Category Archives: International

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.

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Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 2

This is the second of a 3 part blog post about our visit to Romania in August 2018. The Danube Delta is one of the largest wetlands in the world. Most of it is accessible only by boat. It is a haven for wildlife, particularly waterbirds, and is a destination which should be on every birdwatcher’s ‘must see’ list.

After our visit to the Dobrogea, we spent four days out in the Delta. We sailed from the port of Tulcea, on the Danube, and spent three nights in the village of Crisan, out in the Delta, exploring different parts of the surrounding area each day mainly by boat. On our tour in June 2019 we will use a floating hotel, which will give us even more flexibility on where we can go. You can read more about next year’s tour here.

13th-16th August – The Danube Delta

The first thing which strikes you, as you motor along the smaller channels through the Delta, is the abundance of herons. Squacco Herons are everywhere, particularly favouring the carpets of floating lilypads or water chestnut along the sides of the waterways.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – walking on a carpet of water chestnut

Grey and Purple Herons are both common too.

Purple Heron 1

Purple Heron – common along the smaller channels

We flushed lots of Night Herons from the trees as we motored past – the spotty juveniles were more obliging, whereas the adults tended to hide in or under the trees.

Night Heron

Night Heron – the juveniles were more obliging than the adults

Egrets are abundant as well, with large numbers of both Great White Egret and Little Egret feeding along the channels. We saw lots of Glossy Ibis too, but only a couple of Spoonbills. White Storks were still fairly common, even though the breeding season was largely over, and we saw a couple of Black Storks flying overhead.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – great views from the boat

There are obviously lots of Little Bitterns, but they were typically elusive, hiding in the reeds. We heard many more than we saw and the latter were mostly birds seen flying across the channels, although we did see a few each day. (Great) Bitterns are present too, but in much smaller numbers and they are even harder to see, so it was a great spot to see one standing on the edge of the reeds as we were motoring past on our way back one afternoon.

Little Bittern

Little Bittern – typically skulking in the reeds

Pelicans are one of the birds you want to see when you come to the Danube Delta. The area hosts significant breeding populations of both Great White Pelicans and Dalmatian Pelicans. The number of Great White Pelicans was historically estimated at around 4,500 pairs, out of a European population of 5,600, but more recent counts suggest there may now be over 17,000 pairs in the Delta alone! Dalmatian Pelicans are rarer, with only about 3,500 pairs in Europe, of which around 450 pairs nest in the Delta.

With the breeding season already over, and high levels of disturbance from boats on many of the channels during the holidays in Romania, we didn’t see as many pelicans as perhaps we might have done otherwise. Water levels were also apparently high, after unseasonally heavy rains in July. We had already seen lots of White Pelicans around the lagoons on the Black Sea Coast.

Despite this, we still saw White Pelicans daily in the Delta, generally in small groups loafing along the channels, or as single birds looking for an easy meal around fishing nets! On our last day, when we motored back through the quieter northern part of the Delta, we saw more White Pelicans, including some more sizeable flocks circling up to head off to feed and a feeding party out on one of the lakes.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – loafing and preening

White Pelican

White Pelican – viewing from the boat allows a close approach

Probably for the same reasons, we only saw a small number of Dalmatian Pelicans on this trip, but still we got some nice close views of one or two birds.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – present in much smaller numbers

Pygmy Cormorant is another species localised to SE Europe for which the Delta is an important area. About 10,000 pairs are estimated to breed here, around 25% of the total European population. We saw a small number each day, mostly loafing on trees of posts along the channels, but we found more on the quieter channels to the north on our way back on the last day. It seems likely that when feeding they are particularly prone to disturbance by large numbers of boats.

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – the Delta contains 25% of the European popualtion

About two-thirds of the European population of Ferruginous Duck breeds in the Delta too. We saw a quite a few in the small lagoons along the edges of some of the quieter channels, including a good proportion of juveniles. However, the highlight was seeing over a thousand individuals on a single lake in a huge raft mixed with Coot and a smaller number of Common Pochard. Quite a sight!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – fairly common still along the quieter channels

Garganey is probably the commonest duck here, at least the species which we saw most often. The biggest surprise was disturbing a family of Goldeneye from one of the channels – the Delta appears to be south of the usual range for this species, but apparently it has recently been proven to breed here, probably in very small numbers.

Grebes are well represented, with both Great Crested Grebe and Little Grebe being fairly common. We also saw smaller numbers of both Black-necked Grebe and Red-necked Grebe, both of which breed in the Delta.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe – a juvenile

Little Crakes breed here too, but are not easy to see. We were fortunate to spot single juveniles on two different occasions, creeping over the vegetation along the edge of the channels as we were passing, before they scurried quickly into cover.

Whiskered Terns are common, particularly around areas of floating vegetation, lilypads or water chestnut. We saw lots of fledged juveniles, many still being fed by adults, and even a pair still nest building! Large numbers also gathered to feed along the major waterways later in the day, dipping down to pick insects from the surface of the water.

Whiskered Terns

Whiskered Tern – a common sight in the Delta

We also saw a single White-winged Black Tern, which flew over the boat on our way back one day, and Common Terns were (appropriately enough) common. We visited the village of Caraorman on one day and walked out to explore some small pools nearby. There were lots of gulls loafing here and with them a whopping total of at least 53 Caspian Terns!

White-tailed Eagles seem to be doing well in the Delta and we saw birds most days. An adult perched in the trees just above the channel was a particular treat. We cut the engine and drifted right underneath it – quite a sight to see it staring back down at us!

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – perched in the trees just above the boat!

Marsh Harriers are fairly common here and we saw one juvenile Montagu’s Harrier hunting along the drier bank of one of the main channels, presumably just a bird passing through. A Black Kite drifting high overhead on our last day was a welcome bonus.

Hobby was probably the raptor we saw most often, with singles or pairs often seen circling over the trees beside the channels. We also saw a small number of Red-footed Falcons in the Delta, particularly around the village of Letea when we went to explore the forest which grows in the sand dunes here. Two Honey Buzzards circled up out of the trees that day too.

Hobby

Hobby – the commonest raptor in the trees along the channels

Out in the more open parts of the Delta, we saw relatively few passerines. In the reedbeds, we saw Great Reed, Reed and Sedge Warblers. Bearded Tits could be heard pinging and we heard several Penduline Tits and had good views of a juvenile.

The more wooded parts of the Delta are surprisingly good places for woodpeckers. We saw three different Black Woodpeckers – two from the boat in poplars along the channels and a third when we walked into the Letea Forest. We also had our best views of several Grey-headed Woodpeckers here, plus numerous Syrian and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – this one flew over the boat

Also in the trees and bushes along the channels, we saw Golden Orioles, Redstarts and some of the commoner warblers. Our only Icterine Warbler of the trip appeared in the willows above the boat when we had stopped to listen to a couple of calling Thrush Nightingales. On our walk in Letea Forest, as well as the Black Woodpecker, the highlight was finding several juvenile Collared Flycatchers (it appears they may breed here), alongside the much more numerous Spotted Flycatchers.

It appeared that passerines were already moving through the Delta, and walking along the river bank in the early morning at Crisan we came across good numbers of Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, plus a juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher. We had our best views of Thrush Nightingale here too, in the bushes along the river.

Crisan also provided us with a couple of nice surprises. An isolated population of Bluethroats breeds in the Delta and it is not an easy bird to see here. We were therefore very pleased to find one feeding under the tamarisks on the edge of the village, and we subsequently saw it on the following two days too.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat – a surprise find under the tamarisks at Crisan

Wagtails were some of the commonest passerines around the Delta. We saw large numbers of ‘yellow’ wagtails – both Blue-headed and Black-headed Wagtails – as well as White Wagtails. We had been told that Citrine Wagtail is just a very rare visitor here even though, based on its breeding and wintering ranges, it might be expected to pass through here more regularly. It was therefore nice to find a first winter Citrine Wagtail feeding with White Wagtails around a small marshy pool by the tamarisks on the edge of Crisan village.

Citrine Wagtail

Citrine Wagtail – a first winter at Crisan

It was even more of a surprise to find two more first winter Citrine Wagtails together in the same place a couple of days later. Photos confirmed that they were two different individuals. It appears therefore that they are most likely under-recorded here and are probably regular migrants through the Delta.

We had a really enjoyable 4 days in the Danube Delta – seeing a total of 120 bird species here alone. It really is somewhere everyone should visit. From there, we made our way up to Transylvania and the southern Carpathian mountains for the third part of our trip, which we will cover in the final blog post to follow…

Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 1

Romania has to be one of the most interesting birdwatching destinations in Europe. It boasts a great variety of different habitats including the Danube Delta, the Black Sea coastal lagoons and low Macin mountains of the Dobrogea region, rising up to the lofty Carpathian mountains which dominate the north of the country.

The wildlife is pretty impressive too – with a great diversity of birds, some of which are at the westernmost point of their range here. Amongst the larger mammals, Romania boasts about 50% of Europe’s Brown Bears (outside of Russia) and a significant proportion of its Wolves. We spent 12 days in Romania in the middle of August this year, not the best time of year to visit but still we managed to see 196 species of bird, and plenty of Brown Bears!

This was not a tour – but is a prelude to one. In early June 2019 I will be leading a group on an 8-day tour to Romania. We will visit the Danube Delta and Dobrogea regions, the first two areas which we visited on this trip (but not the Carpathians, which was the third part of our trip). If you like the sound of what you read in the first two parts of this blog and would like to join us, please contact me for more details.

The Romania tour in 2019, along with all our other international tours, is organised together with our friends at Oriole Birding. You can see more details here.

10th-12th August – The Dobrogea

After a travel day on 9th, we spent the first three days of our trip exploring the Dobrogea region, south of the Danube.

Paddyfield Warbler was one of our main target species here. It is at the western extreme of its range in Romania, but can be found in reedbeds around the saline lagoons along the Black Sea coast. We had thought we might struggle to find them, given the time of year, but we shouldn’t have worried. At the first site we tried we had amazing views of at least 10 birds, feeding in low vegetation alongside the track down to the coast.

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – showed unbelievably well for a typically skulking warbler!

Paddyfield Warblers can be very shy. They are a very rare visitor to the UK and normally don’t show very well when they are found here. So this was an unbelievable opportunity to spend some time watching them at close quarters.

Pallas’s Gull (also known as Great Black-headed Gull) was another bird we particularly wanted to see here. They proved hard to find at first – there was no sign of any on the lagoons we tried first. Then on our last day in the Dobrogea, driving down towards the coast, we spotted two with about a dozen Caspian Gulls loafing in a ploughed field.

Two Pallas’s Gulls was good enough, but it didn’t prepare us for what we found when we got down to the lagoons. There were over 160 Pallas’s Gulls here on the island in the middle! This lagoon is often dry at this time of year, but after heavy rains in July it was full of water, which may explain why they were here.

Pallas's Gulls

Pallas’s Gulls – just a few of the 160+ on the one lagoon

The Pallas’s Gulls were of a variety of different ages, including juveniles and moulting adults, most of which were already in the process of losing their black hoods. Birds were coming and going all the time, and we had some great close flybys.

Pallas's Gull

Pallas’s Gull – a moulting adult which has largely lost its black hood

There were also Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls around the various lagoons in the Dobrogea, as well as good numbers of Little Gulls. However, one of the other sights which will linger long in the memory is a single field just inland which had just been cultivated and held several thousands of Mediterranean Gulls and almost no other gulls with them!

There were lots of terns around the lagoons with the gulls too. In particular, we enjoyed great views of Caspian Terns and Gull-billed Terns. We also found one or two Black Terns and White-winged Black Terns in with the larger numbers of Common and Little Terns.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern – we saw good numbers of this species in Romania

The waders on the lagoons were pretty special too. In mid August, many species were already on their way back south from breeding areas further north. The wader highlight was finding at least 15 Broad-billed Sandpipers and over 200 Marsh Sandpipers around the same lagoon where the Pallas’s Gulls were. Quite a place!

This is also a great place to catch up with Collared Pratincoles, which breed around the lagoons here. We enjoyed fantastic close-up views of several adults and juveniles around the drier margins of the lagoons.

Collared Pratincole 1

Collared Pratincole – an adult

Collared Pratincole 2

Collared Pratincole – a juvenile

We also saw smaller numbers of Temminck’s Stints, Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers and Spotted Redshanks, as well as lots of Wood Sandpipers, around the various lagoons down on the coast. In total, including the species which breed here too, we saw 26 species of waders on the trip.

The Danube Delta gave us better opportunities for close views of pelicans, but we saw our first White and Dalmatian Pelicans down on the Black Sea coast, including some impressive flocks of White Pelicans. With the breeding season over, they were presumably dispersing out of the Delta. It was a fantastic sight, watching them thermalling, trying to gain height.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – a flock circling, trying to find a thermal to gain height

The other key species to see in the Dobrogea is Pied Wheatear which, like the Paddyfield Warbler, is at the very westernmost part of its range here. We saw our first Pied Wheatear in the Macin Mountains, while looking for Rock Thrush. A smart male, it flew right past us from somewhere down below, but disappeared higher up the slope without stopping. The Rock Thrushes had already finished breeding and dispersed, but we eventually found one, a female, right on the top of the ridge. We also had good views of Sombre Tits here.

We saw many more Pied Wheatears in the Dobrogea gorges. They appeared to have had a successful breeding season, as the birds we found were all juveniles.

Pied Wheatear

Pied Wheatear – a young male, in the Dobrogea gorges

In contrast, Isabelline Wheatear is a much more widespread bird and one which we encountered quite regularly on the Dobrogea plain, typically in areas of steppe grassland or in farmland. We saw lots of Northern Wheatears too, both high up in the Macin Mountains and down on the plains.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – a regularly encountered bird out on the plains

One of the most memorable moments of these first three days was eating our lunch in the middle of a colony of Red-footed Falcons! These birds breed in a small poplar wood, which has a track running through it. The juveniles had already fledged but were still hanging around the colony, mostly perching in the treetops or chasing round between the branches after the adults, begging to be fed.

It was great to be able to spend some time watching them. Several of the adult Red-footed Falcons were perched in the trees too, males and females.

Red-footed Falcon 1

Red-footed Falcon – an adult male perched up in the trees

Red-footed Falcon 2

Red-footed Falcon – one of the juveniles, flying round over the trees

We saw several other Red-footed Falcons out hunting as we drove around the Dobrogea. We also encountered a good selection of other raptors on our travels, including White-tailed, Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawk, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Long-legged and Steppe/Common Buzzards and several Honey Buzzards.

The forested areas within the Dobrogea also hold some interesting species. Red-breasted Flycatchers breed here and we visited one area where we found a pair with fledged juveniles in the trees. Hawfinches are common here too. Romania is a great place to see woodpeckers, and on our first morning in the Dobrogea we saw or heard 7 different species, including great views of several Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – we had great views of several in the Dobrogea

Syrian Woodpecker is probably the most common species here, and is not limited to the forests. We encountered them in many places, including on concrete telegraph posts in the villages! There are Great Spotted Woodpeckers here too, which are very similar, but Syrian is easy to pick up on its subtly different call with a bit of practice and when seen well by the lack of a black bar across the top of the neck.

Syrian Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker – probably the commonest woodpecker species here

The wider countryside of the Dobrogea is mostly comprised of vast open areas of farmland, interspersed with smaller open areas of steppe-like grazing land. Hedges were taken out and field sizes increased during the agricultural collectivisation of the Ceaucescu era.

Despite the lack of hedges, the one thing that immediately strikes you as you drive around the region is the abundance of shrikes. Red-backed Shrikes are simply abundant – we rarely drove far along a country road without seeing one or more Red-backed Shrikes perched on the roadside wires or any bush or other convenient vantage point.

Lesser Grey Shrikes are common too, and we saw good numbers of this species on our travels and enjoyed great views of several from the car. Presumably, the number of shrikes here speaks to an abundance still of insects or small vertebrates in farmland here, something which is sadly lacking in much of western Europe.

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – still a fairly common sight here

Rollers are still abundant here too, again presumably due to a plentiful supply of insects. They are a common sight on roadside wires, always great birds to see. We eventually got some fantastic close views of them, using the car as a mobile hide.

Roller

Roller – also still a common bird in the countryside

A visit to southern Europe in summer would not be complete without Bee-eaters. We saw lots of these too – another common sight on roadside wires.

Bee-eaters

Bee-eaters – we saw lots on roadside wires on our travels around

As well as birds, we saw a nice selection of other animals. Highlights include the Sousliks (or European Ground Squirrels) which inhabit the grassy steppe areas and Spur-thighed Tortoise. We also saw a nice selection of butterflies, particularly at higher elevations.

Souslik

Souslik – an inhabitant of the grassy steppes

Birding the Dobrogea was a fantastic introduction to Romania. We saw a great selection of birds here over the three days. From there, we headed off to the Danube Delta, which we will cover in the next section of this blog post…

 

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

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

SUNDAY 29TH APRIL

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

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

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

Wood Sandpiper

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

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

Great Reed Warbler

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONDAY 30TH APRIL

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

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

Semi-collared Flycatcher 1

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

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

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

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – perched up on a roadside bush

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

Red-backed Shrike 1

Red-backed Shrike – just finishing off its beetle

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

Eastern Festoon

Eastern Festoon – one of many butterflies at Vironia

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Oriole

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

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

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – a feeding flock accompanied by several Little Egrets

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

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

Bee-eater

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

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

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

TUESDAY 1ST MAY

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

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

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

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – displaying right over our heads

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

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – then perched in the trees, preening

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

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

Long-legged Buzzard

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

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

Eastern Imperial Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roller

Roller – perched up on the wires on our way back

WEDNESDAY 2ND MAY

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

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

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – perched briefly in the trees

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

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

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

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes in the quarry

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

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

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

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – large flocks were loafing around the lake

White Pelican

White Pelican – good flight views too!

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

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw lots of these too

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

White-winged Black Tern

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

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

Cormorant

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

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – seem to be a little more wary

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

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – perched up in the drowned forest

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

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – with bright blue bill base

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

Night Heron

Night Heron – stunning close views from the boat

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

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on one of the nesting platforms

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

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

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

THURSDAY 3RD MAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – a late migrant on the coast

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

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

Pacific Golden Plover

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

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

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

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

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

Spur-winged Plover

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

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

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

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

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

FRIDAY 4TH MAY

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – seen or heard singing daily

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

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

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Red-backed Shrike – singing & carrying nest material

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

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Black Stork – circled over our heads at Himarros

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

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White & Dalmatian Pelicans – circling together on a thermal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red-footed Falcon – turned and circled back over us

SATURDAY 5TH MAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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White Pelican – rather more pink than white!

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

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Pygmy Cormorant – common around the lake

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Woodpecker – one of six species of woodpecker seen

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

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

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

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

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Great Grey Shrike – of the subspecies homeyeri

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

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Western Rock Nuthatch – can be found in the surrounding area

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

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

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

Monday 29th January

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

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

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

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

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Black-winged Kite – hunting by the roadside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 30th January

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

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Santa Marta steppes – looking toward the Sierra de Gredos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calandra Lark – singing over the steppe

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

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

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

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

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

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Great Spotted Cuckoo – an early returning bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alpine Accentor – up on the castle at Montanchez

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

Wednesday 31st January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Owl

Little Owl – trying to hide from us between two rocks

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

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

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a bush right beside us

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

Azure-winged Magpies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 1st February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vultures – amazing views at the Castillo in Monfrague

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

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture 5

Griffon Vultures – collecting nest material

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

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

Blue Rock Thrush

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

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

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – many were on the nest already

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

Black Stork

Black Stork – an unexpected bonus at Portilla del Tietar

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

Friday 2nd February

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

Trujillo

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

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

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

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

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – flew in over the reeds

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

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

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

Penduline Tit

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

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

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

July 2017 – Midsummer Majorca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moustached WarblerMoustached Warbler – feeding along a reedy channel

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

Eleonora's Falcon 1

Eleonora's Falcon 2

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

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

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

Black VultureBlack Vulture – with distinctive pale feet

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

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

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

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

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

Mediterranean Flycatcher 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squacco Heron 1

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

Night HeronNight Heron – over the stone bridge in the morning

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

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

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

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

Red-knobbed CootRed-knobbed Coot – reintroduced to Majorca

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black-winged Stilt 1

Black-winged Stilt 2

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

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

Audouin's Gull 1

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

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

Thekla LarkThekla Lark – not common but encountered fairly regularly

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

Bee-eaterBee-eater – always great birds to watch

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