Western Rock Nuthatch was our main target here and we were in luck, as one then appeared on a rock face further back. Unfortunately it flew up before we could all get onto it and disappeared. We walked over to the top of the crag opposite but there was no further sign of it. Two Linnets were flitting around on the top and a Cirl Bunting landed in the bushes right in front of us briefly. We could see yet more Blue Rock Thrushes and wheatears from here too.

As we started to walk back along the side of the castle, we scanned behind us over to where the nuthatch had been, and suddenly one appeared on some low rocks in between the crags. We got the scopes on it and realised there was a second Western Rock Nuthatch with it. We could see they were collecting something, and then they flew up into rocks out of view. One dropped down onto a branch jutting out of the crag, where it remained perched for some time, so we could get a good view in the scopes. Then one flew over and started feeding on the cliff just below the castle, where we watched it going into the cracks in the rock. It seemed to collect some food and then flew back across, made its way up the rock face and then disappeared into the same crag.

Western Rock Nuthatch

Western Rock Nuthatch – we watched them collecting food on the crags

From back at the minibus, we could see more distantly where they were going in. Over coffee, we watched the small dead branch they were using as a perch, which held alternately Western Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear! A Serin flew in calling and landed briefly nearby, but flew straight out again. Four Ravens flew over calling.

After coffee, we drove up the valley beyond the village to an old quarry. Several Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Crag Martins were hawking round the rocks. A Subalpine Warbler started singing in the top of a tree in the valley below us.

Red-rumped Swallow 2

Red-rumped Swallow – hawking around the quarry

A Cirl Bunting was singing high on the edge of the quarry and while we were watching it, we noticed an Ortolan Bunting also singing from the top of a rock, much higher up still. Making our way into the quarry, we found more Blue Rock Thrushes and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears.

One of group noticed some movement in the rocks at the base of the rock face, and a bird flew up and landed on a rock. It was a male Rock Thrush (Common or Rufous-tailed, not Blue!). A nice surprise here, as they are normally found much higher up in the mountains. We had a good view of it through the scopes – blue above, orange below, with a white back. When it eventually flew up the quarry face towards the top, a female Rock Thrush appeared too. They perched briefly before disappeared over the top.

Rock Thrush

Rock Thrush – we found a pair in the quarry

Next, we drove over to Serres and, after negotiating our way through town, up onto Mount Vrontou. A couple of Woodlarks were perched on the rocks by the road as we made our way up, along with a Black Redstart. A pair of Mistle Thrushes perched on some wires and Chiffchaffs were singing in the trees. We headed straight up to the ski centre at the top for lunch.

There was still some snow on the ground by the road and the beech trees were still not in leaf, everything seemed to be a little behind this year. Several Coal Tits were singing in pines, a Tree Pipit was singing from the trees beside the ski slope and a smart male Black Redstart was dropping down to feed on the short grass from the ski lift cables. It was slightly surprising to hear Cuckoos all the way up here – a male calling and a female bubbling.

After lunch, we had a quick walk round the road at the top, but there was a distinct chill in the air and the bare beech trees were rather quiet. We decided to drop down to the ski hotel a bit lower down in the pines. It is closed for the season now, but we found lots of Common Crossbills in the pines around the car park and had good views of several feeding on cones through the scopes.

Crossbill

Common Crossbill – feeding in the pines by the ski hotel

Down a bit lower, we stopped again and had a short walk along a path through the trees. We heard more Coal Tits singing, a Chiffchaff flew across the path and a Goldcrest singing in the pines slowly made its way out and showed itself briefly before disappearing back into the trees. Otherwise, it was rather quiet here, being rather cool with a fresh breeze blowing up the hillside. There was a great view of the mountain slopes from the end of the path and we found a Short-toed Eagle and a Raven over the crags.

We made our way back down the mountain and headed over to Paleokastro, stopping by another disused quarry. We were hoping to find a Roller here but there was no sign – possibly they were not back yet. A couple more Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing – there were definitely more in today – and a female Red-backed Shrike perched in the top of a small bush across the field. Looking further down the track, a tree on the verge had eight Black-headed Buntings in it! We walked along the track for a closer look, and the buntings dropped down into a neighbouring fallow field covered in sparse grass and wild flowers.

We climbed up onto verge and scanned the surrounding countryside. Four Turtle Doves flew past, and a couple of Common Buzzards circled up. A small party of Bee-eaters flew over calling. Then a Tawny Pipit flew up out of the grass and dropped down into the edge of the bare field next door, out of view. We walked down through the grass, and more Tawny Pipits flew up – a group of eleven, followed by another four, and there was still at least one in the grass. More migrants on their way through.

Tawny Pipit

Tawny Pipit – one of at least 16 in the grassy field

Three Black-headed Wagtails were feeding on the edge of a rough ploughed field the other side, then they flew in too and disappeared into the grass. As we walked back up to the track, we found the Black-headed Buntings again, all males, presumably just arrived and feeding up.

Then we had to leave. It had been a long day and we still had quite a way to go to get back to the hotel in time for dinner.

THURSDAY 2ND MAY

Today we were heading down to the coast for the day. On the drive there, we saw lots of Corn Buntings singing from the wires all the way down, but just one Black-headed Bunting. Perhaps they were still to move onto their territories, but the gusty breeze this morning didn’t help. A female Montagu’s Harrier drifted across the road in front of the minibus and across a field full of poppies.

As we left Kalahori village, we stopped to scan the saltmarsh. There were lots of Shelduck and our first Oystercatchers here, and it didn’t take too long to find a pair of Stone Curlews. We had a good view of them through the scopes.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – we found a pair out on the saltmarsh

On the corner of the first lagoon, beside the track, we had a taste of what was to come. A small group of Ruff were feeding in the shallows and a flock of smaller waders flew in to join them, five Dunlin and several Curlew Sandpipers resplendent to various extents in rusty summer plumage. On the other side of the track, out on the edge of the bay, a couple of Little Terns were hovering out over the sea and a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull was picking around on the shore with a single Black-headed Gull and one Yellow-legged Gull.

As we parked by the causeway and got out of the minibus, it was rather windy. Undaunted, we set out along the path between the lagoons. There were more Little Terns on a small island, and another Curlew Sandpiper. A little further on, we spotted our first Little Stint, along with several of both Kentish Plovers and Ringed Plovers.

Kentish Plover

Kentish Plover – on the shore of the lagoon

We could see lots of waders right over along the far edge of the lagoons on both side, so we made our way over. There were some impressive numbers of birds here, with over 1,000 Curlew Sandpipers and at least 200 Little Stints, in a variety of plumages but with some very smart rusty ones of both species. A smaller number of Dunlin were mixed in with them. There were lots of Ruff over in the corner, two Black-tailed Godwits out in the middle and a flock of Spotted Redshanks further round in the distance on the edge of the reeds. Just two Greater Flamingoes, a young male and a young female, were out in the deeper water in the middle of the lagoon.

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpipers – there were over 1,000 on the lagoons today

There were lots of birds hawking out over the water in the wind. We counted eighteen smart adult White-winged Black Terns and a single Black Tern with them. The first two Slender-billed Gulls flew in and landed briefly before flying off again, but more arrived steadily until there were eighteen swimming out on the water. There were loads of hirundines too and at one point, a tight flock of around 200 Sand Martins flew past.

White-winged Black Tern 2

White-winged Black Tern – 1 of 18 hawking over the lagoon

Several Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air over the reeds at the back. Scanning out over the saltmarsh, we spotted two Ospreys hunting way off in the distance. It was hard to make out any detail, although their flight action was distinctive enough, but thankfully one then came in closer so we could all see what it was. As we turned to walk back, a Peregrine then flew in from the sea and circled over the lagoon. Two Gull-billed Terns flew over calling.

We drove further on down the track and stopped for coffee. From here, we had a much better view of the Spotted Redshanks, mostly in black breeding plumage. There were about thirty roosting in one flock and more feeding along the edge of the reeds. Two Greenshanks were with them.

After coffee, we made our way down along the track which skirts the edge of the Axios delta. A couple of Common Redshank on the saltmarsh on the edge of the bay were an addition to the wader list. As we passed, we scanned the pools below the track on the landward side. A large flock of Greater Flamingoes took off from one pool as we drove up, disturbed by a plane circling just beyond, and we were treated to an amazing flash of pink wings as they flew past us. They circled round over the bay, and half of them came back in and landed again back on the pool. A few Pygmy Cormorants were perched on the fishing net poles out in the bay as we passed and several Common Terns were plunge diving along the edge of the sea.

Greater Flamingoes 2

Greater Flamingoes – flashing bright pink as they flew

The pools held a variety of waders – nesting Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, occasional little groups of Wood Sandpipers and Ruff, a few Curlew Sandpipers and a couple of Little Stints. Collared Pratincoles were hawking either side of the track in the wind all the way down, and we finally got one on the ground in the scopes, standing on the mud by one of the pools. Four more Gull-billed Terns were loafing on another. Reed Warblers were singing from ditches, and lots of Black-headed Wagtails and Crested Larks flushed from the edge of the track as we passed.

There were several Common Sandpipers along the edge of the bay as we made our way along. One of the group spotted two larger, paler waders roosting out on the edge of the saltmarsh – Marsh Sandpipers. We had a look at them from the minibus, but unfortunately they took off as we tried to get out. We could see them flying round like small Greenshanks before they dropped down again further back, out of view.

We stopped for lunch a little further on. The sandbars which often hold roosting birds were mostly under water but there were still a few waders here, several Grey Plovers and a couple of Eurasian Curlews. There were more waders scattered round the edge of the saltmarsh, including one very smart Grey Plover in breeding plumage. Lots of Eastern Bath White butterflies were fluttering around the flowers in the lee of the bank.

When we got to the mouth of the Axios river we had a quick stop at the viewing tower before turning inland. Two Spur-winged Lapwings were on one of the pools below the track, so we stopped to watch them, smart birds. A little further on, another two were out on the saltmarsh the other side. There were several Pygmy Cormorants loafing around the edges of the pools, which finally allowed us a closer look at this often very flighty species, and two Spoonbills were feeding in the shallow water, sweeping their bills from side to side. Several Marsh Harriers hunted over the reeds. We stopped to look at a little group of Turtle Doves feeding out on the saltmarsh and a pair of Hoopoes flew off as we drove on.

Pygmy Cormorant 3

Pygmy Cormorant – on the pools by the track through the Axios Delta

Back on the main road, we drove up to Polykastro. Two Red-footed Falcons swooped in over the field, but no one got onto them as we passed and there was nowhere to pull in. We stopped at a nearby reservoir. Another Turtle Dove was on a mound in the edge of the field as we drove in and four Whinchats were perched in the vegetation alongside the track.

The wind had dropped now, and we got out for a walk, up onto the bank. As we got over the top and looked out across the reservoir, we could see over 100 terns hawking out over the water. There were lots of Common Terns, mixed in with a smaller number of White-winged Black Terns and Black Terns dip feeding. More surprising, there were several Little Terns with them, despite it being long way inland. We could see both Little and Great Crested Grebes on the water, and several Ferruginous Ducks scattered along far shore. A single Common Pochard and a pair of Gadwall were swimming by the island in the middle.

A hepatic female Cuckoo flew past, and a grey male perched up singing in a nearby tree. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing in the bushes just below the bank.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – singing in the bushes below the bank

Then as we scanned over the fields, we got distracted by some raptors. First we found a Long-legged Buzzard hovering, but it dropped down behind some trees. We could see some kestrels hovering in the distance, and when we looked more closely we realised there were at least ten of them in a big group, Lesser Kestrels. They were rather pale below when they banked and one male showed the distinctive grey panel between its dark primaries and rusty wing coverts. There were also a few Red-footed Falcons with them. We got on a couple of females first, grey above and rusty below. Then we found a smart male, dark slate grey with silvery primaries, and we could just see its red trousers as it turned.

We picked up the Long-legged Buzzard again, perched in a tree, and when it finally took off and flew round, we got a better look at its paler head and dark belly, and its pale rusty tail with a white base. It was mobbed at one point by a Common Buzzard, giving us a good side by side comparison, the Long-legged Buzzard being noticeably bigger and rustier.

It was already getting late, and we still had a long drive back, so we had to tear ourselves away. There was still one surprise on the way. As we were driving along, one of the group noticed a woodpecker on some wires. After a quick turn round, the Syrian Woodpecker flew to a telegraph post, and we had a nice view of it as it perched out in the open. Then it flew to a garden behind, and we realised there were two, chasing each other round through the trees.

Syrian Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker – flew from the wires to a telegraph post

We finally got back to hotel just in time for a quick drink before another delicious dinner – very welcome after a long but very rewarding day.

FRIDAY 3RD MAY

Sombre Tit was one species which had eluded us so far – they are not very vocal at this time of year – so we headed out for an early walk before breakfast to look for one we knew was not far away. As we parked and walked up the track, it was still rather cool and the sun was still not on the hillside. It was worth the early start just for the great view of the lake from here though. A Cirl Bunting flew up from the verge and we could hear one or two Subalpine Warblers singing. Further up, we had a nice view of a male Subalpine Warbler feeding in the bushes by the track. A smart male Red-backed Shrike perched in the top of a tree.

As the sun finally came onto the hillside, we walked slowly back down and could hear a Sombre Tit calling in the bushes. We followed the sound and could see it working its way up through the undergrowth towards the track. It perched up in full view for a second but we were looking into the light and not everyone could get onto it. We got ourselves positioned to see it come out again and just at that moment a small 4×4 came up the track – we hadn’t seen any other vehicle here, and it was the worst possible moment. We had to stand to one side and after it had passed, the Sombre Tit had disappeared, presumably flushed back down the hillside by the vehicle. We stopped and listened but couldn’t hear it now. Unfortunately we were out of time too, and had to get back to the hotel for breakfast.

After breakfast, we drove down to the water trough again. Two male Black-headed Buntings were singing from the bushes and there were several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers in now. Two male and a female Red-backed Shrike were scattered around, and a male Woodchat Shrike was singing from the tops of the trees. A Montagu’s Harrier flew in over the fields, a female, and disappeared up towards the hills, presumably a migrant on its way north. A Levant Sparrowhawk circled up distantly over the hillside.

As we drove on, we could see lots of birds in a small orchard by the road which just been mown. Three male Black-headed Buntings and four Crested Larks were feeding on the cut grass between the trees and a small group of Black-headed Wagtails were perched on the fence at the back.

Cutting across towards the western shore of the lake, a tractor was mowing the verge, followed by a White Stork which almost wouldn’t get out of the road as we passed, giving us point blank views from the minibus. Small groups of pelicans were flying round, starting to look for the first thermals of the morning. Along the edge of the lake, we could see the usual selection of Little Egrets, herons and a few Dalmatian Pelicans. We stopped briefly at Korifoudi. The Great Reed Warblers were still singing from the reeds, but this time perching up nicely in lighter winds. A Woodchat Shrike was still in its usual bush and a Roe Deer buck ran across the fields at the back.

Continuing on down to Himarros, we drove in along the dusty track. A pair of Turtle Doves in the bushes flew off as we pulled up and several Little Egrets were standing around the pools. A Spur-thighed Tortoise was slowly crossing the track in front of us, so we stopped to look at it. Continuing on to the old quarry, there were Bee-eaters flying round calling as we got out of the minibus. Three Woodchat Shrikes perched on the fence – nice to see, but not the one we really wanted here. A pair of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears was also on the fence, the male a rather dark black-throated individual. Another male wheatear was perched in the trees just across the track, this one a rather pale black-eared form, demonstrating just how very variable they can be.

It was warming up now, and raptors were starting to spiral up over the hills beyond. First a Lesser Spotted Eagle circled over, followed by a Short-toed Eagle and several Common Buzzards. A Black Stork drifted high along the ridge and a few Dalmatian Pelicans flew over us too.

We had a good look around the quarry area and finally the Masked Shrikes showed themselves. There were two males, and at first we watched them chasing each other through the trees. One male kept coming back to top of the same tree to sing, where we had some lovely views of it perched up in the sunshine. At one point it dropped down into the river beyond to drink and bathe.

Masked Shrike

Masked Shrike – kept returning to the top of the same tree to sing

It was time for a celebratory coffee. Afterwards, we went back for more views of the Masked Shrikes. A Golden Oriole was singing in the trees across the river but typically kept itself well hidden. We were just packing up as two Woodlarks flew in, and started feeding in the short grass in the clearing.

We drove back north from here, to the edge of the Mavrovouni Hills, with a quick stop en route to admire a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes by the road. Parking at the bottom of a rough track, we walked up hillside. There were lots of butterflies on the wing here – including Scarce Swallowtails, Knapweed and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, and Mallow Skipper. Two Hermann’s Tortoises were on the verges and several Egyptian Grasshoppers flew up ahead of us. We stopped to watch some dung beetles rolling up balls of dung and trying to push and pull them in pairs across the track.

Dung Beetles

Dung beetles – pushing balls of dung across the track

There were a few raptors up now. A Levant Sparrowhawk flew out of the trees ahead of us, with a flash of its blue-grey upperparts and black wing tips, then gave us a nice view as it circled out over the valley. A Lesser Spotted Eagle came low over the ridge beside us, before circling up and displaying. A Black Kite drifted high over the hills.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle – came low over the ridge beside us

A Woodchat Shrike was down on the brambles in the bottom of the valley and a Subalpine Warbler and several Nightingales were singing in the bushes, but there were few other passerines active in the midday heat. We walked back down to the minibus, and drove round to one of the lakeside shelters for lunch in the shade.

After lunch, we drive round to the eastern shore and back up onto the embankment. As we made our way north, we stopped again where we had seen the Penduline Tits on Monday. They had made quite a bit of progress on the nest and it was almost finished, with the entrance tunnel now built. We watched the pair coming and going, putting the finishing touches to it, and the male perched at the entrance calling, as if to seek approval that the work was done.

Carrying on along the bank, there were loads of Wood Sandpipers and Squacco Herons down along the shore of the lake on one side. On the other side, many more Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing now in the bushes, having arrived in the last few days, since we were last here. There were several Red-backed Shrikes along here too now. We had great views of Bee-eaters, perched on branches below us along the bank, and finally got better views of Golden Orioles in the poplar trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – back in good numbers on our last day

We stopped at the northern edge of the water. The lake was filling up steadily now with meltwater from the mountains beyond. The Ruddy Shelduck was still here, with 35 Greylag Geese. A huge number of Spoonbills were busy feeding in the shallows – we counted at least 80. A Cattle Egret appeared briefly with the herd of buffaloes. But the highlight was watching a huge raft of several hundred White Pelicans feeding, swimming and repeatedly plunging their heads underwater, occasionally gathering in tighter groups, or flying to catch up with each other. A small group of about ten Dalmatian Pelicans were feeding nearby, but not joining in with the melee.

A little further on along the bank, we spotted a female Northern Wheatear on the rocks on the edge of the lake, a migrant on its way north and a welcome late addition to the list. We stopped again at the pool at the north end of the embankment, where several Little Bitterns were lurking on the edge of the reeds, including a couple of smart males today too. There were one or two Little Crakes still, and the Coypu.

As we drove past Megalochori, a Little Owl was perched on the churchyard wall. Crossing over the Strimon river, we stopped and walked down one of the tracks into the trees. There was no sign of any woodpeckers on the first one we tried, but crossing over to the other side, we didn’t have to go far before a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in. It landed in a tree above the path, great to finally see one having just heard them earlier in the week. A couple of Golden Orioles flew out of the trees too.

We had just enough time for a quick stop at Mandraki at the end of the day. The water was much higher here now, and there were fewer birds compared to earlier in the week. Four Glossy Ibis flew over but landed out of view behind the reeds. There were still lots of herons and Pygmy Cormorants around in the trees, and it was nice to have one last look at the lake. Then it was back to the hotel for a shower, drinks and dinner, another delicious salad followed by Turkish meatballs.

SATURDAY 4TH MAY

After our last breakfast, once again a great spread of Greek pastries, yoghurt with honey, boiled eggs and fresh bread, we set off back to the airport. The drive down was fairly uneventful, with lots of Corn Buntings on the wires by the road and a single Red-backed Shrike. The Jackdaws around the terminal building which had welcome us were there to bid us farewell. The flight got away on time and we arrived back to a cloudy and cool Gatwick Airport.

It had been another great week – with lots of good birds, fantastic food and great scenery. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Northern Greece and Lake Kerkini in 2020, please get in touch.

 

31st Mar-6th Apr 2019 – Extremadura, Land of the Conquistadors

A week-long International Tour to Extremadura in Spain, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. We had a couple of showery mornings, but the weather was generally very good, with some sunshine for most of the week, and nice temperatures, warm but not too hot. Perfect for birding!

SUNDAY 31ST MARCH

Our flight from Gatwick arrived early into Madrid, but the car hire company was typically chaotic – our minibus had to be brought in from off-site and a Spanish ’10 minutes’ turned into quite a bit longer, particularly when they forgot they had to give us the keys! Eventually we got away and set off for the long drive down to Trujillo.

Our first birds in the outskirts of the city were Spotless Starlings, which were then a regular feature of the journey. As expected in this part of Spain, there were plenty of raptors to be seen from the road – several Black Kites, a couple of Marsh Harriers, Eurasian Kestrels and a Common Buzzard on post. As we got out into the open countryside, we started to see White Storks with many perched on large stick nests on buildings or pylons and one or two flying rather too low for comfort over the road. A couple of large flocks of Cattle Egrets were seen in the fields too. Unlike back home, there were lots of hirundines already in here – mainly Barn Swallows, plus a small group of House Martins. There were a few Common Swifts too and two Alpine Swifts flew over as the road crossed a deep river valley on a high bridge.

We only had time for a quick stop today at one of the services on the motorway, where three Crested Larks were running around in the car park. Continuing on our journey, a couple of Eurasian Hoopoes crossing the road confirmed we were now very much in southern Europe.

It was already late by the time we arrived at our hotel just outside Trujillo. After checking in, it was straight down for a welcome drink followed by a delicious dinner of local dishes. Most of the group had already retired to bed when those heading across the courtyard to their rooms heard a Eurasian Scops Owl singing in one of the trees in the front garden and managed to find it using a torch, perched up in the branches.

MONDAY 1ST APRIL

With the clocks having gone forward yesterday, it was still dark as we went down to breakfast this morning. The Scops Owl was singing in the garden again, and when we went out to listen we could hear a Woodlark singing in the pitch black too. After breakfast, as we were loading up the minibus, our first Iberian Magpies of the trip flew in across the road in a big mob.

We headed out onto the plains near Santa Marta de Magasca for the morning and at our first stop we were soon enjoying lots of singing Corn Buntings and Crested Larks. Two or three Northern Wheatears ran around on the short grass behind us and a flock of Spanish Sparrows whirled round. Our first Great Bustard was walking about in the grass among some bushes, a male, and a quick scan revealed a female nearby too. Another Great Bustard flew past, low overhead.

Great Bustard 1

Great Bustard – flew past us as we were watching two more out on the steppe

Then a Black Kite flew over too, and landed on a road sign nearby, while a couple more Black Kites circled over the hillside beyond together with a single Red Kite, and both Iberian Grey Shrike and Woodchat Shrike perched up on isolated bushes out in the short grass.

Moving on, we turned onto a rough drovers track and stopped again. A single male Great Bustard was partly puffed up on top of the ridge on one side, while another male was in full ‘foam bath’ display among some cattle on the other side. We eventually spotted a female Great Bustard nearby, when the cows moved, which was the target of his advances. When we heard Pin-tailed Sandgrouse calling, we looked up to see six flying high over the fields and we watched them drop down and land in the field by the bustards, where we got a good view of them in the scope, as another two flew in to join them.

Two Great Spotted Cuckoos were chased by a Eurasian Magpie, and landed in a bare bush up on the ridge, while we could hear a Common Cuckoo singing further over. Lots of Calandra Larks were flying round over the plains, singing – we could see their black underwings with a broad white trailing edge. There were more raptors here. A Black Vulture was standing in one of the fields, and several more Red Kites were on the ground too, including one with coloured wing tags. A couple of Common Buzzards flew across and a distant Little Owl was perched on the roof of an old barn.

While standing here, we heard a Little Bustard singing, an odd sound like a cross between someone blowing a raspberry and a frog! It was close by but we couldn’t see it, as it was just over a low ridge in the grass. After changing position several times to try to get an angle from which we could see it, finally it walked out into view and we could see its puffed out black and white neck, and we watched as it threw its head back as it sang.

It started to spit with rain now, so we drove down to the Rio Magasca river crossing for a coffee break. A quick walk down to the bridge afterwards added a couple of White Wagtails and a Grey Wagtail down by the river, singing European Serin and Cetti’s Warbler, with Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows whirling overhead. A European Bee-eater flew high over the gorge calling but a Rock Sparrow unfortunately flew off before anyone could see it.

As the rain started to fall more heavily, we hurried back to the minibus and moved on. A quick stop at a high point in the road produced a few more vultures standing around in the fields, mostly Griffon Vultures, and another Little Bustard displaying on a ridge behind us. A slow drive along the road across the steppes produced lots of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings on the tarmac, presumably trying to get away from the wet grass.

Then as the rain finally started to ease again we made our way down to the Rio Almonte crossing for lunch. Lots of Barn Swallows and House Martins hawking low over the water were possibly migrants pushed down by the weather, because when the eventually stopped they circled up and moved on. Down along the river bank three Little Ringed Plovers, a Common Sandpiper and a European Robin were all welcome additions to the trip list.

Continuing on through Monroy, we stopped by a group of stone pines where several White Storks were perched high up on their nests. Finally the weather started to brighten up, and as we walked down the track, we found a couple of Thekla Larks, several Northern Wheatears and a pair of European Stonechats in the fields. A small group of Rock Sparrows flew up from the grass, flashing their white tail tips, and landed on the fence where we could all admire their head stripes. A singing Common Quail was well hidden in a thick wheat crop but a Hoopoe eventually gave itself up when one of the group found it in a small olive orchard. Several Iberian Magpies flew back and forth across the track.

Montagu's Harrier 1

Montagu’s Harrier – this male flew past as the weather warmed up

More raptors started to circle up now. Mostly Griffon Vultures at first, followed by a couple of distant Booted Eagles, then one much closer with a Marsh Harrier. A cracking male Montagu’s Harrier drifted low overhead. A kettle of White Storks circled up from the fields over the ridge, and a Black Vulture joined them. As the storks flew low back our way towards the pines, the Black Vulture came right over our heads too giving us a really close view.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture – came right over our heads

As we drove back towards Trujillo, a Great White Egret was standing by a pool beside the road, another new bird for the trip. We still had time for a stop at the bullring, where we stopped first to get a good look at the Spotless Starlings on the roof in the sunshine. Several Lesser Kestrels were zooming around in the sky above, with at least eight all together at one point.

Lesser Kestrel

Lesser Kestrel – at least 8 were circling together low over the bullring

A White Stork flying over was carrying a piece of plastic sack as nest material – it seems like plastic gets everywhere these days. Then it was time to head back to the hotel. As we drove up the track through the fields, we stopped to watch a female Sardinian Warbler wrestling with a large hairy caterpillar in the middle of the road.

White Stork

White Stork – flew in carrying plastic sacking for nest material

TUESDAY 2ND APRIL

The sun was just rising as we got out to Belen and it was a great view from the edge of the village looking out across the plains. A Hoopoe was calling as we got out of the minibus and a Red Fox was out in one of the fields. Scanning the rocks on the neighbouring slopes revealed a single Stone Curlew preening, which we had a good look at in the scope. There were also a few Northern Wheatears, a Thekla Lark and a Little Owl perched on a rock. Rather unexpectedly, a Green Sandpiper flew past. Three Great Bustards were very distant dots out on the plains.

As we drove slowly down the road, we heard a Little Bustard singing. We stopped and got out and managed to find it on a small patch of short grass on some slightly higher ground. It was displaying, its black and white neck puffed out. From time to time, it would stomp its feet several times and then leap into the air flapping its wings. Great to watch! Several Calandra Larks were singing too. Further on, two more Great Bustards were on a distant hillside.

Little Bustard

Little Bustard – displaying out on the plains this morning

We were heading for Monfrague this morning, so we cut across back towards the El Torrejon road. There were lots of small pools along here and we found a small party of Eurasian Spoonbills feeding on one as we passed by, a single Little Grebe on another and a Great White Egret too.

As we got up into the hills, we had a very brief stop at Arroyo de la Vid. It was rather quiet here apart from several European Serins singing, although one of the group had a brief Subalpine Warbler which was identified retrospectively. Then we continued quickly on to the Castillo before it got too busy there.

As we got out of the minibus, the first Griffon Vulture sailed low overhead, just over the tops of the trees, a taste of things to come. From up at the top by the Castillo, more vultures were passing at eye level or below, very close – quite a spectacle. Mostly Griffons at first, then joined by one or two Black Vultures, at least two Egyptian Vultures, a Booted Eagle and one or two Black Kites. It was a proper raptor-fest!

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture – amazing to watch them passing at eye level!

Egpytian Vulture

Egyptian Vulture – at least two were flying around below the Castillo

We also saw our first Black Stork circle up in front of the crag beyond and two male Blue Rock Thrushes perched on the rocks, although they were rather distant from here.

Tearing ourselves away from all the activity at the Castillo, we headed back down and stopped for coffee at the Salto del Gitano mirador. There were lots more vultures here, including several close Griffon Vultures perched on the rocks which filled the frame in the scope. A Peregrine high above tussled with some of the vultures, and looked positively tiny by comparison as it swooped at them, and an Osprey flew past following the river valley.

Black Stork

Black Stork – coming in to land on the cliffs

We had closer views of Black Storks here, coming in to land on the cliffs opposite where they were nesting, and better views of Blue Rock Thrushes feeding around the rocks just below us, together with Black Redstarts and a Rock Bunting. As well as numerous Sardinian Warblers, a Subalpine Warbler perched up briefly, which allowed everyone to add it to their lists.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – great views at the Salto del Gitano mirador

After stopping for lunch at Villareal, we continued on through the park. It was hot now, but the raptors at least were still active. At Mirador La Bascula, our first Short-toed Eagle drifted over and then while we stopped to scan the surrounding hills at La Higuerilla there were yet more vultures, Black Kites and a couple more Short-toed Eagles. Two Red Deer were bathing down in the river below and we got some really good views of a male Subalpine Warbler in the trees by the car park. We were hoping we might find Spanish Imperial Eagle from here, but there was no sign.

Subalpine Warbler 1

Subalpine Warbler – feeding in the trees in the car park

Stopping next at the mirador at Portilla del Tietar, another Black Stork circled over the gorge and we could see lots more Griffon Vultures nesting on the rocks opposite. A small flock of Rock Doves flew across the cliff, presumably close to genuine pure birds here, and two Crag Martins and several Red-rumped Swallows zipped round just overhead.

Red-rumped Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow – flying round above our heads

Then a Spanish Imperial Eagle appeared, very high in the sky behind us, just a small dot but we could see the distinctive shape of its wings and the white leading edge to its wings as it turned. It drifted slowly over and then started to display high over the rocks opposite. It twisted and tumbled a couple of times, and then we noticed something come up from behind the trees across the river. It was a second Spanish Imperial Eagle and we were treated to fantastic views as it circled up right in front of us, calling.

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled up in front of us calling

We still had time for a quick stop at Saucedilla on our way back. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the fields by the road on our way to the reserve, the first of several here, and lots of Sand Martins and Barn Swallows were gathered on the wires by the visitor centre. We walked out along the path, but somebody was fishing by the first small pool and there were no birds here today.

Thankfully there was a bit more activity in front of the first hide, with several Purple Herons flying in and out of the reeds, and two Common Kingfishers flying back and forth. Further on, we finally got to see a Zitting Cisticola properly! We could hear Purple Swamphens calling out in the reeds, but just got a brief glimpse of one flying over.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really have enough time to do the reserve here justice today. We decided to have a quick look for Black-winged Kite at a couple of regular spots, but perhaps we were still too early in the day for this typically crepuscular species and we drew a blank. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk flushed from the trees and we passed loads of Cattle Egrets in the fields before we had to turn round and head for home. A Great Peacock Moth was on view back at the hotel, before it was time for dinner.

WEDNESDAY 3RD APRIL

Our first destination for the morning was planned to be the steppes at Campo Lugar but as we drove south from Zorita, we found ourselves heading into increasingly thick fog. We turned back and stopped at the top of the hill to see if it might burn off as the sun rose. There were lots of Northern Wheatears on the short grass among the oaks, migrants stopping off to feed on their way north, along with several White Storks. Crested and Calandra Larks were singing all around and a distant Little Bustard could just be heard calling from somewhere over the hill.

There was no sign of the fog lifting, so we thought we would try Emblase de Alcollarin first instead, as it looked to be clear over in that direction. We drove into the fog again in the village of Alcollarin, but thankfully once we got up to the dam the visibility was much better. There was not much water in the reservoir, after a very dry winter here, but there were still plenty of birds to see. Lots of Great Crested Grebes significantly outnumbered the handful of Little Grebes, and there were a few Eurasian Coot, several Gadwall and three Northern Shoveler scattered around the water.

A Green Sandpiper and two Common Sandpipers were feeding with the Little Ringed Plovers along the shore below us. Right over on the far side, we could see two Wood Sandpipers with a little group of Black-winged Stilts and a very distant Gull-billed Tern resting on a small island. A Common Nightingale was singing from below the dam, presumably an early returnee as this was the only one we would hear all week.

As we drove round to the far end, the more distant arms of the reservoir were bone dry so we didn’t stop, although there were a few Greenfinches and a Woodchat Shrike in the trees as we passed. Thankfully there was still a lot of water in the smaller pool at the furthest end. Several White Storks and Little Egrets were standing on the small dam as we parked in the picnic area and an Egyptian Goose was feeding on the grass below. A Common Kingfisher zipped past and we could hear the White Storks on their nests in the trees bill clapping. Both Willow Warbler and Sedge Warbler were singing by the pool.

The fog appeared still to be getting worse back across the reservoir, so we went for a walk up along the track. A Woodlark was singing, several European Bee-eaters called from somewhere high overhead as they moved through and we could hear a couple of Common Cuckoos too before one flew across in front of us. A Short-toed Eagle hovered over the hillside and we found a couple of Eurasian Spoonbills typically asleep at the back of the pool.

On our way back to the picnic area, we stopped for a moment to watch two male Sardinian Warblers singing in the bushes, before we had a break for coffee. A small warbler with silvery white underparts appeared in the edge of one of the small trees, preening – a Western Bonelli’s Warbler, presumably stopping off on its way up into the hills, and a real bonus to find here.

The fog finally seemed to have lifted, so we decided to try our luck at Campo Lugar. It was the middle of the day now and hot with the sun out. It also didn’t help that the road was unusually busy, with a gang of workmen fixing the badly potholed surface. A Booted Eagle circled up as we passed. There were lots of Meadow Pipits in the fields and a small pale lark flew up from the verge and landed with them, a Greater Short-toed Lark.

Cutting across to the Santa Brava reservoir, we drove down to the dam first. There was a lot more water here, but fewer birds – more Great Crested Grebes and a few Black-headed Gulls. A bizarrely dyed, bright red Feral Pigeon on the building below drew lots of attention and looked very out of place! Eight more European Bee-eaters flew over calling, this time low enough to see as they passed quickly through.

Then we drove back to the picnic area for lunch, stopping briefly to look at two Hoopoes by the road. While we ate, a single Yellow-legged Gull flew across the water and there was time to look more closely at a selection of invertebrates in the short grass, including a basking Western Clubtail and several small Red-underwing Skippers.

Western Clubtail

Western Clubtail – basking on the rocks next to the picnic area

After lunch, we drove down through the ricefields. Again with the lack of rain, the channels here were mostly very dry, but we did flush a small group of wagtails from one wet ditch by the road. Two smart male Western Yellow Wagtails of the iberiae race landed out in the field with a few White Wagtails.

The pools just before Madrigalejo did have water in them. When we stopped to photograph some Black-winged Stilts close to the road and found a smart drake Garganey, a couple of Wood Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers too. A Common Snipe darted across but too quick for everyone to get onto. A Willow Warbler was feeding in some sallows, two Zitting Cisticola were collecting nest material and a Eurasian Reed Warbler was singing nearby.

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt – on some pools out in the ricefields

Our next stop was at Moheda Alta. The wind had picked up now, and it was quite breezy up on the bank of the reservoir. Two Shelducks and three Northern Pintail were lingering winter visitors, in with the flock of Mallards. Ten Eurasian Spoonbills included two colour-ringed birds and a flock of Black-winged Stilts flew round. A careful scan of the low muddy islands revealed at least five Little Stints, three Dunlin, several Little Ringed Plovers and four Collared Pratincoles, which we eventually got a good look at in the scope.

To finish the day, we drove up into the edge of the Sierra de Villuercas and stopped at a high pass. Lots of Griffon Vultures were gliding along the ridge, using the updraft from the wind, and a single Egyptian Vulture flew past with them too. As we stood and scanned the surrounding hills, we heard a Crested Tit calling from the trees in front of us. Then it appeared in the branches and we followed it as it worked its way past us.

Crested Tit

Crested Tit – in the trees at the pass up in the Sierra

Driving back down a short distance into the trees, we stopped again and found several Eurasian Blackcaps, a Common Chiffchaff, Long-tailed Tits and a European Robin, all feeding quietly in the afternoon sun. A male Cirl Bunting appeared briefly in the treetops too but was very hard to see before it flew further in. Then just as we were leaving, a pair of Cirl Buntings dropped down to feed on the verge beside the road. Then it was time to drive back to the hotel for a refreshing beer before dinner.

THURSDAY 4TH APRIL

Heading south, we made our way out to explore the plains of La Serena. Driving first through a more rocky area, we stopped to admire a Little Owl sunning itself on some rocks by the road, the first of many we would see this morning.

Little Owl

Little Owl – sunning itself by the road early this morning

Shortly after, two Great Spotted Cuckoos were perched on the fence by road and also remained obligingly for the cameras, before flying down into the bushes just below us on the other side of the road. A little further on ,a Woodchat Shrike was on the fence too but was too quick for the photographers. We flushed several Red-legged Partridge from the verges as we passed.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo – a pair posed for us on the roadside

As we got out into a more open cultivated area, we came across our first bustards, starting with a female Little Bustard in a low cereal crop, which flew up as we stopped to look at it, and then a displaying male out in the short grass the other side. Three Great Bustards took off from a field by the road as we passed, flying round behind a low hillside slightly further on.

Great Bustard 2

Great Bustard – flew up from the fields beside the road

When we drove on and stopped again we could just see them out in the growing wheat, only the heads of two of them showing above the crop. Two more Little Bustards took off from the field the other side and were joined by four more as they flew overhead. A Hoopoe was calling from the top of a road sign and a little further on a group of Lesser Kestrels were flying around an old barn and perching on the low rocks beside the road.

Out on the open plains proper, a smart male Montagu’s Harrier floated past. We could hear Pin-tailed Sandgrouse calling and when we flushed a group of Mallard from a small pool by the road, they were joined by two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse as they flew round.

Montagu's Harrier 2

Montagu’s Harrier – floated past us on the plains

We spotted a couple of Collared Pratincoles hawking for insects and watched as they landed in a sheep field further up the road. We drove on for a closer look and found there were actually twelve of them standing on the close-cropped grass, along with several Little Ringed Plovers.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – we found twelve in a sheep field

Several Great Bustards were displaying over on a hillside a little further on, so we stopped again to watch. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had counted at least thirteen, including several males puffed up in full ‘foam bath’ display, puffed up with their heads pulled in. A flock of European Bee-eaters flew in low over the fields as we drove on, swooping in around the minibus with one attempting to catch an insect right outside the window!

We turned onto a drovers’ track and drove up to a high point to stop for coffee. It was a fantastic view from here, surrounded on all sides by open rolling plains. There were Calandra Larks singing all around us, fluttering up in display flight. We heard more Pin-tailed Sandgrouse calling and turned to see a flock of ten fly up and away. Then we heard the bubbling call of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and looked over to see two flying across the track, dropping down a couple of fields over. Shortly after, eight Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew up from the same area calling. A small flock of Eurasian Golden Plover flew over too, a winter visitor here with these lingering longer than most.

A male Little Bustard was walking around in the short grass nearby and when we walked over to the top of the ridge try to get it in the scope, one of the group found a striking Red-striped Oil Beetle in the grass. After coffee, we tried another track, but this one was quieter, although a pair of Thekla Larks was feeding by the road.

Red-striped Oil Beetle

Red-striped Oil Beetle – found in the grass at our coffee stop

After a very productive morning out on the plains, we headed up to the neighbouring sierras. Over lunch in Benquerencia, Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows hawked round over the village and two Alpine Swifts flew past. We had planned to walk up to the Castillo but discovered it was closed for repairs, so we stopped briefly to scan the rocky ridge from below. There were lots of Blue Rock Thrushes on the crags and vultures using the updraft – with two Egyptian Vultures among the commoner Griffons.

Crag Martin

Crag Martin – flying around the village in Benquerencia

We decided to drive over to Alange next. Down at the reservoir, a couple of Gull-billed Terns were patrolling back and forth along the edge and several Thekla Larks were feeding on the rocks. The higher crags were disturbed by several noisy climbers, but we did manage to find a male Rock Bunting right on the very top of one of the points, singing. Even though we couldn’t hear it down below, we could see its bill moving through the scope. We stood for a while on the dam, watching the Alpine Swifts which gave amazing close up views as they came in just below us carrying nest material.

Alpine Swift

Alpine Swift – coming in to the dam carrying nest material

We still had time for a quick final stop in the city of Mérida on the way back, although we had to battle through considerably more traffic than we had seen for a few days before we eventually found somewhere to park! As we walked out on the old Roman bridge, several Cattle Egrets flew over and from out in the middle of the bridge we could see their nesting colony in the tamarisks growing on one of the islands in the river. A careful scan with the scope, revealed a Black-crowned Night Heron and several Glossy Ibis in with them too. A few Spanish Terrapins were on the rocks below the bridge too. Then it was time to head back to base again.

FRIDAY 5TH APRIL

After rain overnight, we woke to low cloud. We thought we might go for a walk from the hotel first thing, while we waited for it to get properly light but it started spitting with rain again, so we drove into Trujillo instead. The rain stopped as we walked up to the Plaza Mayor, and several Lesser Kestrels circled over the rooftops. From the square, we could see several distant swifts and eventually two flew in and circled in front of the buildings where we could see their paler brown body plumage and large white throat patch to confirm their identity as Pallid Swifts.

From there, we headed out onto the plains towards Santa Marta again. A Stone Curlew flew across in front of us and landed briefly by the track, then ten Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over, but dropped down and disappeared behind the ridge. We stopped for a scan and found at least nine Great Bustards scattered around the fields, including one male in a small group of four which was giving an impressive full ‘foam bath’ display, shaking its tail feathers at the others. The Little Bustard was still in the same place we had seen it the other day.

Great Bustard 3

Great Bustard – puffed up, in full ‘foam bath’ display

Back in the minibus, it started to spit with rain again. Crossing the Rio Tamuja on the other side of Santa Marta, we spotted a Green Sandpiper below the bridge as we passed. There were several Jackdaws at the Roller nestboxes on the pylons by the road, but we were still a bit too early for the Rollers to be back in residence. Taking a side road, we stopped to watch a pair of Montagu’s Harriers flying past over the steppe, grey the male following after the female, with Calandra Larks singing all around.

Montagu's Harrier 3

Montagu’s Harrier – the female, crossing the road in front of the minibus

The cloud was breaking up now and slowly clearing from west, so we drove round past Caceres, and up to the Rio Almonte crossing for coffee. Two Alpine Swifts flew over, lots of hirundines were hawking low over the water and two Common Sandpipers flew off calling as we walked down towards the water’s edge. There was no sign of any Black Wheatears here now, although they had been here over the winter, but we did find a male Rock Bunting singing in a tree next to the track.

A quick look at the Embalse de Talavan was not very productive – several Spanish Sparrows were nesting in the bottom of the large White Stork nest by the entrance, and a Great White Egret and Common Sandpiper were down on the shore. So we headed round past Monroy and stopped for lunch at the stone pines with the White Storks on their nests bill clapping above our heads. The photographers headed off to try to get some shots of the local Iberian Magpies but they were typically flighty.

After lunch, we drove on to Serradilla and it was nice and sunny now as we wound our way up the track onto the ridge. Two Eurasian Jays flew across the road as we stopped to scan the crags, a Blue Rock Thrush perched high on the rocks, and as we watched several Sardinian Warblers flying back and forth, two Dartford Warblers appeared too. A Black Vulture and a steady stream of Griffon Vultures flew past along the ridge just above our heads.

We were heading up to the mirador, but a brief wrong turn at least produced a Black Redstart before we found the right track. Then up at the mirador, another Rock Bunting was singing in full view in a small dead tree just below us, giving us our best views yet of this often elusive species. As we stood and admired the stunning view from the top of the ridge, looking out across the dehesa below, a Short-toed Eagle and two Booted Eagles flew past in between the procession of vultures.

Our final destination for the day was Jaraicejo. It was rather windy as we walked along the track but this didn’t seem to put off the male Spectacled Warbler which put on a great display for us, singing and song flighting from the bushes.

Spectacled Warbler

Spectacled Warbler – singing from the top of the bushes

While we were watching it, a male Dartford Warbler appeared too. At first it seemed to be following the Spectacled Warbler, then when it eventually flew away across the track, we realised there was a pair and we watched them feeding together low in the bushes on the other side. It was a nice way to end the day, and it was now time to head back to the hotel for dinner.

SATURDAY 6TH APRIL

Our last morning, we woke to ominous low clouds after more rain overnight. After breakfast and having packed up the minibus, we drove north on the motorway as far as Almaraz. Typically just as we arrived, it started to spit with rain. We stopped at the causeway and, as soon as we got out, we could hear a Savi’s Warbler reeling. We walked back along the road and realised it was quite close, and eventually managed to get good views of it through the scope perched in the top of the rushes. There were also Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers singing here and the first of many Purple Herons flew over the back of the pool and landed in the reeds.

Savi's Warbler

Savi’s Warbler – reeling from the sedges by the road

Just as everyone had got back into the minibus, we heard a Penduline Tit calling from somewhere across the road. It seemed like it was coming closer, so everyone got out again and we went over to look for it. We did flush a Little Bittern from the reeds by the path, a Gull-billed Tern was hawking over the water and two Eurasian Spoonbills flew past. But there was no further sign of the Penduline Tit and it started to rain more heavily so we made a quick retreat back to the minibus again.

We drove on, up to the edge of Saucedilla village and called in at the visitor centre to get the keys to the hides. Then while we waited for the rain to stop, we drove round to the other side of the reserve. As we approached one of the hides, we noticed a small, pale raptor over the trees beyond, pale grey and white with black shoulders, a Black-winged Kite. Everyone piled quickly out and we eventually got good views, perched in the top of a dead tree and flying round acrobatically, before it disappeared off. A great bird to see and perhaps we had been helped by the rain, which meant it was still out hunting. A female Eurasian Teal on the pool opposite was another late addition to the list and we flushed an Egyptian Vulture from a nearby tree.

Continuing on, there was nothing by the last hide, so we turned round. We still wanted to get a better look at a Purple Swamphen, so we decided to head back to the pools behind the visitor centre. However, while we were driving there, we noticed one standing on the edge of a pool right by the road as we passed, so we stopped quickly and reversed back. It walked back into the reeds as we got out, but then climbed out into the open again where we could all get a good look at it, before flying back over the pool.

Purple Swamphen

Purple Swamphen – on a pool by the road as we drove back

We still had time for a quick look out around the hide behind the visitor centre. Another Savi’s Warbler was reeling here and we had good views of a Sedge Warbler low down on the edge of the reeds. We could hear more Purple Swamphens calling and found one out on the edge of the water in front of the hide, before it walked into the reeds. A Little Bittern flew across the channel and landed on the other side, where it stood in full view for several minutes before eventually flying off again, giving us much better views than the one we had seen only briefly in flight earlier.

Little Bittern

Little Bittern – flew across the channel and landed on the edge of the reeds

While we were admiring all the waterbirds, we noticed some movement in the bushes down below the hide and looked down to see a Subalpine Warbler. This is not where you would normally expect to find one, so presumably it was a migrant which had just stopped off here. It was typically quite skulking at first, but eventually came out where we could all see it.

Subalpine Warbler 2

Subalpine Warbler – presumably a migrant, in the bushes at Saucedilla

Then unfortunately we were out of time, and we made our way back to the motorway for the long drive up to Madrid and the flight home.

It had been a wonderful week – 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 2020, please get in touch.

Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 3

This is the third and final instalment of a 3 part blog post about our visit to Romania in August 2018. After visiting the Dobrogea and the Danube Delta we made our way up to Transylvania and the Carpathians. After a day for travelling, that gave us three full days exploring the mountains.

This section of our trip this year is not included in the forthcoming Romania tour in June 2019, which will just visit the Dobrogea and Danube Delta. You can read more about that tour here.

18th-20th August – Transylvania and the Carpathians

One of the main reasons for visiting Transylvania was to try to see Brown Bears. It is estimated that around 6,000 Brown Bears can be found in Romania, the largest population in Europe, outside of Russia, so it is one of the best places to look for them.

Early on our first morning, we set off into the forest to look for woodpeckers. We headed for an area which research showed had been very good for them just a few years ago, but when we arrived we immediately noticed a problem. The area had been selectively logged, and all the largest trees had been taken out. This would prove to be a recurring problem over the next few days – it appears that logging is a major issue facing the forests here.

Undeterred, we set off into the forest for a walk. We hadn’t gone very far when we heard the undergrowth rustling. Being near to a town, we thought it might just be people at first but it quickly became clear it was a large mammal and after a few seconds a Brown Bear appeared. Bears are known to visit the towns at night, raiding the bins in search of food, so it was perhaps heading back into the woods after a night’s ‘work’.

The Bear looked at us for a few seconds, and we looked at it, wondering who would blink first! Then it turned and ran back into the trees. A great start! We continued on our walk and explored further down along the track through the trees. We found lots of tits – Crested Tits, Marsh and Willow Tits – and we heard several Great Spotted Woodpeckers, but no sign of anything more interesting and no more Bears.

The best way to see Brown Bears in the Carpathians is to visit one of the organised ‘bear hides’. Here, food is put out to attract the animals. This was traditionally for shooting purposes but with bear shooting currently banned, tourism is an important alternative.

We had booked into a ‘bear hide’ later that evening. We were taken up to the hide in the early evening and within minutes the first Brown Bear appeared. Over the next couple of hours, we were treated to amazingly close views of at least 14 Brown Bears, including two females each with two small cubs. An unforgettable experience!

Brown Bear 1

Brown Bear – the first of many we saw from the ‘bear hide’

Brown Bear 2

Brown Bear – attracted to food put out from them

Brown Bear 3

Brown Bear – one of two females we saw with young cubs

Brown Bear 4

Brown Bear – a ‘baby bear’ – very cute!

The woodpecker we were really hoping to see in the Carpathians was White-backed Woodpecker. The birds here are of the southern race, lilfordi, which differs from more northerly birds in having a barred rather than solid white back. After drawing a blank on our first morning, we had more success that afternoon, although not without a bit of effort.

We arrived at another site we knew to be good historically for White-backed Woodpecker. It was an area of extensive beech forest, with scattered spruce. Again, as we walked up the valley there seemed to be lots of logging activity and many of the largest trees had clearly been selectively removed. It was nice walk along the track through the trees, climbing to over 1000m. We saw lots of butterflies, a dark Steppe Buzzard and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk which was a new bird for our trip list, but apart from a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers at the start we came across no others woodpeckers.

After walking for over three hours, up the valley and back down again, we returned to the car. We were just getting in when we noticed a woodpecker flying towards us, down from the woods on the hills across the fields. It landed in some trees not far from the car and to our astonishment turned out to be the White-backed Woodpecker we had spent all afternoon searching for!

White-backed Woodpecker

White-backed Woodpecker – flew in and landed in the trees close to the car

We also saw another White-backed Woodpecker at another site the following day. This is clearly still a good place to look for this often rather elusive subspecies.

Another subspecies we hoped to catch up with in the Carpathians was the distinctive SE European race of Horned Lark (or Shorelark), balcanica. These birds differ from the more familiar nominate northern race, which winters on the Norfolk coast, in having much more extensive black on the face. The black mask continues down to meet a more extensive black breast band. The southern races of Horned Lark are also high altitude birds, breeding on mountaintops and are non-migratory, in contrast to the northern Shorelarks we see more often. Perhaps potential candidates for a future split, based on any reappraisal of the Horned Lark / Shorelark complex?

We took a cable car up to 2000m, on the top of one of the ridges to an area of ski slopes, on our last morning. We had been told a good place to look for them and within a few hundred metres we were watching a group of about 15 balcanica Horned Larks. As well as several males, still sporting their black horns, there were good numbers of juveniles here too.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark – a male of the SE European balcanica subspecies

There were lots of Water Pipits up here too. Several Black Redstarts were feeding around the buildings and the ski slopes and we flushed groups of Linnets from the short vegetation.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – common in the mountains at around 2000m

We had hoped to find Alpine Accentor up here too, but there was possibly too much disturbance at this site. We were hoping to visit another site to look for this species in the afternoon, but when low cloud descended over the tops we were thwarted. We had also hoped to see Wallcreeper in the Carpathians, but we were too late this year. At the site close to where we were staying in Zarnesti, the birds had already finished breeding and had dispersed.

Other birds we did manage to find included Nutcrackers, which were fairly common in some areas in the spruce trees, as were Common Crossbills. In the deciduous forest, we saw another Collared Flycatcher and a few Spotted Flycatchers. Grey Wagtails were common along the mountain streams and around the open meadows lower down we saw Tree Pipits and Yellowhammers for the trip list.

Nutcracker

Nutcracker –  a fairly common sight in the spruce forests

The scenery in the Carpathians is stunning, and our trip would not have been complete without taking some time to visit one or two of the Transylvanian castles. We spent a couple of hours one afternoon at the castle in Bran, which is generally referred to as Dracula’s Castle despite the fact there is no evidence that Vlad the Impaler ever visited there! Despite that, and the fact that it is overrun with tourists as a consequence, it was very pretty and well worth a visit.

Dracula's Castle

Dracula’s Castle – although there is no evidence he ever visited here!

The best bird of our visit to Transylvania waited until the very last. We had been to check out the forests around one of the towns again and we were on our way back to our guest house at the end of our last afternoon. As we drove down the winding mountain road through the beech forest, my eagle-eyed travelling companion spotted a large shape on a branch deep in the trees. Fortunately there was a layby to turn round in just beyond and not much traffic.

As we drove slowly back up the road, we couldn’t see anything at first. There was only a stretch of a few metres long where the shape could be seen from the road and when we got to that point we could see it was a large owl – a Ural Owl!

Ural Owl

Ural Owl – in the forest by the road at the end of our last afternoon

We turned round again, higher up, and drove back down to the layby, where we parked and walked carefully up the edge of the road. The Ural Owl was unconcerned by our presence – it was dozing but several times it woke and looked round, particularly when a large lorry rumbled up the road behind us. It appeared to be yawning, opening its bright yellow bill wide and stretching its neck back on a few occasions, though it was possibly trying to regurgitate a pellet.

Ural Owls are obviously fairly common here still, but are not easy to see, particularly during the day. We sat at the edge of the road and watched it for a while, before eventually tearing ourselves away and leaving it to sleep in peace.

It was a great way to end what had been a fantastic trip to Romania. I am looking forward to going back next June already.