Tag Archives: Black Stork

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.

Black-winged Kite 1

Black-winged Kite 2

Black-winged Kite 3

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.

Black-winged Kite 5

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.

Purple Swamphen

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.

Santa Marta steppes

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.

Thekla Lark

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.

Little Bustards

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!

Calandra Lark

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.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

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.

Great Bustards

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!

Black Vulture

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!

Alpine Accentor

Alpine Accentor – up on the castle at Montanchez

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

Wednesday 31st January

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

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

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

Spanish Sparrows

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

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

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

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

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Owl

Little Owl – trying to hide from us between two rocks

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

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

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a bush right beside us

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

Azure-winged Magpies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 1st February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vultures – amazing views at the Castillo in Monfrague

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

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture 5

Griffon Vultures – collecting nest material

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

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

Blue Rock Thrush

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

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

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – many were on the nest already

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

Black Stork

Black Stork – an unexpected bonus at Portilla del Tietar

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

Friday 2nd February

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

Trujillo

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

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

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

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

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – flew in over the reeds

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

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

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

Penduline Tit

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

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

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

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June 2017 – Exploring Extremadura

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

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

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

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

6O0A6605 editGreat Bustard – seen regularly out on the plains

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

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

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

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

IMG_5636Spanish Imperial Eagle – great views of this very localised species

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

6O0A5511Black Vulture – soaring past in the sierras….

6O0A4635Black Vulture – … or circling over the plains

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

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

6O0A5746Griffon Vulture – always great to see them up close

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

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

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

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

6O0A5754Black Kite – a very common summer visitor

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

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6O0A6410Lesser Kestrel – fantastic views at Trujillo

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

6O0A5296Montagu’s Harrier – hunting out over the plains

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

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

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6O0A5600White-rumped Swift – stunning views in Monfrague

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

IMG_5737Black Stork – easy to see in summer in Monfrague

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

6O0A5102White Stork – feeding time back at the nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A6216Bee-eater – a common summer visitor here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A6516Spanish Sparrow – a male

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

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

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

6O0A5899Western Subalpine Warbler – up in the sierras

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

6O0A5517Two-tailed Pasha – by the Castillo in Monfrague

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

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

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

6O0A5381Red-rumped Swallow – a very impressive nest

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

6O0A5362Hawfinch – collecting food on the lawn

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

6O0A6096Long-tailed Tit – of the Iberian race irbii

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

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

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