Tag Archives: Calandra Lark

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

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

FRIDAY 31ST JANUARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Stork

White Stork – a pair on their untidy nest platform

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

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

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

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

Black-winged Kite

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

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

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

SATURDAY 1ST FEBRUARY

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

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – one of a pair first thing this morning

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

Spanish Sparrows

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

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

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

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

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

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

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

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

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

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – flew up singing as it warmed up

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

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

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

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

Great Bustards

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

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

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

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

Sociable Lapwing

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

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

Spanish Imperial Eagle 1

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled over the road this afternoon

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

Crane 1

Common Crane – we found hundreds in the dehesa this afternoon

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY 2ND FEBRUARY

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

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a post by the road

Hoopoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonelli's Eagles

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

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

Traffic jam

Traffic Jam – Extremaduran style!

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

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

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

Sardinian Warbler

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

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

Crane 3

Common Cranes – there were hundreds out in the ricefields

Crane 2

Common Crane – stunning views today

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

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

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting the margins of the ricefields

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

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – the first of many in the rice fields

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

Bittern

Bittern – hiding in the dead cut rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONDAY 3RD FEBRUARY

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

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

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

Great Bustard

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

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

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

Griffon Vulture 2

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

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

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vulture – several were on the rocks

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture – some were collecting nest material

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

Black Redstart

Black Redstart – a smart male just below the viewpoint

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

Blue Rock Thrush

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

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

Hawfinch

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

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

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

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

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

Otter

Otter – in the river at Portilla del Tietar

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

Spanish Imperial Eagle 2

Spanish Imperial Eagle – the pair put on a great display

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

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

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

Griffon Vulture 6

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

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

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

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

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

Little Bustards

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

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

TUESDAY 4TH FEBRUARY

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

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

Iberian Magpie

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

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

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

Cirl Bunting

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

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

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

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

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

Wryneck

Wryneck – perched up in the dry

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

Zitting Cisticola

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

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

Western Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – finally showed well as we walked back

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

 

1st-8th June 2019 – Romania

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

SATURDAY 1ST JUNE

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY 2ND JUNE

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

White Pelicans 1

White Pelicans – our first of the trip, circled overhead

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

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

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – a very common heron in the Delta

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

Pygmy Cormorant 1

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

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

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

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

Red-necked Grebe 1

Red-necked Grebe – in smart breeding plumage

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

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

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw small numbers daily in the Delta

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

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

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – several were seen on the river bank today

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

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

Purple Heron

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

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

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

Black-crowned Night Heron

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

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

Grey-headed Woodpecker

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

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

MONDAY 3RD JUNE

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

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

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

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – feeding in the sedges

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

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – around the abandoned factory at Caraorman

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

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

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

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

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – singing around the abandoned factory

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

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

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo – abundant in the Delta

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

Savi's Warbler

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

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

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

Hobby

Hobby – perched up nicely in the trees by the boat

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

Roller 1

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

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

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

Black Tern 1

Black Tern – breeds fairly commonly in the Delta

White-winged Black Tern

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

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

Whiskered Tern 2

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

Whiskered Tern 1

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

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

Pallas's Gull

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

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

TUESDAY 4TH JUNE

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

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

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – caught a fish just after breakfast

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

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – a common sight out in the Delta

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

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

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – uncommon in the Delta

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

Red-footed Falcon 1

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

Red-footed Falcon 2

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

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

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

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – another common heron in the Delta

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

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

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

Long-eared Owl

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

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

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

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

European Pond Terrapin

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

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

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

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – perched in the willows above the channel

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

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

White Pelicans 2

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

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

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – with a distinctive flight silhouette

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

WEDNESDAY 5TH JUNE

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

White Pelican

White Pelican – swimming past the floating hotel early morning

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

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

Feeding frenzy

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

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

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

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

Little Bittern 1

Little Bittern – with some bright red on the bill base

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

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

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – we finally got good views of one perched

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

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

Little Bittern 2

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

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

Red-necked Grebe 2

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

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

Red-footed Falcon 3

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

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

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

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

Black Woodpecker

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

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

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

THURSDAY 6TH JUNE

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

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

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – this male flew over first thing this morning

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

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

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – this female flew up into the trees

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

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

Souslik

Souslik – there were several in the short grass

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

Red-backed Shrike

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

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

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

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard – different to the Common Buzzards we saw

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

Red-breasted Flycatcher

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

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

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

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

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

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

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

Black-headed Bunting

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

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

Roller 2

Roller – there were one or two on the wires too

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

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

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

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – common out in the steppe grassland

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

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

FRIDAY 7TH JUNE

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

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

Ilex Hairstreak

Ilex Hairstreak – one of several butterflies seen this morning

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

Spur-thighed Tortoise

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

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

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

Great Banded Grayling

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

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

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

Ortolan Bunting

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

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

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

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

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

Little Gull

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

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

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – one of two still at Vadu

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

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

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – hawking for insects above the reeds

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

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

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – we found one singing in the reeds

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

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

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

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

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – kept coming back to the new tarmac

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

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

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – one of two which circled over

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

SATURDAY 8TH JUNE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.