Tag Archives: Monfrague

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.

 

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

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

SUNDAY 31ST MARCH

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

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

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

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

MONDAY 1ST APRIL

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

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

Great Bustard 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montagu's Harrier 1

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

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

Black Vulture

Black Vulture – came right over our heads

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

Lesser Kestrel

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

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

White Stork

White Stork – flew in carrying plastic sacking for nest material

TUESDAY 2ND APRIL

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

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

Little Bustard

Little Bustard – displaying out on the plains this morning

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

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

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

Griffon Vulture

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

Egpytian Vulture

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

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

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

Black Stork

Black Stork – coming in to land on the cliffs

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

Blue Rock Thrush

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

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

Subalpine Warbler 1

Subalpine Warbler – feeding in the trees in the car park

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

Red-rumped Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow – flying round above our heads

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

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled up in front of us calling

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

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

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

WEDNESDAY 3RD APRIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Clubtail

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

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

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

Black-winged Stilt

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

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

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

Crested Tit

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

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

THURSDAY 4TH APRIL

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

Little Owl

Little Owl – sunning itself by the road early this morning

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

Great Spotted Cuckoo

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

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

Great Bustard 2

Great Bustard – flew up from the fields beside the road

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

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

Montagu's Harrier 2

Montagu’s Harrier – floated past us on the plains

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

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – we found twelve in a sheep field

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

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

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

Red-striped Oil Beetle

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

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

Crag Martin

Crag Martin – flying around the village in Benquerencia

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

Alpine Swift

Alpine Swift – coming in to the dam carrying nest material

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

FRIDAY 5TH APRIL

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

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

Great Bustard 3

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

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

Montagu's Harrier 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectacled Warbler

Spectacled Warbler – singing from the top of the bushes

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

SATURDAY 6TH APRIL

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

Savi's Warbler

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

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

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

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

Purple Swamphen

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

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

Little Bittern

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

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

Subalpine Warbler 2

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

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

It had been a wonderful week – great birds, great food, great scenery and great company. We didn’t want to leave! The only thing to do is to plan a return trip next year. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Extremadura in 2020, please get in touch.